What Ukraine Can Learn From Germany’s Cold War Divisions
Post-war Germany once faced the same challenges Ukraine does today. Here's how it beat them.
Ukraine has been fortunate in its misfortune. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea formally and the eastern Donbas informally, and thousands of Ukrainians have died in the conflict. But most of the West has rallied to Kiev’s side, imposing sanctions on Russia and supporting reforms. Ukraine has become stronger, more stable, and more secure since 2014.
But the path Kiev must walk remains precarious — not least because there is an inherent contradiction between pursuing reunification with its breakaway regions and implementing pro-western reforms. Not only does Ukraine not know what to do with the 35,000 heavily armed separatists who currently control the eastern Donbass, but the occupied territories are also home to pro-Russian elites and populations who would have blocked reforms if they had remained within Ukraine.
Maneuvering between these contradictions will be easier if Kiev models its policies on those of postwar West Germany. The similarities are striking. Like postwar Germany, Ukraine is divided into western-oriented and Russian-occupied zones, needs to rebuild its state, society, and economy, and lies on the fault line between a democratic West and an authoritarian East. Most importantly, just like Kiev today, Bonn had to make difficult trade-offs between reunification and building a pro-western state — and it did so successfully, in the end attaining both.
No historical analogy is perfect. The divided Germany had just lost a war, while Ukraine emerged from the ruins of an empire 25 years ago. West Germany was actually occupied by the western Allies, whereas Ukraine only enjoys their support. And East Germany was a real state, while the eastern Donbas and Crimea are contested territories.
Nevertheless, the German experience can teach Ukraine how to pursue its own development while temporarily ceding control of part of its territory to an outside power. A good approach is to consider how three key West German chancellors — Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl — led their country down this difficult road.
From Konrad Adenauer, who became chancellor shortly after the war, Ukraine can learn why accepting the loss of its territory — in the short and medium term — will help it in the long run. Adenauer firmly believed that West Germany faced a choice between unity and freedom. A free and pro-Western Germany, he thought, could never be unified with the Soviet-controlled east. And although he remained fully committed to ultimate reunification and to the indivisibility of the German nation, he recognized as early as 1945 that “the Russian-occupied part is lost for Germany for an indeterminate time.”
Because Adenauer made the western choice, West Germany received Marshall Plan aid, joined the European Coal and Steel Community and NATO, rearmed, and benefitted from the “economic miracle” of the 1950s. These policies came at a cost. By turning to the west, Adenauer paid the price of enabling East Germany to acquire the features of statehood, allowing the German nation to drift apart.
Just as Adenauer was right to choose freedom when Germany needed desperately to rebuild, so, too, must Kiev’s priority be to survive as a western-oriented state in the face of Russian hostility. Ukraine would therefore be wise to abandon its rhetoric of reunification and formally declare that Crimea and the eastern Donbass are under Russian occupation, thereby keeping anti-Ukrainian elites and populations in these regions out of its affairs and transferring all responsibility for their welfare onto Moscow. Kiev should then focus on developing its political, military, economic, and cultural institutions to make them fully compatible with, and integrated in, those of the West.
Ukraine can learn another practical lesson from Willy Brandt, who served as chancellor in the early 1970s. During his tenure, the United States and Soviet Union were seeking to improve relations and reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals, and East Germany had become a fact of life. Brandt came to realize that West Germany’s policy of cold-shouldering East Germany was bringing few practical benefits.
His new policy of Ostpolitik normalized relations with the USSR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, accepted the inviolability of post-war borders, and extended formal diplomatic recognition to East Germany. This approach offered new ways of influencing East Germany and therefore of promoting larger German national interests.
Like Brandt, Kiev may someday have to consider the currently unthinkable: negotiating directly with the separatists and the Crimean authorities. The current exclusion from Ukraine’s politics of sizable local anti-Western elites and publics is advantageous for Ukraine, enabling it to adopt pro-Western reforms. But once Ukraine becomes sufficiently Western to appreciate that continued fighting and dying serves no larger purpose, Kiev will need a Brandt-like Ostpolitik to end the conflict. The German example suggests that the war cannot be stopped without some accommodation with the separatists as genuine interlocutors in peace negotiations. This could even go as far as some form of quasi-recognition.
The final and most hopeful lesson comes courtesy of Helmut Kohl, who provides a useful case study of how Ukraine might eventually win its territories back — by winning the social and economic competition between its system and the Russian system, not by direct military force.
By the 1980s, many Germans had concluded that German reunification was impossible. The new status quo seemed set in stone — until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, and his declaration that errant socialist states would not suffer Soviet intervention, destabilized the satellite regimes and subverted the raison d’être of the East German state.
East Germany drew legitimacy from its status as a socialist alternative to its capitalist cousin; once socialism began to disintegrate, the game was up. The mass protests of October 1989 and the flows of East Germans westward further delegitimized the regime. Two weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, Kohl articulated his vision for reunification. By late 1990, that vision became reality — not because Bonn had pursued it with any vigor, but because the East German regime had fallen apart, its economy was on the verge of collapse, the vast majority of East Germans wanted reunification, and the Soviet Union was too weak to stop it.
Like Kohl’s Germany, Ukraine must think of reunification as a distant prospect that will materialize only when the success of a reformed, westernized Ukraine can be contrasted with life in a weak and isolated Russia. Ukraine can successfully pursue reunification not by defeating Russia and its proxies militarily, but by winning the competition between two rival systems. Like West Germany, Ukraine can win that competition hands down if it remains committed to the western path.
In the photo, Germans celebrate their country’s reunification in Berlin on October 3, 1990.
Photo credit: GILLES LEIMDORFER/AFP/Getty Images