Russia and the Germans – a complicated affair
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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