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Why Germans Are Smitten With Putin

The German liberal newspaper Die Zeit recently shed a bright light on the German population’s odd love affair with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Germans profess a love of democracy and human rights; Putin has done everything in his power to destroy democracy and human rights. Germans stand for peace; Putin has unleashed war on Ukraine in 2014 (and on Georgia in 2008).

“Why do so many German citizens judge the crisis in Crimea in a completely different way than politicians and the media?” asks Bernd Ulrich. “Unless surveys are misleading, two-thirds of German citizens, voters, and readers stand opposed to four-fifths of the political class.” The former either approve of or are indifferent to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. The latter are aghast. (With some significant exceptions: e.g., former socialist chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder. Schmidt defended Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea, while Schröder recently invited Russia’s version of the “good Hitler” to his 70th birthday bash.)

Ulrich identifies five reasons for this divide.

The first is the perceived arrogance of the West (read Washington) since 9/11. “Many are now saying that limits need to be placed on” Washington’s highhandedness, and if German Chancellor Angela Merkel “can’t do it, then maybe Vladimir Putin can.” 

The second is the perceived arrogance of the “Euro machine”: “Putin claims that the EU backed him into a corner with its association agreement for Ukraine. One could bet that the vast majority of people within the EU were just as surprised by the fact that yet another country was supposed to be associated to it….  the majority seems to feel this ominous mix of foreign presumptuousness and personal powerlessness not only toward Washington, but also toward Brussels.”

The third is the perceived arrogance of the media: “When the vast majority of media make arguments along the same lines, as is the case with Ukraine, it is anything but easy—even for well-intentioned readers—to discern whether what we are dealing with here (a) is once again an instance of hype, (b) is a tacit measure to educate the populace, or (c) is a case of deep-seated convictions concerning democracy and human rights.”

The fourth is the suspicion that the West is unwilling and unable to engage in military solutions:

The entire discussion about Russia and Putin is being poisoned by the presumption that, to some people, this is about much more than Crimea and Ukraine…. We are less and less willing to intervene, and arms expenditures are declining, even in the US now. In Germany, this development is proceeding in a particularly rapid and radical fashion. People haven’t properly come to terms with the disappointment of Afghanistan, and Germans said “no” to both war in Iraq and intervention in Libya. The respective reasons for staying on the sidelines were of a kind that makes it difficult to even imagine any major military intervention in which Germans would participate.

The first three reasons are situational (they depend on post-9/11 developments) and, thus, could change. The fourth may reflect an attitudinal disposition that appears to be taking root today. It, too, could change (and if it doesn’t, Germany’s eastern European NATO partners had better watch out).

Ulrich’s fifth reason is rooted in German political culture:

For us, the postwar period was characterized by wrestling with suppressing or accepting the Holocaust, by the German guilt for having murdered 6 million Jews. But other types of guilt have lingered behind that, including that for killing millions of Russians…. This is one of the main reasons why there now appears to be significant willingness here in Germany to concede a “zone of influence” to the Russians. The thinking here is: Haven’t they already been hurt and penalized enough by the loss of their Soviet empire? Should we Germans, of all people, argue with them over Ukraine?

This view, of German guilt for Russian deaths, is extremely widespread. German intellectuals, policymakers, and average citizens speak of World War II as the “Vernichtungskrieg gegen Russland” (the war of destruction against Russia); accordingly, the millions of civilian and military casualties were suffered by “die Russen.” The terminology goes back to the war, when the Nazi regime characterized its enemy in exactly the same terms.

The reality was quite different. Nazi Germany devastated, above all, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine—and not Russia. This is not a question of who suffered most, but, quite simply, of setting the historical record straight. Which Ulrich, to his credit, does:

Today, with a view to German guilt, the right to self-determination of another people—Ukrainians—is once again being disputed. Should they not be allowed into the EU because Germans justifiably have a guilty conscience vis-à-vis Russians? The fact that Germans and Russians are once again making decisions about the fate of Ukraine would be a perverse lesson to learn from history for this country, which suffered under both nations like no other. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany killed millions upon millions of people on Ukrainian territory with planned famines, pogroms, and extermination campaigns. During the years when Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people died here than anywhere else in Eastern Europe. Likewise, millions of the “Russians” that German soldiers killed during World War II were actually Ukrainian citizens of the Soviet Union. The current debate ignores the havoc that Nazi and Soviet imperialism wreaked in this country. In today’s crisis, the price is being paid for the fact that Germans have not yet arrived in their collective memory at a place where they can view the fate of Ukrainians as Ukrainians.

That last sentence is key. Ukrainians, like Belarusians, do not exist in the German consciousness. During the war, they were Untermenschen (subhumans). At present, they are, for the majority of Germans, not even worth the disdain that the modifier unter conveys. How convenient for German defense contractor Rheinmetall, which has been happily training Russian troops. And how convenient for the German public: if Russia invades Ukraine and kills thousands of Ukrainians, Germans will be able to assuage their guilt by shedding a tear for poor Putin.

Photo Credit: RIA Novosti

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