it means 'Drive to the East', which describes Germany
's intentions, in different historical era
s, to expand its borders in the direction of Siberia
While states to the west of Germany built their empires by colonising Africa, Asia and the Americas, landlocked Germany had fewer options. So naturally Germany has always looked eastwards.
Charlemagne started the trend in the twelfth century, by colonising the areas around Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, bringing along with him a band of Netherlandish farmers and German merchants. This had the support of the Catholic church, which saw their actions as a crusade similar to what was currently happening in the Holy lands. The Germans got as far as Riga, which they founded as a base for missionary and commercial operations, and after defeating the Danes in Bornhöved in 1227 they took over all of the Baltic states except Estonia. Later Frederick Barbarossa and his Teutonic Knights annexed Silesia from Prussia.
However Germany fragmented over religious and other issues after 1400, and it lost its grip over many eastern territories. And then for half a millennia the only Germans going eastwards were free settlers. Eventually Germany was reunified in 1871 and under Otto von Bismarck confronted other powers, particularly Austria-Hungary and France. In this period, German nationalists proudly remembered their fatherland's early imperial legacy, and coined the phrase Drang nach Osten.
But geo-political realities meant that to keep her back clear Germany did not challenge Russia.
Bismarck's successor, Kaiser William II, was more ambitious, and wanted to see Germany become more of a world power. Germany (belatedly) joined the great scramble for territories in the nineteenth century, only got a few insignificant parts of Africa, China and the Pacific (even today nobody wants to be responsible for Nauru). Pan-Germanism arose through his alliance with Austria-Hungary, which was building up a political and commercial empire in the Balkans, and a sense of nationalist pride spurned on by Germany's economic success. Through bluster and bullying weaker east European states he only succeeded in alienating Britain and threatening Russia and France. In World War One Germany and Austria-Hungary scored a decisive victory against Russia in 1917 (triggering the Russian Revolution), but as he needed troops for the Western front William II chose to secure a peace treaty with Russia rather than gain more territory.
In the Second World War Hitler managed to get more territory than any other German leader before him, reaching the gates of Moscow and Leningrad within four months of launching Operation Barbarossa on May 22 1941. The first Russian Winter stalled his advance, but in the following year Hitler concentrated his forces towards the oil reserves in the Caucusus. At Stalingrad the tide of the war turned in the Allies favour.
Now the term Drang nach Osten is used by commentators in the east to describe the expansion of NATO and European Union membership towards countries closer to Russia's borders (it is also the name of a 1973 Game Designers Workshop wargame). Russia feels threatened not just by the possibility of military action from the West as seen in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but is also concerned by its loss of influence in the former Warsaw Pact countries. To some in Russia, the movement of German investment capital and ideas is also another threatening sign.