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Culture

German term 'Putinversteher' goes international

The German word used to describe Putin sympathizers now has its own English Wikipedia page. But what does "Putinversteher" mean and who does it refer to?

Gerhard Schröder und Wladimir Putin stand next to one another as Putin smiles.

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (Social Democrats) is seen as one of the most prominent Putinversteher

If an entry in Wikipedia is considered some marker of acknowledgement in the present day, then the world should be on the lookout for the new English-language page dedicated to the German word "Putinversteher," which translates literally to "one who understands Putin."

The term combines the name of Russia's president Vladimir Putin with the German noun "Versteher," which means "understander."

With its own English-language Wikipedia page, the word joins other German terms that have come into use in the English language over recent years.

One prominent example is "Lügenpresse," a slur popular in the Nazi era that translates roughly to "lying press," used to discredit media reports that do not align with the user's ideology. In recent years, the term made a comeback under the far-right Alternative for Germany party and by Donald Trump supporters in the US.

A man at a demonstration holds a sign over his face that reads Lügenpresse.

'Lügenpresse' is a pejorative German term which has also come into use in the English language in recent years

When "Versteher" is added to the end of a word in German, it's typically done to indicate a mix of irony and flattery, as a recent Economist article points out. For example, a "Frauenversteher" (Women understander) typically describes a man who boasts excessively about his relations with women.

Likewise, a "Putinversteher" is often used to describe someone who expresses empathy for Russian president Putin.

The term, which was already in use following Russia's annexation of Crimea, typically has a negative connotation — and particularly since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. 

When Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, people who could be described as "Putinversteher" — including prominent German politicians and talk show pundits — would for example point out that NATO's eastward expansion should be understood as a real threat to Russia, or would compare the invasion of Ukraine to the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was another illegal war.

It's not to say that such "Putinversteher" (which is also the plural) support the current violence; but rather, as Wikipedia puts it, their attitude towards President Putin and the way he is leading Russia might involve some sort of "Yes, but you have to understand Putin's position."

Also widespread among "Putinversteher" is a strategy widely known as "whataboutism," or deflecting criticism of Russia by pointing to different abuses committed in the West.

'Putinversteher' across the political spectrum

The sentiment can be found across the political spectrum in Germany, and particularly among populist parties — though some politicians who were labeled as "Putinversteher" following the annexation of Crimea may have since backtracked or at least stopped stating their support publicly.  

Marine Le Pen and Putin shaking hands.

Many far-right politicians were happy to showcase their ties to Putin before the war, including Marine Le Pen, here in 2017

Like many of Europe's far-right political parties, members of Germany's far-right party AfD have maintained close ties with Russia in recent years. Following the invasion of Ukraine, however, the party struggled to adopt a single position.

Former co-leader of Germany's Left Party, Sahra Wagenknecht, was also renowned for trying to justify Putin's actions: "Maybe we should just take Russia seriously and respect that it has security interests," she said for instance on a talk show in February, days before the invasion of Ukraine. 

English-language writers use it

Before the term obtained its Wikipedia entry, and before Russia's current war on Ukraine, the word "Putinversteher" was already used in various English-language articles.

In a January 2021 article published on Riddle — a political analysis website that focuses on Russia — political scientist and historian Dmitiri Stratievski looked into whether Armin Laschet, who served as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (Chancellor Merkel's center-right party), should be seen as a "Merkelian Putinversteher" for his support of Germany's reliance on Russian gas.

Paul Gregory, a professor of Economics at Houston University who has a blog on Forbes, used the term in the title of an article in April 2014: "Empathizing With The Devil: How Germany's Putin-Verstehers Shield Russia." It details how a number of top-level German politicians have sided with Russia despite its government's poor human rights record and the annexation of Crimea.

Gregory cites former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who led the country from 1998 to 2005, as one of the most "egregious Putinverstehers."

Schröder and Putin embrace in a large painting hung at Berlin's East Side Gallery

An unknown artist hung a painting of Schröder hugging Putin at Berlin's East Side Gallery on April 2

Schröder, who masterminded the Nord Stream gas pipeline project together with Putin while he was still chancellor, later became head of the supervisory board at the Russian state energy company, Rosneft.

He is considered to be a personal friend of the Russian president.

Even as Russia invaded Ukraine, Schröder refrained from making comments that could incriminate the Russian regime, so much so that all employees in his office resigned.

In mid-March, Schröder even flew to Moscow and spoke with the Russian president in person.

But as new atrocities in the war in Ukraine are reported daily — such as reports of targeted killings of citizens and mass graves in Bucha — calls to sanction Schröder himself have been growing in Germany, and the arguments typically used by "Putinversteher" have definitely lost their credibility.

Germany outlaws use of letter 'Z' in support of war of aggression

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

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