In Germany, prominent Russia advocates abound. Most recently, Horst Teltschik accuses the West of being “obsessed” with blaming Vladimir Putin for all the evils in world politics, thus “alienating” him from cooperation. Jürgen Todenhöfer denounces the “demonization” of Russia, which, according to him, gets a bad rap. And in a collection of essays titled Why We Need Peace and Friendship with Russia, prominent ex-politicians of different stripes—including conservatives—call for warmer ties with Putin’s regime.
This pro-Russian sentiment can be alarmingly bipartisan, especially with respect to Ukraine. Left-wing politicians often justify the Russian annexation of Crimea in much the same way as the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD). German nationalism has always tended to view the nations of Eastern Europe as mere nuisances to be dealt with by Great Powers—Russia and Germany in this case.
There’s a name for this modern brand of Russian accommodationist: They are called the Putinversteher, or Putin-explainers. Bribery and blackmail are probably involved in some cases, and there is massive Russian propaganda and disinformation, which contributes to the success of the Putinversteher in Germany. But it’s not just that. There is also a kind of German compulsion that just won’t go away, and that inspires Kremlin apologists to depict Putin’s authoritarian rule as an authentic expression of Russian uniqueness. “We must not impose western values on Russia,” we are told. “Russian culture must be respected for what it is.”
None of this is new.
Beginning in the 19th century, a number of prominent German thinkers developed a mythical image of, and fascination with, Russia that vacillated between fear and admiration. On the one hand, Russia was perceived as uncanny and threatening because the vast country was “uncivilized,” driven by primeval instincts. At the same time, it was precisely this alleged roughness and irrationality that was often seen as an expression of the undiluted spiritual and moral purity of “the Russian people.” Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, the philosophical progenitor of a right-wing intellectual current called the “Conservative Revolution,” saw in both the Russians and Germans at the beginning of the 20th century a healthy contrast to the rationalist, materialist-oriented West. For him, both Russia and Germany were ideologically fresh and emotionally resonant civilizational forces.
Some of the greatest minds of German intellectual life contributed to this idealizing mystification of Russia. In 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche called Russia “the only power that has endurance in its body today, that can wait, that can promise something.” Russia for Nietzsche represented the antithesis to “the pathetic European particularism and nervousness”; the “West as a whole” no longer had “those instincts from which institutions grow, from which the future grows.” In 1920, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that Russia “made me what I am.” Rilke found his “inner origin” in Russia, “the land of the unfinished God, and from all gestures of the people, the warmth of his becoming flows out like an infinite blessing.”
Thomas Mann, in his 1918 book Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, had actually come to a cultural-historical counter-schema of sorts, with Germans and Russians on the one side and Western democracies on the other. Because both German and Russian “culture” resisted the “imperialism” and the spiritless, rationalist “civilization” of the West, both peoples joined in a deep relationship of the soul. And that is why they were constantly misunderstood and harassed by the West. To be sure, Mann later modified his negative attitude towards democracy and Western values. But the early seeds of a habit of mind are obviously on display.
What’s more, large parts of the German nationalist Right during the Weimar Republic believed that Germany and Russia were united in the struggle against the West. “National Bolsheviks” such as Moeller van den Bruck and journalist Ernst Niekisch, who moved from the extreme Left to the extreme Right and later back again, saw in the October Revolution a “folkish” (“völkisch”) uprising of the Russian people against Western civilization and therefore a kind of role model for their own “national Revolution” to come. Similarly, Joseph Goebbels in his early years celebrated Lenin as a great Russian nationalist leader. After the First World War, the Red army and the Reichswehr were cooperating with the secret rearmament of Germany. Hitler’s racist hatred against all Slavs made it impossible to implement the vision of a Russo-Germanic alliance against the West in National Socialist ideology. But with the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939-41, this concept momentarily became vibrant once again.
The dream of a German-Russian counterweight to the overpowering West continued after the end of the Nazi regime, this time in the form of neutralist aspirations from both Left and Right. It was present, for example, in the German “peace movement,” which mobilized hundreds of thousands protesters against NATO’s nuclear rearmament in the early 1980s. And it did not disappear after the end of the Cold War. In the German mindset there is an inclination today to primarily credit Mikhail Gorbachev—and not so much the strength and attractiveness of Western democracies—with reunification.
Indeed, one has to wonder whether Germany’s integration into the West has ever been fully accepted by parts of German society.
These historical tendencies are sometimes reflected in the thinly concealed anti-Americanism that has persisted in the Federal Republic since its inception, not only at the ideological extremes but also in the political and social center. The legitimate fear of the expansionist ambitions of Soviet communism and the concomitant dependence on the United States for protection has curbed the worst of this. But during the Cold War anti-Americanism had also expressed itself indirectly, as a sense of cultural disdain for the “superficial” and “soulless” United States, with its supposedly unrestrained devotion to money and consumption. In Russia, many Germans think, one finds the opposite: a cultural nation that values the ideals of poets, artists, and intellectuals.
A glorified memory of the détente politics of the 1970s and 1980s nurtures the conviction in Germany that Russia is basically a peace-loving power, indispensable for securing stability in Europe. Particularly for the SPD, the call for partnership with Moscow seems to have an almost religious appeal. Among Social Democrats, the yearning for harmony in German-Russian relations remains strong in spite of the aggressively destructive role Putin’s neo-imperialist Mafia state plays in Europe today. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas cuts against the grain, advocating among the ranks of the SPD for a “new Ostpolitik” that is geared primarily to protecting the interests of Eastern European partners and not those of Russia. He has found little support in his party, however.
The current German government’s policy toward Russia is deeply ambivalent. Thanks to Angela Merkel, the European Union cracked down on Russian aggression in Ukraine with a unified sanctions regime. At the same time, Berlin has always made it clear that its “dialogue” with the Kremlin should remain a priority on its agenda, and that measures such as arms deliveries to Ukraine—measures that could jeopardize German-Russian ties—are a complete non-starter. What’s more, at the Munich Security Conference in February Merkel reaffirmed her support for the gas pipeline project Nord Stream 2 against strong opposition not only from the United States but also from Brussels and a number of EU partner countries. She justified her stance with the imperative not to “exclude” Russia from European affairs altogether.
One of the most paradoxical aspects of the German situation today is that the sympathy for Putin is concentrated in the eastern parts of the country that once languished under Soviet totalitarianism. This can only be explained by something like a phantom Stockholm Syndrome—an affinity for a captor who expired long ago. The greater the disappointments of real existing capitalism, the more rosy the authoritarianism of the past appears.
Which means that, although Berlin has been sticking to sanctions against the Kremlin, pro-Russian pressures are mounting. German businesses and banks—with the support of the federal government—are doing everything possible to minimize the impact of sanctions by expanding German-Russian economic relations. The grand opening of a new Daimler automobile plant near Moscow featured German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier standing alongside Putin, memorably declaring that no one should talk about “forcing Russia to its knees economically.” A “successful Russia,” he emphasized, would also be in “in the interest of Germany.” Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche added, “We believe in Russia!”
The federal government stubbornly clings to Nord Stream 2, even though the renowned German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) has predicted that this project will not be economically viable. It persists in its policy despite the fact that the Kremlin has long ago made it clear that it does not intend to maintain Ukraine as a transit country for Russian gas to Western Europe, even though Berlin demands this. Germany soldiers on, choosing to isolate itself in Europe and to alienate EU partners such as Poland and the Baltic states, who feel directly threatened by Putin’s neo-imperialism. With its stubborn attachment to its single-handed energy policy, Germany not only presents a roadblock to the EU’s plans to reduce dependence on fossil fuels but also undermines its own claim to be a consistent advocate of the principle of multilateralism in world politics.
This shows that rational considerations do not always play the first role when it comes to relations with Russia, both in German politics and the German economy. Russia acts in German consciousness as a kind of imagined, subliminal, ever-present “Option” that can be exercised if various disputes with Western allies become too great. Yes, economic, political, and social ties with the United States are still too strong to allow Germany to drift away—for now. But you can’t rule it out forever.
A final split is unlikely to take place after Angela Merkel leaves the Chancellery, especially since her likely successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, like Merkel herself, keeps expressing her commitment to the Transatlantic alliance and its common values. Nevertheless, the pressure of the Putin lobby will almost certainly increase, and might well lead to a further softening of attitudes toward the Russian autocracy. If the European Union continues disintegrating, it’s even possible that Germany’s nationalist demons, which most had thought vanquished, could surface once again and become virulent.
The presidency of Donald Trump, with its cry of “America First” and its aggressive approach to European partners, enhances the tendency toward drift in the Transatlantic partnership. And Trump’s own bewildering admiration and affection for Vladimir Putin doesn’t help things: The idea that Trump’s Washington could eventually find a modus vivendi with Moscow over the Europeans’ heads amplifies the impulse to engage with Russia before others do.
One wonders whether all this could lead to Moscow winning the Cold War after the fact: gaining a durable sphere of influence in the East, and submission from the West, with a concomitant weakening of Transatlantic ties.
It’s not unthinkable.