James Holmes

Germany’s Geographical Curse

For centuries Germany was plagued by difficult geography that Berlin only escaped with the end of the Cold War.

Achtung! At long last I have assumed my proper rank as Professor-Doktor (spoken in my best Colonel Klink accent). Or so my Lufthansa boarding pass told me upon departing Boston last Tuesday. No one does titles better than Germans. I'm on my first visit to Germany in twenty years, and my first ever to united Berlin. The Wall still stood in 1986, when my University of Regensburg class made the bus ride through East Germany into West Berlin. That marked the Naval Diplomat's first experience hobnobbing with godless commies. It left an impression.

I clambered aboard another aircraft so soon after Sydney in order to address a conference on "Maritime Security and Europe" (at the Maritim Hotel, fittingly). My sacred trust was to analyze the strategic features of the Indian Ocean basin, mainly the Malacca, Bab el-Mandeb, and Hormuz straits. Our European friends appear eager to discern how they can advance the cause of security in maritime Asia beyond dispatching navies to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Excellent! Europe should play its part in South and East Asia. Welcome aboard, shipmates.

Germans haven't always enjoyed such liberty to ply the sea. Fate's bequest to Germany is difficult strategic geography. Geography situated it in a central position among rival states while providing sparse natural defenses. For centuries, petty German kingdoms, duchies, and other minor states were in effect the lubricant for quarrels among the likes of France, Austria, and Russia. A rival monarch hurt your feelings? There, there: here's a German state to make it better.

Small wonder my wife's ancestors and many others fled for places like Pennsylvania. It's tough inhabiting a battleground, especially one that might be France or Austria next week. Better to settle in the hills of America, where you can root for the Steelers.

German unification in 1871 made things better – for a time. The sudden rise of a dominant, and potentially domineering, industrial and military power upset the delicate great-power equilibrium that was European politics after the Congress of Vienna. To keep Germany's neighbors from ganging up, Berlin had to play down its ambitions. And to be sure, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck did manage to tamp down fears until the new Kaiser, Wilhelm II, dismissed him from office in 1890. The Kaiser seemingly went out of his way to frighten the Reich's neighbors and ushered in a century of insecurity that ended only with the passing of the Cold War.

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The foundation of the European Union pacified united Germany's land frontiers to a degree unthinkable in past centuries, while political self-restraint kept the nation's neighbors at ease. Two world wars taught the value of benign conduct. Tranquil borders at home spare Berlin the effort and resources once spent on territorial defense. Continental security in turn frees Germany to pursue its destiny on the high seas should it see the need. Whether it does see the need seems doubtful for now, considering the economic and political strains besetting the Union. Nevertheless, options are a good thing for statesmen who preside over strong nations. Germany, like the rest of Europe, has the luxury of mulling over its seafaring future.

It wasn't always thus. The Kaiser tried to cultivate an oceanic strain in German culture during the fin de siècle age, yet ran afoul of maritime geography. The merest glance at the map underscores Germany's plight should its surroundings turn hostile. Shipping from north German seaports can only exit the North Sea for the broad Atlantic by transiting the English Channel to the south or the gap between the British Isles and Norway to the north. Great Britain holds a commanding position over northwest European lifelines to the sea.

British mariners once excelled at exploiting their geographic position. As Corbett notes, the Royal Navy could always compel the Dutch Navy to fight during the 17th-century Anglo-Dutch wars. All it had to do was threaten commercial shipping bound to or from Dutch harbors, holding the United Provinces' economic lifelines at risk. Dutch seamen could either risk battle knowing victory was improbable or assent to British mastery of the sea lanes.

This pattern persisted into the 20th century. The Royal Navy cordoned off the North Sea from afar during the Great War, leaving one of the world's finest battle fleets, the German High Seas Fleet, to rust at its moorings. After the war Admiral Wolfgang Wegener bemoaned the sea blindness that let such a travesty happen. Hitler tried to outflank geography by seizing French and Norwegian seaports, yet his army had to defend vast land holdings to make the naval project workable. Sea power, it turned out, was a bridge too far for Germany. It could command access to the Baltic Sea via the Skaggerak and Kattegat, applying pressure on Russia. Otherwise Berlin's options were few.

German strategists are doubtless glad to be absolved of such dilemmas. May Germany's holiday from strategic geography long endure.