In 1905, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff, presented his plans for a two-front war against France and Russia. Germany had already fought a war against France in the 1870s and a series of pacts between European powers indicated that Germany would have to intervene if its ally, Austria-Hungary, went to war. But Schlieffen’s plan stemmed from his understanding of geography: Germany, on the North European Plain, was exposed and vulnerable to invasion from France and Russia. Germany’s tactics for managing this threat over the coming century would shift dramatically, but Berlin’s imperatives, shaped by its permanent geopolitical challenge of inhabiting the flat North European Plain, would remain largely the same.

Germany lies south of the Baltic and North Seas, and north of the Alps. The country is situated on the flat North European Plain, a low-lying area that also includes parts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, southern Scandinavia, Poland and Western Russia. Thus, Germany has no significant natural boundaries, either to the west or to the east. The country’s location on the North European Plain, its network of rivers and access to seaports have allowed Germany to gain access to both European and world markets. Nevertheless, Germany’s flat geography and lack of natural barriers also mean that the country is permanently vulnerable to invasion, especially from France in the west and Russia in the east. This vulnerability has played a key role in establishing Germany’s grand strategy.


Germany’s Imperatives and Grand Strategy

A country’s grand strategy is rooted in realities that are permanent: Its geography, neighborhood, climate and other constant factors limit the country’s strategic and policy options and lead it, consciously or unconsciously, to pursue certain overarching goals. This does not mean that decision-makers have no discretion in determining their countries’ course of action, but it does mean that their choices are constrained by some unchangeable realities. Leaders inherit certain strategic goals and, in order to carry them out, they employ specific tactics that support the country’s grand strategy.

In the case of Germany, its imperatives today differ little from those of strategists at the turn of the 20th century. In the 1870s, Prussian strategists sought to unite the German states and overcome regional divisions in order to both create an entity that could fight (or deter) neighboring powers and form a large economic bloc. With unity achieved, by the early 1900s, Germany could turn its attention to another goal: mitigating the threat of invasion. Schlieffen saw in 1905 that Germany was highly vulnerable to invasion and sought to reduce that threat by coming up with an effective plan for waging a two-front war.

Germany’s grand strategy stems from both its imperatives and its constraints. The country’s constraints mainly relate to its demilitarization following the Second World War. The political and cultural impact of the war created constraints for German leaders, who must pursue the country’s strategic goals using largely non-military means. At the same time, NATO membership has proven both an asset and a constraint for Germany’s grand strategy.

Ultimately, the goals of Germany’s grand strategy are as follows:

  1. Safeguard the unity and sovereignty of Germany.
  2. Achieve domination of the North European Plain and buffer areas
  3. Maintain internal stability.
  4. Prevent powers outside of the European continent from exerting power in the North European Plain.

We will deal with each of these strategic goals in detail.

Safeguard the Unity and Sovereignty of Germany

The German-speaking states, with the exception of Austria, united in the 19th century due to both defense and economic imperatives. Until unification in the late 19th century, what is today Germany was a collection of small states and cities. While many belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, the empire was a decentralized entity where local rulers had sovereignty over their own territories and generally formulated their own foreign policies. The small German principalities were easy pray for large European powers surrounding them. The principalities faced France in the west, the Habsburgs in the south, the Danes and Swedes in the north, and the Russian Empire to the east. At times, they also faced threats from one another, or allied themselves with opposing sides in European conflicts.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna in particular laid the groundwork for Germany’s unification by creating an alliance of German-speaking states, which came to be dominated by Prussia. By mid-century, with the exception of Austria, Hamburg and Bremen, all German states became members of the Prussia-led customs union, the Zollverein. This move created one large market where German goods could be transported and traded with ease and at lower costs. Prussia also aimed to use this customs union to isolate Austria and reduce Austrian influence over the German states. Later in the century, Prussian leaders used the threat of France to promote German unification.

Between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany once again was divided. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing reunification of Germany could the country once again fulfill the first element of its grand strategy, unity and sovereignty. Just as the defeat of Napoleon, the rise of Prussia as a major power in the middle of Europe and ultimately the defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian War all paved the way for the emergence of a strong and united Germany, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact that allowed Germany to be reunified and take a leading role on the continent.

Achieve Domination of the North European Plain and Buffer Areas

The North European Plain presents the foremost defense challenge for Germany. The country’s grand strategy requires that it achieve domination of the North European Plain, as well as surrounding buffer zones with Europe’s leading powers, but for much of its history Germany has been unable to accomplish this goal. Successive regimes have used a mix of tactics — from invading their neighbors to seeking the assistance of the U.S. — in an effort to achieve this element of the country’s grand strategy. Today, Germany employs a diverse set of strategies and tactics to mitigate the threat of invasion across the North European Plain and gain dominance in the region.

European Union and NATO Membership

Germany has used the European Union and the processes of European integration — as well as NATO membership — to pursue its strategy of dominating the North European Plain and buffer areas. The European Union has allowed Germany to integrate economically, and in some ways politically, with the vast majority of its traditional rivals. This is especially important when it comes to France, which has traditionally constituted an invasion threat for Germany. Economic and political integration via EU institutions, and militarily via NATO, greatly reduces the French threat.

The expansion of the European Union and NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic states meant that Germany’s influence spread into the buffer zones between it and Russia. By encouraging European integration and the emergence of a pan-European political, legal and economic system, Germany ensured that it would have a major role in decision-making across much of the North European Plain.

There are, however, growing challenges for the implementation of this strategy due to the European Union’s growing fragmentation. The ongoing refugee crisis, erosion of the free movement Schengen zone and increased tension between the aims of different European Union members are all undermining the coherence of the bloc and threatening to limit its usefulness to Germany. A fragmented EU has less influence in the buffer areas between Russia and Europe, and growing divisions undermine Berlin’s ability to exert political influence across the North European Plain.

Germany is also facing internal political shifts that could ultimately impact the country’s relationship with Europe. Public support for the Euroskeptic, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party increased from only 4 percent in July 2015 to 11.5 percent in January 2016. With federal elections coming up in 2017, mainstream German political parties are under pressure to compete with forces outside of the traditional mainstream. At the same time, Europe’s crises are accentuating divisions inside Germany’s ruling coalition between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), especially when it comes to the country’s refugee policies.


Dual Strategy for Russia

The other traditional threat to German security on the North European Plain, Russia, presents a greater challenge to Berlin. Russia is a major provider of raw materials for German industry. This business relationship was long the foundation of Berlin’s partnership with Moscow, and of its efforts to reduce geopolitical competition with Russia. Nevertheless, the conflict in Ukraine shifted this dynamic. On the one hand, prior to the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Germany supported pro-Western opposition parties in Ukraine. Berlin sought to expand its influence in the buffer areas between the European Union and Russia, since it feared an emboldened Kremlin that would threaten its interests in the Baltics, Balkans and Central Europe.

On the other hand, it is not in Germany’s interest to see a continued armed conflict in its neighborhood, especially at a time when it is facing a myriad of challenges within the EU. Moreover, Germany wishes to reduce the flow of refugees from Syria to Europe and sees Moscow as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

As a result, Germany is now implementing a mix of tactics when it comes to Russia. It is maintaining some business and energy cooperation with Moscow, as well as leading efforts to preserve a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and implement the Minsk agreement between Ukraine and Russia. Germany is also supporting a pro-Western government in Kiev and maintaining pressure on the Kremlin via tools, such as sanctions, to encourage Moscow’s adherence to the Minsk agreement. Ultimately, Germany is aiming for an understanding with Moscow and the removal of sanctions, but it is also working to limit Russian influence in the buffer areas that both Germany and Russia regard as their backyards.

Maintain Domestic Stability

German decision-makers are pursuing the third element of the country’s grand strategy, maintaining domestic stability, through several domestic and foreign policy tactics aimed at overcoming the challenges of internal political divisions, regional differences and Germany’s export-based economic model.

Sustain a Balance Between States

Ensuring a balance between states is key for maintaining domestic stability. Germany achieves this balance through its federal structure, political alliances, social safety nets and the distribution of economic resources. Political and economic divisions between western and eastern Germany persist. The Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany has done well in eastern Germany, particularly in Saxony, where it won nearly 10 percent of the vote in state parliamentary elections in 2014. PEGIDA, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration protest movement, emerged from the eastern city of Dresden.

But divisions are not merely confined to political orientation. There are also significant economic disparities. According to the European Commission, GDP per capita in Hamburg was over 53,000 euros in 2013. In Saxony, it was only about 24,000 euros — about 72 percent of the German average. In 2014, according to the Federal Statistical Office of the Lander, the largest contributor to Germany’s economy was the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which on its own made up over 21 percent of Germany’s total GDP. Bavaria contributed about 18 percent. Both history and geography have added to these economic differences: the states of the former East Germany tend to be poorer. At the same time, geography, and in particular access to key trade routes, has impacted regional economic development. For example, Hamburg is home to Europe’s second largest port, a factor that has directly contributed to the prosperity of its population.

Nevertheless, the federal government’s distribution of resources means that Berlin can mitigate some of the inequalities. Germany’s generous social safety net is designed to reduce disparities and prevent unrest. In addition, political negotiations and concessions between Germany’s parties help overcome regional differences and maintain the country’s unity. For example, the ruling CDU party’s alliance with the Bavarian CSU party integrates the regional party into federal politics.


Ensure Survival of the Eurozone

In order to undermine any potential unrest, Germany is working to maintain full domestic employment. The country boasts the continent’s largest economy and the world’s fourth highest GDP, after the U.S., China and Japan. Germany’s economy depends heavily on exports, especially of manufactured goods — particularly cars and machinery — to European markets. In 2014, Germany exported 45.7 percent of the goods and services it produced, according to the World Bank. Exports are thus key for ensuring full employment in Germany and avoiding unrest domestically.

This strategy requires ensuring that Germany has access to reliable export markets. Exports to eurozone countries make up a disproportionately high percentage of total German exports — about a third in 2014, with France (at 8.96 percent) being the top destination. Maintaining the eurozone as a market for German goods — a market where countries cannot devalue their currencies and make German goods less competitive — is thus key for maintaining export levels and low unemployment in Germany. Ensuring domestic stability thus requires the survival of the eurozone.

Germany is the largest economy in the eurozone and, therefore, is informally the most influential country in the currency union. When it comes to issues such as Greece’s bailouts or austerity measures in southern European countries, Germany drives a hard bargain, but ultimately always prioritizes the longevity of the EU and currency union over other goals. However, the ongoing fragmentation of the EU presents a significant strategic threat for Germany, which relies on the EU and the eurozone for managing both its defense and economic vulnerabilities.

There are ongoing divisions between the approaches of southern European governments and Germany regarding Europe’s banking system and fiscal standards, especially when it comes to austerity measures. Many Germans oppose bailouts of southern European members of the eurozone. According to a YouGov poll conducted in July 2015, 56 percent of the German public opposed the prospect of a third Greek bailout. The German government, however, ultimately supported the bailout because it furthered Germany’s strategic goal of maintaining a united eurozone, convinced that the currency union’s stability and survival will contribute more to the country’s domestic stability in the long run.

Prevent Powers Outside Continental Europe from Projecting Power in the North European Plain

The fourth element of Germany’s grand strategy is one that the country currently cannot achieve. Indeed, there are few countries that are able to fulfill all the goals of their grand strategy. One exception is the United States, which, due to its geography and control of the world’s waterways, has achieved all elements of its own grand strategy.

Germany in the past has used both diplomatic and military means to reduce the influence of non-continental powers in European affairs. One of Germany’s aims is to dominate the North European Plain, but when outside powers such as the United Kingdom or the United States choose to get involved in the balance of power on the continent, they often shift the balance in favor of one side. During the First and Second World Wars, the British alliance with the French significantly impacted Germany’s position, as the British navy blockaded German ports. A key U.S. strategic aim is to prevent the rise of a hegemon in Eurasia and, as a result, the U.S. intervened in both world wars in order to prevent Germany from dominating the continent. In addition, NATO, under American leadership, has acted as a security umbrella for Europe. Therefore, Germany is unable to fulfill the fourth element of its grand strategy since the U.K. and, more importantly, the U.S. are intimately involved in the North European Plain.


Germany’s geopolitical challenge stems from the country’s vulnerable position on the flat North European Plain. The country’s grand strategy requires maintaining unity, competing for domination of the North European Plain, achieving internal stability, and working to prevent outside powers from gaining influence in the region. Today, Germany’s tactics for achieving these strategic goals all in part involve safeguarding the stability and unity of the European Union and the eurozone, since these two entities help Germany mitigate the threat from France. Germany’s leading role in the EU also gives the country more leverage — both politically and economically — when managing its complex relationship with Russia to the east. Moreover, the eurozone ensures that Germany has an export market, a key requirement for maintaining high domestic employment and stability in a country that is highly dependent on exports.

The German political system revolves around negotiations and concessions, but ultimately German leaders, knowingly or not, are making decisions that are rooted in the country’s grand strategy. Tactics have changed as Germany has evolved in the post-war years and as the balance of power in Europe transformed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but Germany’s grand strategy remains rooted in centuries-old geopolitical realities.