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Germany has to wake up to Russia

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Jens Thurau
February 24, 2022

Germans are in shock. Few people really thought that an invasion of Ukraine was possible — perhaps because of the historical relationship between Germany and Russia, DW's Jens Thurau writes.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a wreath-laying ceremony standing opposite two Russian soldiers
Germany and Russia have a fraught historyImage: Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS

I'll start with a brief excursion into the long-distant past. It was 1983 when I arrived in Berlin, when the city was still divided by a wall. I was studying political science, and one of the courses on offer was "Critical Solidarity With the SU" — that is, the Soviet Union. Seriously? Wasn't the Berlin Wall a clear illustration of how ruthless Russian, or rather Soviet, policy was?

But I quickly learned that, for many on the left in Germany, Moscow was not the enemy. Washington was: After all, many terrible wars — for example, in Vietnam and Latin America — had been waged by the United States. Less seemed to be known about the Soviet Union. Except that the Red Army had liberated Auschwitz. In any case, there were very different perceptions of aggressive behavior, depending on whether it came from the east or the west. 

DW's Jens Thurau
DW's Jens Thurau

Detente above all

Detente was one of the prevailing maxims of West German policy. Egon Bahr, a minister under Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt, had coined the phrase "change through rapprochement." Don't get me wrong: It was right to promote dialogue with the former enemy in the east and to make deals. It was above all good in order to help improve the situation of Germans east of the Iron Curtain, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Though it was initially heavily opposed by conservatives, the approach achieved a great deal and was later pursued by Brandt's successors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. But when, in the early 1980s, Chancellor Schmidt stood behind NATO's Double-Track Decision, an offer of further mutual arms control negotiations with the Warsaw Pact while at the same time deploying more medium-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe, he lost the support of his Social Democratic Party.

The peace movement, which at the time was strong and particularly popular among young people in West Germany, put up a major fight against the decision. Protests culminated in the slogan "Raus aus der NATO, rein ins Vergnügen," which can loosely be translated as "Out of NATO, into fun." There was much less noise about the potential threat posed by Moscow.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (R) and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev (C) at a meeting in the Caucasus
Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev (middle) was celebrated in the wake of German reunification Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Gorbachev: Germany's darling

Later, in the wake of German Reunification, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev became the darling of the Germans. There was far less applause for US President George H.W. Bush, the first leader of a victorious ally to approve German unity. By the mid-1990s, all of the Russian troops on German territory had left without fanfare.

With a united Germany in the middle, Europe celebrated victory and the end of the Cold War. NATO and the EU expanded eastwards without giving much thought to the reactions this would trigger in Moscow. The hope was that a market economy and democracy would do the trick — that was the spirit of the times. Indeed, after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 and liberation from Moscow, Central and Eastern Europe wanted nothing more than to belong to the rich West.  That was — and remains — their right. 

In 2002, Gerhard Schröder, to this day a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was somewhat surprisingly re-elected chancellor despite initially poor poll ratings. He had run on one issue in particular: No to German participation in a US-led invasion of Iraq. It turned out that lies had been used to justify the attack, but it is hard to imagine that a clear position against similar Russian military action would have had such an impact on a German election.

German Chancellor Willy Brandt with Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin in 1970
German Chancellor Willy Brandt's (left) so-called Ostpolitik helped to improve ties with the Soviet Union Image: AP

Nord Stream 2: A private sector project

This millennium, Germany has essentially struck to its strategy towards Moscow, which dates back to the era of detente: It has insisted on negotiations where possible and also on business deals. In recent years, the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline has been the subject of fierce criticism, not only in the US but in other parts of Europe. Yet, German politicians were reluctant to let go of the project despite warnings to not become dependent on Russian gas.

For a long time, Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed all criticism by pointing out that the pipeline was a "purely private sector project." Her successor Olaf Scholz adopted the same formulation last December. In 2013, the wiretapping activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) were the subject of debate in Germany for weeks. Rightly so. After all, even Merkel's phone had been tapped. Moscow's hybrid warfare, its disinformation campaigns, and political assassinations by Russian intelligence services in the West did not upset Germans nearly as much.

Germany halts Nord Stream 2

'Putin's war'

This can probably put down to a combination of indifference and fear. There is a feeling that Russia is too close to Germany to mess with. But Germany has to change its approach and will now be forced to in a terrible way. At least the government seems to have understood. For the moment, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project has been halted. Chancellor Scholz has condemned "Putin's war," which is what this is. He has spoken of a dark day for Ukraine. For all of Europe. This is not all happening a long way away. This will affect us to the core.

In view of the many million dead Soviet soldiers and civilians in World War II, Germany remains indebted to Russia. More precisely, to the Russian people. But it is not indebted to the country's leader, who has taken leave of his senses and is apparently dreaming of a Europe dominated by Russia. The West must now stand with Ukraine, against its aggressor. Vladimir Putin is nothing else.

This opinion piece was originally written in German. 

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau