A Clear View Eastwards: Russia and Germany
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“Politik ist, wenn man Gottes Schritt durch die Weltgeschichte hört, dann zuspringt und versucht, einen Zipfel seines Mantels zu fassen”1 Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898)
A very personal view: seeing Prussia without complexes – family roots and core identity
Roots, earth and homeland – these are difficult topics for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but I and other members of my generation are much more relaxed about our family histories. Experiencing home and family roots on my trip to my parents’ birthplaces in Prussia – and thus my return to my own family roots – made me realise that identity is more than what is written in my passport. Identity is complex and has many layers that need to be uncovered. As a result, revealing family roots, protecting them and living one’s identity of the heart without prejudice is the source of life’s harmony – a harmony that is needed now more than ever.
My Prussian roots are the core of my identity. Walking through the streets of my parents’ hometowns – Schneidemühl and Königsberg – I discovered the vastness, openness and beauty of my homeland in East and West Prussia. I unearthed the deepest part of my family history and, at the same time, German history. With that uninhibited view of my Prussian roots, new perspectives for seeing the world have finally been revealed.
National players versus transnational players
Our world is going through a decisive moment in its history. Not only are relations between China and the rest of the world disrupting the geopolitical order, but numerous economic, political and social crises are causing a widespread feeling of insecurity and powerlessness in light of current events and their complexity. The world and therefore we, humankind, have lost our compass.
Beyond the relations, whether cooperative or conflictual, between the European Union (EU), China and Russia, we should question the durability of power – values versus mercantilism, democracy versus dictatorship, capitalism versus communism, and the growing geopolitical clout of transnational players, whose sphere of influence is increasingly gaining ground against national players, the nation-states. Neither the EU, China, the US nor Russia is an isolated paradise, and no country can claim to know the absolute truth. Violence, increased global competition (for natural resources, food, water, etc.) and, above all, international terrorism are forcing us to face up to current realities, to abandon any ideology driving various ideas, such as the European project, socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Russian state order, and the ideology prevalent in the United States, which styles itself leader of the free world (Banik 2016, 2019).
In fact, the conflict between different ideologies distracts our attention from the real battle that has been going on for a long time. The battle for world domination is not the one between different states, e.g. the US and China, or between different political systems, democracy and dictatorship, but the struggle between national players – the nation-states – and the transnational players – the international organisations, such as the EU institutions; the World Trade Organisation (WTO); groups and associations representing various interests and industries; lobbyists; and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Due to globalisation, these transnational players often act across borders and beyond any national legal framework, and are thus conquering geopolitical space without waging war in the traditional sense. We have to reconcile all our differences, ideologies and clichés and move towards a new and more humane global governance, living our identities, creating “nations of the heart” in keeping with the geopolitical vision of Jacques Ancel (Ancel 1938; Banik 2016).
Everything is geopolitical
Geopolitics is the study of the relationship between space and power. It is a multidisciplinary reflection that encompasses economic, political, cultural, historical and social dimensions. The term “space” refers to land, sea and cyberspace (Banik 2016). Jacques Ancel’s geopolitics provide a vision that complements German geopolitics, specifically that of Friedrich Ratzel (1869–1904), who sees states as organisms “determined by the people and the territory”, “kein Staat ohne Boden” (Ratzel 1941).
Klaus Haushofer (1869–1946) added the topics of living space and pan-ideas to this German geopolitical concept. In other words, he emphasised the potential solidarity of a population scattered around the world in order to justify the extension of a people’s living space. Complementary and not in opposition to Ratzel’s perception of the world, Jacques Ancel focused on the human being as creator – of global governance and identities and, subsequently, of borders.
More precisely, this means “human groups that reach a harmonious balance and end up recognising borders due to a common memory, history, culture and language”. It is a “nation of the heart in itself, not rational” (Ancel 1938, Gauchon 2008, Banik 2020).
Man creates borders. Today, this human dimension and the use of human values and identities are decisive elements in our everchanging world. According to Ancel, the concept of nation-ideas or a nation of the heart is the crucial element for achieving a more humane and harmonious global governance in the future. It is therefore imperative that we revitalise Ancel’s geopolitical views. The world is not rational. Human beings are guided by their feelings. Consequently, we are all either victims or perpetrators of propaganda.
According to Ancel, internal factors, i.e. human factors, must also be taken into account. The process of transnationalisation and deterritorialisation inevitably brings us back to the issues of borders, identities and nationalities. Nationality is defined as the legal bond that connects an individual to a country or territory (Gauchon 2008, Banik 2020). As with the return to my family roots, we should be aware that every identity is made up of various layers and primarily determined by human factors.
The cruel question today is how to ensure a peaceful return to our roots, to our sources and to achieving a balance of power. How to create a new governance based on cooperation, one that is more equitable and stable, more in harmony. How can we be unique and identity-based within unity?
According to Ancel, “human groups (that) reach a balance in harmony thus end up recognising borders deriving from a common memory, history, culture and language”. It is therefore important to create strategic alliances, alliances of proximity, and overcome ideologies by leaving propaganda behind.
One answer – which would be in Germany’s interest in particular, but also in the EU’s – is the peaceful integration of Russia by creating a great pan-European space, while at the same time taking advantage of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) as a link encompassing the Eurasian region.
But first, let us accept the following realities:
No change in political system through trade
China has never given up communism. The “red forces” are still shaping the strategy behind its domestic and foreign policy. The communist identity is the source and thus the root that determines the solidity and solidarity of Chinese society and, subsequently, its economic strength. China continues to pursue its “China first” strategy, which includes its determination to have more economic independence.
“Les États n’ont pas d’amis, ils n’ont que des intérêts” 2
We need to break out of the EU’s post-war narrative. There are no real common European policies, no single voice is possible for the EU, which is a union of shared interests. Economic intersections and interests exist, shared by some member countries. The important thing is to recognise the presence of these different political, economic and strategic interests, to respect and cultivate them. The future of Europe lies in the strength it derives from being a union of European nation-states.
No global supremacy by one country, no rivalry of political systems
The world’s various ideological propagandas are fuelling the conflicts and thus diverting us from the real source of struggle. That is, the competition for world supremacy between nation-states and transnational forces, including international institutions and organisations, all of which stem from the post-war narrative. It is a narrative that makes us believe that only the nation and identity are the unique cause of all wars.
Nothing is unlimited and nothing can be controlled
Our prosperity and global economic growth are neither linear nor unlimited. Thus, our planet’s natural resources are limited. Although globalisation has created prosperity for a very large part of the world’s population, it has, at the same time, created regions of winners and losers. Poverty and inequity persist; injustice is growing as a result. Transnational forces are increasing their spheres of influence, often acting beyond national laws and consequently increasing injustice.
No enemies, no rivals
The illusion of having enemies must be overcome. Neither China nor Russia is an enemy or ideological rival. All political, economic and social challenges are global. Strategic cooperation is the only solution.
Globalisation reinforces the need to return to one’s roots
“The flows of globalization do not erase borders, countries, regions, territories or places” (Zajec 2016). On the contrary, the more the world is linked, the more the debate about identities and borders plays a key role in any geopolitical concept. In the whirlwind of globalisation, we need to remain ourselves, to have roots and a cultural base in order to ensure a harmonious societal solidity.
Let’s stay vigilant
We must stop propaganda based on ideology and disseminated through media, along with political moralism, political correctness and the purging of language. We are all unique. We all have deep within us an identity of the heart that is unique to each of us. And this identity is free and beyond all judgements.
The cruel challenge is how to ensure a peaceful return to our roots, to our sources and the logic of geography. How to create a more equitable and stable governance based on cooperation – how to be unique and identity-based within unity without being divisive. The solution is to allow the strength of geographical proximity to prevail, the creation of strategic alliances in order to achieve “a balance in harmony, due to a common memory, history, culture and language”, in keeping with Ancel.
Russia and the big pan-European house
According to this logic, the priority for Europe should be the reintegration of Russia into the big Pan-European house. Especially for Europe, Russia is an important link for connecting the Eurasian region with China in order to create a new global political order.
Germany holds the key to integrating Russia. According to Ancel's logic of “regained harmony, the fixed national consciousness, and, even without borders, the Nation [that] exists”. The path to this harmony leads us to an uninhibited view of our own history and thus a reconciliation of the past. A path that I have chosen by uncovering my family roots.
Russians, Poles and Germans have a common history. This history is a strength and not a weakness. According to Jacques Ancel’s vision, these three countries are at the crossroads of arbitrary borders and borders of civilisation.
Ancel differentiates mainly between two characteristics. On the one hand, there are so-called arbitrary borders. These are more tense, more strategic borders stemming from military pretensions. Treaties draw these borders, which are temporal and purely based on the national interests of the different states.
The borders of civilisations, on the other hand, are more permanent. These borders are based on a common memory, history and language created by a human group in balance. The borders of civilisations are “nevertheless more complicated because they are subject to numerous political and commercial interpretations”. Even if the commercial justifications are aimed at “clearing a path” and not “enclosing” as the military justifications do (Ancel 1938, Banik 2020), for Russia, Poland and Germany, reconciliation of the past means “clearing a path in harmony” towards the strength offered by their common history.
The balance of power
And what are the tools for establishing this new policy of global cooperation and peace based on the principle of non-interference? For the most part, we already have them at our disposal. At the human level: listening, communicating, respecting the interests of others without judging them and, above all, building trust.
At the institutional level, we simply need to reactivate the spirit of trust that led to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe of November 1990 and, finally, the NATO-Russia Council of 2002 (Teltschik, 2019), thereby avoiding any re-creation of two blocs but pursuing instead the path towards a new multipolar global governance.
The window of opportunity has been wide open since the Charter of Paris was signed on 21 November 1990 (Teltschik, 2019). Indeed, in the spirit of cooperation, this charter was endorsed by 34 countries, including the Warsaw Pact countries. In the context of German reunification and the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev thoroughly supported this vision of the “common European home”. Yet this opportunity was not seized, as mistrust prevailed.
Ultimately, it is the Russians and Chinese who share the same vision of “a strategic balance of power in which no country interferes in the internal affairs of other countries” (Habahbeh, 2020). According to Russia, the US is acting outside its own sphere of influence. However, the geopolitical approach of the US is still reflective of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s vision, meaning it does not accept that a region will be dominated by a single country (Brzezinski, 1998).
The US is still pursuing its containment strategy mainly in Europe and Asia in order to hinder the spread of communism. The propaganda around “democratisation” and “defence of the liberal world order” are used to justify the US’s extension of its sphere of influence, particularly in the Eurasian region. On the other hand, Russians are exercising control over their sphere of influence through “the desire to protect Russian identity and broader Slavic identity through their belief that they have the right to regional dominance for divine and ethnic purposes”. (Habahbeh, 2020). Thus, the geopolitical conflict between these two powers is a conflict between the “ideology of the liberal world” and the “moral ideology”.
Oblast Kaliningrad-Königsberg: at the heart of German-Russian cooperation
The BRI is a spatial security device that can be used as a means of strategic cooperation between Germany, Europe, Russia and China.
Although the BRI is, according to China, a “geostrategic-military” initiative, since it combines civilian and military interests under the topic of “security”, it is a vehicle that conceptually encompasses the intertwined interests of political and economic actors in China, but also in all the other participating countries (Banik, Lüdert 2020). The BRI vision thus mobilises the Chinese nation by safeguarding China’s unity, stability and harmony at the national level and beyond (Banik, 2019). It is an ideology for maintaining internal order.
This undoubtedly “China first” approach, however, should not hinder Europe and especially Germany from using the infrastructure project to strengthen economic relations and the geopolitical link between Russia and Germany. Eurasia is a region of high importance, both economically and geopolitically. Moreover, it is precisely the Kaliningrad enclave, formerly Königsberg, that is at the heart of German-Russian cooperation. The oblast Kaliningrad lies between Poland and Lithuania and has an important port of strategic interest in the Baltic Sea, since it is accessible even in winter. This is a key hub for goods arriving by rail via the BRI, destined for shipment by sea to Germany and Scandinavia.
Since 2011, the EU and Russia have signed agreements to facilitate border movements and exempt goods in transit between Kaliningrad and Lithuania from customs duties. Basically, the oblast is a highly significant link between Russia and the EU.
BRI: Trans-Eurasian Railway Routes
Although resources transiting through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad are relatively new, the number of trains and thus the volume of freight is constantly increasing. The big advantage is that the busy border crossing between Poland and Belarus at Brest is avoided.
As a result, RZD, the Russian railway company, has recorded a strong increase in the flow of intermodal freight between China and Europe since 2019. Intermodal traffic amounted to 387,900 TEU between January and September 2020, “more than of 1.6 times the same period in 2019” (Railway Journal 2020). In particular, maritime transport from the port of Kaliningrad has increased more than tenfold compared to 2019, reaching about 6,900 TEU in September 2020 alone (Railfreight 2019). In this context, it is important to highlight the regular maritime service between the port of Kaliningrad and the port of Hamburg.
Revealing roots and back to our origins
Returning to one’s family roots is not a dead end in the past, but, on the contrary, a valuable opportunity for considering future cooperation between Russia and Germany, cooperation that goes beyond ideologies and judgements.
A border is, according to Ancel, “a political isobar which fixes, for a certain time, the balance between two pressures: mass balance and balance of forces" (Ancel 1938). The real problem is not related to the question of borders. Borders will always exist, even in the globalised world. “There are no border problems. There are only problems of Nation" (Ancel 1938).
The world is at a crossroads. It is therefore necessary to lay aside ideologies and preconceived ideas. It is up to us, humankind, to think “out of the box” by living up to our identities while respecting the uniqueness of countries, cultures and identities.
As we have already seen, Jacques Ancel focuses on the human being as creator. The important thing is to recognise and calmly accept the feeling of belonging to a country, to a region – that is, the need for identity. And identity is much more complex than what is written in a passport. The identity of the heart goes beyond any ideology. The identity of the heart has deep roots and requires no justification or explanation.
Ancel’s geopolitical vision should be revitalised since “one does not revise borders, except by force, one changes minds” (Ancel 1938; Lomnica 1938 foreword).
Thus, with my uninhibited view of my Prussian roots, new perspectives are being created, especially for the strengthening of German-Russian cooperation.
Back to the roots
……...to be continued
References (selected works)
Acte final d’Helsinki (1975): OSCE, www.osce.org
Ancel, Jacques (1938): Géographie des frontières, Gallimard, Paris.
Banik, Katja (2016): Les relations Chine-Europe: à la croisée des chemins, L’Harmattan, Paris.
Banik, Katja (2019): Europe, China and the G-zero world, China and the World: Ancient and Modern Silk Road, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1–9, World Scientific Publishing Company.
Banik, Katja (2019): Europe and China in a globalized world. The geopolitical impacts of Belt and Road, www.worldsientific.com
Banik, Katja, Jan Lüdert (2020): Assessing Securization: China’s Belt and Road Initiative, E-International Relations, www.e-ir.info
Boniface, Pascal (2017): La Géopolitique, Eyrolles, Paris.
Brown, Kerry (2019): China's rise: The three key things everyone needs to know, TEDx Thessaloniki.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1998): The Grand Chess Board, Paperback.
Charte de Paris (1990): www.osce.org
Conseil OTAN-Russie (2002): NATO, www.nato.int
Eurotransport.de (2020): https://www.eurotransport.de/artikel/mukran-als-drehkreuz-nach-china-neue-seidenstrasse-startet-in-ruegen-russland-rotterdam-schiene-gueterbahn-11172438.html
Foucher, Michel (2019) : L’Europe doit venir au monde, www.diploweb.com
Gauchon, Huissoud (2008): Les 100 mots de la géopolitique, Presse Universitaires de France, Paris.
Habahbeh, Lawrence (2020): A state of flux in the World Order, https://diplomatist.com/2020/05/07/a-state-of-flux-in-the-world-order/, dipolomatist.com
Marshall, Tim (2015): Prisoners of Geography, Elliot and Thompson Ldt., London.
Nida-Rümelin (2017): Über Grenzen Denken: Eine Ethik der Migration, Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg.
Overholt, William (2018): China and America: The Age of Geoeconomics.
Rail Journal (2020) https://www.railjournal.com/freight/rzd-exceeds-2019-china-europe-freight-figures/
Ratzel, Friedrich (1941): Erdenmacht und Völkerschicksal, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart.
Teltschik, Horst (2019): Russisches Roulette: vom kalten Krieg zum kalten Frieden, CH Beck, München.
Zajec, Olivier (2016) : Introduction à l’analyse géopolitique, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco.
1 - “Politics is hearing God striding through history and leaping to grasp a corner of his cloak” in Teltschik (2019).
2 - “States have no friends, they only have interests”, Charles de Gaulle (1967).
Author, speaker and guest lecturer on current geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, EU and the US
Blog: Katja Banik's blog