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SPD and 'Putin sympathizers'

Kerstin Knitt / db
November 25, 2014

Some of Germany's Social Democrats have shown understanding with Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis. These members of the SPD party are only carrying on a long-time tradition of rapprochement.

Gerhard Schröder und Wladimir Putin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The annexation of Crimea must be retroactively arranged under international law so that it's acceptable for everyone," former Brandenburg State Premier Matthias Platzeck, a Social Democrat, recently said in an interview.

Politicians from other parties were indignant, his own party surprised at the remark.

They saw Platzeck's statement as a demand to legalize the Russian annexation of the peninsula. In a TV talk show, Platzeck, chairman of the German-Russian Forum business lobby, later tried to explain, calling it a misunderstanding. "I tried to formulate an issue in one sentence," he said. "I've said it slightly differently a dozen times before, and again a dozen times afterwards. This sentence was too compacted, it's misleading."

Matthias Platzek
Matthias Platzek said his words had been misunderstoodImage: Imago/Olaf Wagner

Apparently satisfied with his explanation, the audience applauded. Perhaps the people agreed with Platzeck's plea to pursue a more matter-of-fact approach despite resentment over Russia's annexation. That's how the "Frankfurter Rundschau" daily interpreted the incident, entitling an editorial comment "Russia sympathizers have the authority."

The caption reflects the presumption that many Germans understand the Russian position, at least partially. In that case, the country's Social Democrats, for one, stand for a prevalent way of thinking in Germany.

Embrace in St. Petersburg

President Vladimir Putin's approach to the Crimean issue is "completely understandable," former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt declared earlier this year. Gerhard Schröder, also a former German chancellor, has declined to publicly comment on his personal friend Putin's politics.

Schröder said he always seeks to understand Russia, its people and its political leadership. "I'm not ashamed of that. On the contrary, I am proud of it," he said in October, just months after celebrating his 70th birthday with Putin in St. Petersburg. Photos showing the two men embracing led to a fierce debate. Social Democratic politician Egon Bahr welcomed the gesture. "We should be pleased about his belated 70th birthday party with Putin," said Bahr, who, along with then Chancellor Willy Brandt, gave Germany's ties with the former East Bloc a new beginning in 1969.

100 Jahre Willy Brandt Egon Bahr
Egon Bahr und Willy Brandt tried "change through rapprochement"Image: picture-alliance/Klaus Rose

Like many other leading - or formerly leading - Social Democrats, Platzeck and Schröder are members of the "W" generation, that is, the generation of Willy Brandt; politically, Platzeck and Schröder grew up with Brandt and Bahr's so-called "Ostpolitik," or "East politics," which gave West Germany a new direction: "change through rapprochement." They were convinced that it is imperative to speak to representatives of other states, in particular if you don't agree with their politics.

In the late 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, that was true in particular for the Soviet Union. Brandt and Bahr offered an alternative to Konrad Adenauer's Ostpolitik.

Adenauer, West Germany's chancellor until 1963, suspected the USSR of nurturing plans of "global dominance."

'Stronghold of cruelty and savagery'

But Brandt and Bahr also distanced themselves from earlier positions articulated in the party. August Bebel (1840-1913), one of the founders of the German Social Democrat (SPD) movement, described in 1891 the then czaristic Russia as "stronghold of cruelty and savagery" and the "enemy of all human culture." With those words, he described an opinion that was prevalent for a long time in the SPD.

Members of the Social Democrats weren't the only group of people to think this way. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, historian Peter Brandt wrote that this kind of sentiment "dominated in all of society - from the conservatives to the Social Democrats and not least the Christian churches - an expression of self preservation against the 'chaos' and 'terror.'" Bolshevism at the time was equated with political barbarity.

Roter Oktober - Russland Okotberrevolution
"Chaos and terror:" the October RevolutionImage: picture-alliance/akg

Dissidents of 'Generation W'

Brandt and Bahr tried to tackle this way of thinking. Their positions made a lasting impression on today's Social Democrat politicians, albeit not all of them. Wolfgang Clement, who under Gerhard Schröder was the Federal Minister of Economics from 2002 to 2005, has a differentiated opinion of Putin. The "Tagesspiegel" newspaper describes his stance as follows: "There are two Putins: The one who is open to and admires the West and who wants to be part of that community. And there is a kind of Putin II, and this Putin, according to Clement, is possibly no longer responsive to Western arguments. Because of his power politics."

Clement is not alone with this assessment. "To grossly generalize: younger politicians have less understanding for Russia than their predecessors," writes the newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung." So there are more "Russia sympathizers" among the Social Democrats than in any other party. But that doesn't mean that every SPD politician is ready to sympathize with Putin. At least not if "sympathizing with" means blindly accepting his Ukraine politics.

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