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Ben KnightMarch 27, 2014

Germany's tradition of Ostpolitik seems to make it an ideal mediator in the Crimean crisis, but Berlin has grown disillusioned with the concept. And domestically Germans have a very different view of Putin's annexation.

Merkel Putin Berlin Reichstag
Image: Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty Images

The Crimean crisis has sparked many articles drawing historical parallels - and just as many warning against them. The weight of the centenary of the beginning of World War I seems to have engendered this historical perspective, implying the subliminal fear: "Is Europe about to come full circle?"

Yet at the same time, the most common comparison being made in the West are often with the beginning of World War II. Hillary Clinton has been roundly criticized by foreign policy analysts and historians for comparing Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea with Adolf Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland in the 1930s, if only because, as Kathryn Stoner, Russia expert at Stanford University, told AP, "I don't think it's helpful on either side to say things like this."

That's because drawing simplistic comparisons is not the same as learning from history. In an article for Der Spiegel, Australian historian Christopher Clark compared the current stand-off between Putin and the West with a number of previous crises - including the run-up to World War I, the Crimean War of 1853, the Russian annexation of the eastern Ukraine after 1654, and even the English Civil War in the 1640s - and found similarities, and salient differences, in each.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier und Sergei Wiktorowitsch Lawrow
Steinmeier has taken a much more critical line on Russia since his second tenure beganImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Not sleepwalking

But Clark went on to make a more important point: even if the historical parallels are flawed, for the moment all sides seem to have drawn some useful lessons from history - perhaps even from his own book The Sleepwalkers. Published last year, this new history of the crisis that led to World War I described how the European powers trapped themselves in an escalating spiral in the summer of 1914. Clark noted approvingly in Der Spiegel, meanwhile, that the major players - European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, US President Barack Obama, and even Putin himself - have been careful to keep a diplomatic exit open.

Clark reserved particular praise for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier for conceding that, as Clark puts it, he "had been too quick during the early days of the crisis to engage with the Ukrainian opposition and too slow to take account of the larger geopolitical issues that are entangled with the crisis." In other words, despite everything, Germany has been trying its best to keep in mind Putin's point-of-view - that Crimea represents one of Russia's most vital security interests.

Brought up on Ostpolitik

Part of the reason for this more cautious take could be Germany's tradition of Ostpolitik, the strategy of rapprochement employed by Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s. The idea has since become so central to Brandt's Social Democratic Party it is what Liana Fix, of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), calls "part of its ideology." As Bettina Vestring points out in a DGAP blog-post, Steinmeier himself, now in his second stint as foreign minister, grew up with Ostpolitik.

To some extent, this has also spread to Germany's general public, who are instinctively sympathetic to Russia - one poll found that 54 percent of Germans think that the West should simply accept Putin's annexation of the Crimea. "I'm not quite sure where this comes from," said Fix. "There is an element of anti-Americanism, a reaction to Iraq, the NSA, and all these things. But there is also a feeling that Germany is in between and that we have to be the mediator."

At the same time, Steinmeier's pronouncements during recent visits to the Baltic states show that he is becoming disillusioned with Ostpolitik. There is a sense that, over the past few years Putin has simply grown incorrigible. "He is disillusioned, yes," Fix told DW. "I would say he's still the one who tries very hard to keep Putin on board. It was Merkel who wanted to exclude Russia from the G8 for the time being, which he vehemently fought."

Sabine Fischer, head of the Eastern Europe department of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), agrees: "We've seen it really clearly, and not just since the Crimean crisis," she told DW. "Even when Steinmeier took office in December we saw him strike a significantly more critical note about Russia than in his first tenure as foreign minister."

18.03.2014 DW Kultur.21 August 1914 Literatur und Krieg
European powers sleep-walked into catastrophe in 1914, says ClarkImage: DLA Marbach

A matter of perspective

This results in a strange double-view of Germany's handling of the Crimean crisis. Western commentators, especially liberal ones like the Guardian's Simon Jenkins, have been applauding Merkel's empathy for Putin, contrasting it with the saber-rattling of the US and the UK: "In contrast to the posturing and empty rhetoric in London and Washington is the calm voice of Germany's Angela Merkel," he wrote.

But as Fix points out, there is a contrary view in Germany: "In a European Union context Merkel is seen as being too cautious, especially by Poland and other partners, whereas in Germany Merkel is seen as being almost hawkish."

Earlier this month, Germany's Left party leader Gregor Gysi delivered a blistering condemnation of the chancellor in the Bundestag. "Obama spoke, like you, Mrs Chancellor, of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, but these two principles were violated in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya," he said. "The West thought it could violate international law because the Cold War was over, but it grossly underestimated Chinese and Russian interests."

Gysi also had sharp words for the EU (and by extension Merkel), which, he said, contributed to the crisis in the first place: "Then there was the tug-of-war between the EU and Russia, with Ukraine in the middle. Both thought and acted the same. Barroso said Ukraine could EITHER have a customs union with Russia, OR contracts with us. He didn't say both. And Putin said EITHER contracts with the EU, OR with us. That was a devastating mistake on both sides."

Put like this, the current military escalation does sound a lot like the sleepwalking of July 1914 - Ostpolitik or no Ostpolitik.