Russia and the Germans – a com­pli­cated affair

Mil.ru /​ CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

In Germany, a major­ity favour closer ties with Russia despite new autho­ri­an­ism under Putin, mil­i­tary aggres­sion against Ukraine and bombing in Syria. Where does the desire for a special rela­tion­ship with Russia come from?

Germany and Russia – theirs is a story rife with con­tra­dic­tion. A story with both light and dark, fas­ci­na­tion and horror. In the offi­cial state and mil­i­tary his­to­ries, Rus­sians and Germans appear in the role of allies and in that of bitter enemies. The tsars and the Prus­sians forged pacts par­ti­tion­ing Poland and defeated Napoleon in the Battle of Nations at Leipzig. A century later, the Germans and the Rus­sians faced off on oppo­site sides in World War I – a prelude to the life-and-death strug­gle that began with Hitler’s inva­sion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 and ended with the raising of the red flag over the Reich­stag. The atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the SS and the German Wehrma­cht in that war of anni­hi­la­tion con­tinue to shock to this day. During the Siege of Leningrad alone, more than a million human beings died.

By the time the Third Reich sur­ren­dered, 27 million Soviet civil­ians and sol­diers had lost their lives – Rus­sians, Ukraini­ans, Belaru­sians, Jews and other members of the mul­ti­eth­nic state. Nearly four million Wehrma­cht sol­diers fell on the Eastern Front or died in Soviet custody as pris­on­ers of war. Mil­lions of German fam­i­lies fled the eastern ter­ri­to­ries taken by the Red Army or were expelled from there after the war. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of women were raped by Red Army sol­diers. While the USA was helping West Germany get back on its feet after the war with the Mar­shall Plan, East German indus­trial infra­struc­ture was being dis­man­tled and trans­ported to the Soviet Union as repa­ra­tions.

With all the horrors on both sides, it is some­thing close to a miracle that the rela­tion­ship between Germany and Russian has not been tainted by a lasting bit­ter­ness. In fact, quite the oppo­site is the case: there is a great deal of mutual liking and the desire for friendly coop­er­a­tion. One rep­re­sen­ta­tive survey from the spring of 2018 found that 58 percent of Germans were in favour of closer ties with Russia. This desire was par­tic­u­larly strong among people who sup­ported Alter­na­tive for Germany (AfD) and The Left (die Linke) and in East Germany.[i] Another survey from Novem­ber of 2019 found that 66 percent of Germans would like closer coop­er­a­tion with Russia. Only 39 percent con­sid­ered rela­tions with the USA to be more impor­tant than those with Moscow.[ii]

The fact that Vladimir Putin has, bit by bit, con­structed a new author­i­tar­ian regime has not damp­ened this desire, any more than Russia’s mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Ukraine has, or the annex­a­tion of Crimea or Russia’s broth­er­hood in arms with the Syrian dic­ta­tor Assad. Nor did the massive cyber­at­tack on the German Bun­destag or the mur­der­ous attacks on oppo­nents of Putin in the United Kingdom or, more recently, in Berlin’s Tier­garten give rise to any great swell of indig­na­tion. Israel’s anti-terror oper­a­tion in the Gaza Strip and the war waged by the USA against Iraq drew loud calls for protest and demon­stra­tions – but the Russian bombing cam­paign in Syria and the shoot­ing down of pas­sen­ger flight MH-17 over Eastern Ukraine were accepted with a shrug. The desire to be on good terms with Russia has Germans gen­er­ously turning a blind eye to the Kremlin’s human rights vio­la­tions and aggres­sive great-power behav­iour. What lies behind this com­plex­ity? An expla­na­tion in five points:

  1. Fear: After the horrors of World War II, the single great­est fear of a vast major­ity of Germans is that of a return to war with Russia. We seek to avoid, at all costs, becom­ing entan­gled in con­flicts that might lead to an armed con­fronta­tion. Knowing this, the Kremlin feels no hes­i­ta­tion about using mil­i­tary force as an instru­ment of foreign policy, whether in the Ukraine or in Syria.
  2. Guilt: While some like to point to the “Anglo-Amer­i­can bombing terror” as off­set­ting Germany’s own mis­deeds, many Germans still feel them­selves to owe a his­tor­i­cal debt of guilt when it comes to Russia. Often, the victims of the German war of anni­hi­la­tion in Central and Eastern Europe are attrib­uted to Russia alone. In fact, sol­diers of many dif­fer­ent nation­al­i­ties fought in the Red Army, and, rel­a­tive to pop­u­la­tion size, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine suf­fered the great­est destruc­tion and the most deaths. Unlike Russia, though, those coun­tries cannot count on the empathy of the German public.
  3. The myth of spir­i­tual kinship: Tolstoy and Goethe, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, Dos­to­evsky and Niet­zsche, the Bolshoi and the bal­alaika – those who enthuse about German-Russian spir­i­tual kinship are fond of point­ing to lit­er­a­ture and music to make their case. For cen­turies, the edu­cated classes of both coun­tries com­pen­sated for their polit­i­cal back­ward­ness with homages to art and culture. Roman­ti­cism rather than moder­nity, spir­i­tual depth rather than com­merce, emotion rather than cold ratio­nal­ity – a mix of sen­ti­men­tal­ity and bru­tal­ity sets both Rus­sians and Germans apart from Western civil­i­sa­tion. This tra­di­tion con­tin­ues to exert a sub­lim­i­nal influ­ence. In Russia, the old battle between lib­er­als and anti-lib­er­als con­tin­ues unabated, and even in Germany, the “long road West” is by no means uncon­tested.
  4. Impe­r­ial tra­di­tion: Like Russia, the German Empire was a Euro­pean Great Power. We should not fool our­selves into believ­ing that this way of think­ing has van­ished entirely. In Russia, there are many who mourn the end of the Soviet empire; in Germany, there are many who still sub­scribe to the idea that Euro­pean sta­bil­ity can only be based on an arrange­ment with Russia – if nec­es­sary, one in which the smaller Central and Eastern Euro­pean states need have no say. In Polish, Baltic and Ukrain­ian ears, Schröder’s “Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis” has a famil­iar ring, harken­ing back to Great-Power pacts that cost them dearly.
  5. Indus­try: A joint German-Russian eco­nomic area has been a fond dream of parts of the world of big busi­ness in Germany for over a century. Germany would supply the machines and quality indus­trial goods; Russia would secure the raw mate­r­ial base for German indus­try. The Nord Stream project is rooted in this tra­di­tion. Think­ing on a grand scale, this is the idea of a Eurasian eco­nomic area stretch­ing “from Lisbon to Vladi­vos­tok”, which is seen, and not just in Russia, as a project that would counter the transat­lantic ori­en­ta­tion of Europe.

To be com­pletely clear: a strate­gic part­ner­ship with Russia is indeed desir­able, for many reasons. However, such a part­ner­ship can only grow up out of common values and rules like those agreed in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in 1990: democ­racy and human rights, the equal sov­er­eignty of all Euro­pean states, the renun­ci­a­tion of vio­lence. As long as the Russian lead­er­ship con­tin­ues to head in the oppo­site direc­tion, we need a policy that, while char­ac­terised by a will­ing­ness to coop­er­ate, does not shy away from con­flict when Euro­pean values and inter­ests are at stake. Putin is not Russia. The Russia worthy of our sym­pa­thy is the Russia of Andrei Sakharov, Anna Akhma­tova and Lev Kopelev, the Russia of the mur­dered jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya and of Arseni Rogin­ski, founder of the human rights organ­i­sa­tion Memo­r­ial. Those who want Russia as a partner should support the many citizen’s ini­tia­tives, crit­i­cal minds and coura­geous jour­nal­ists who are striv­ing for a demo­c­ra­tic, Euro­pean Russia. The time of change will come.


Marieluise Beck was a member of the Bun­destag for Alliance 90/​The Greens for many years; Ralf Fücks headed the Hein­rich Böll Foun­da­tion, which is affil­i­ated with the Alliance 90/​The Greens. In 2017, they co-founded the Centre for Liberal Moder­nity, a think tank that has no ties to any polit­i­cal party. Both have been active in Russia for many years.

This article was orig­i­nally written for a special edition of the journal Super Illu, devoted to Russia. You can read the German version on “Rus­s­land ver­ste­hen”, our new website devoted to Russia.

[i] Survey by the polling company Civey, com­mis­sioned by the German daily Die Welt, pub­lished 17 Mar. 2018

[ii] Survey com­mis­sioned by the foun­da­tion Köber-Stiftung, subject of a report at tagesschau.de on 26 Nov. 2019

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