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Krautsource #11 - Looking East

Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl
Krautsource is back after a winter break, taking a look at Germans’ relationship with Russia, which is going to be in the spotlight due to the new Ukrainian-Russian crisis.

The German perspective on Russia always means: Do talk about the war. Karl Schlögel, one of Germanys foremost experts on Russian history, in 2009 wrote about the “mental grounding of the German-Russian relationship”:
“War, the horror of the occupation, devastation, unfathomable suffering, millions and millions of dead people … [it goes on like this]… - how could this not leave traces and have effects far into the next generations?”
This “fight to the death” would be felt “in the last fiber of Russians’ and Germans’ existence”.
This is the dramatic, sentimental view on one of humanities most violent chapters - the bloodshed in Europes East during World War II. Today, hard facts and cold politics take center stage: Is Russia going to invade Ukraine? How firmly is Germany in the Nato camp that is promising to punish Russian aggression? Even though Germany is a Nato country, things here get complicated when it comes to Russia. Some Nato countries see Germany as being Putins asset rather than part of the Nato front.
These questions also had to be answered within the party heading Germanys’ government. On Tuesday, high-ranking members of the Social Democrats met to solve their internal dispute of whether to deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine. In the end, they agreed to take a stance against sending them. Therefore, Germanys contribution to Ukraines military strength these days will be five thousand helmets, and that’s it.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz has mostly ignored this intra-party discussion, but his predecessor took the spotlight. Gerhard Schröder, last chancellor from the SPD, took Russias side and attacked the Ukrainian government. It was to be expected.
Schröder is still a well-liked politician and considered more charismatic than most of the current Social Democrats put together. He is also well-paid, as his bromance with Vladimir Putin helped him secure the post of chairman of the supervisory board of Nord Stream, the pipeline company that is transport Russian gas under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline is Ukraines governments’ nightmare, as it cuts out Ukraine from the infrastructure bringing Russian gas to the EU by circumventing the country. To Nato supporters and Eastern Europeans fearing Russian aggression, Schröder has become a symbol of Germanys supposed ambivalent stance in the conflict.
Stereotypes and soft power
Some background on how Germans view Russia: On the one hand, there are longstanding stereotypes about Russia as an uncivilized, violent and dangerous force in the East. These views had existed for centuries, before they became central to the Nazis’ propaganda against “Jewish Bolshevism” and the supposedly barbarian and “Asian” - which meant “not civilized like Europeans” - Red Army (stereotypes which the Red Army answered by winning the war). During the Cold War, anti-communist propaganda built on these deeply rooted fears, which partly stemmed from actual rape and looting by Soviet soldiers - preceded by the brutal crimes Germans had committed in the East.
However, these negative stereotypes about Russia could never erase a fascination with the country some Germans harbor. This is true not only for Social Democrats, who managed to relax politics with the communist Eastern bloc in the 1970s, and dream of tension-free coexistence with Russia. In a weird twist of history, not only a big part of the Left party shares a “blame both sides approach” and abstains from taking the side of Nato and Ukraine or is even openly sympathetic to Russia long after the government in Moscow stopped being communist or “left” in any way. This sentiment is the other side of anti-Nato convictions and plain Anti-Americanism deeply engrained in parts of the German left.
Also, the nationalist AfD party is taking Russias position, accusing instead Ukraine of “war-mongering”, something you will not hear from the German government or the biggest opposition party, the conservative CDU. In a slogan that was supposed to be funny (and, in an eerie way, admittedly is), right-wing protestors even wished for a Russian invasion during the rising numbers of refugees in 2015: “Merkel to Siberia, Putin to Berlin”(where German prisoners of war and the Kremlins foes used to be banished). How ironic, because if anyone is historically harboring suspicions of Germanys’ nationalists, it is Russians which fought the hardest battles against Nazi Germany. In any case, Russian propaganda strategists surely are happy to have found some “useful idiots” in Germany.
The transatlanticist fallacy
One link between them could be that most of AfD voters and politicians come from the East of Germany - which was part of the communist bloc and where Soviet soldiers were stationed. In my view, one of the most naive ideas Western politicians had about the East after unification in 1990 was the expectation that East Germans would become “transatlanticists” just like many West Germans had become because of cultural fascination with the United States or elites had out of conviction or pragmatism. These positive experiences with the United States were completely missing in the East, yet many observers were surprised or even shocked in 2014 that many East Germans were siding with Putin when he annexed the Ukrainian Krim peninsula.
A 2020 Pew poll is instructive: Eastern Germans by far favor closer ties to the Soviet Union than to the US. Also, Germans in general are far more reluctant to fight for another Nato country than Americans. (Ukraine is not a Nato country and will not be, for a long time or never.) So the reluctance of some top German politicians is at least partly representative of voters’ positions.
Still, Russian soldiers stationed in East Germany left much less of a cultural mark than their American counterparts did in Western Germany (I have written a bit about them here). One difference pointed out in an analysis by Hamburger Institute for Social Research: “Sowjetization” in the East happened mostly top-down as a “discourse of power”, while in the capitalist West, the people themselves eagerly sucked up American culture - see my rap vinyl collection from the late nineties and my frequent use of the word “nice” (this view however ignores Americas’ deliberate use of “soft power” through cultural exports as a foreign policy tool that proved so magnetic to people).
It must be written: All this emotional and fussy discussion of history and contemporary politics is of course viewed very differently by many people living between Germany and Russia. From the perspective of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics, any coalition between the two bigger powers comes at their expense. People in what historian Timothy Snyder called the “Bloodlands” have not forgotten the wars of Hitler and Stalin that killed more than 10 million civilians. Any wavering of the German government on taking a tough stance for Nato is scaring politicians in these countries: Are the two big neighbors going to squeeze them again?
Latvias defence minister called the German ambivalence “immoral and hypocritical” a few days ago and implied economic motives behind Germany sticking to business as usual instead of following the US, the UK and Eastern Nato members (Germany is highly dependent on Russian gas). He wants Germany to finally allow artillery cannons to be sent to his neighbor Estonia (even though they seem to be old and more of a security risk than an asset in a war).
Adding to the statement I quoted at the beginning of this issue, Karl Schlögel wrote in 2016, the “de-enemization” of Germany and Russia as personified in Gerhard Schröder has been completed. Nobody had asked Germanys’ Eastern neighbors.
To end this issue on a less gloomy note: The most successful music artist in Germanys’ history is a Russian-born Ukrainian: rapper Capital Bra. He had more number one hits within a year than the Beatles. He is pretty good.
For a different take on the new German governments’ first foreign policy test, you should read this piece in the Financial Times.
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Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl @jbruehl

This is my newsletter about German politics and history for an international audience. Why stay national and not take journalism to the global stage? Expect a lot of Realpolitik, plenty of Zeitgeist and maybe even some Schadenfreude.

I have been a journalist for more than a decade, working in New York City, Berlin and Cologne, and now head the technology news team at a major German media house in Munich. I hold a Masters degree in Political Science and American Cultural Studies. And I like rap music.

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