handelsblatt explains

Why Germans are so ambivalent about Russia

Leonid Brezhnev (left) and Erich Honecker (right) engage in a "Fraternal Kiss" at Berlin's East Side Gallery. Source: DPA/Lou Avers

The longest sea-floor pipeline in the world runs through the Baltic from Russia to Germany. Russian gas has been flowing through Nord Stream 1 since 2012, and in a few years a twin, Nord Stream 2, will double its capacity. Everything about it is controversial. Poles and Balts hate it, because the pipeline, by circumventing them, threatens their energy security and could leave them open to Russian blackmail. America distrusts it and will probably include it in a new round of sanctions to punish Russia. In Germany the controversy is personal: The chairman of Nord Stream’s board is Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor and bosom buddy of Vladimir Putin.

In a more symbolical sense, Nord Stream thus represents an umbilical cord that connects, often awkwardly, two nations that have one of the most tangled, tragic and consequential bilateral relationships in the world. Russians and Germans share an ambivalence toward one another – between attraction and repulsion, fear and embrace, conflict and harmony – that goes back centuries.

25 Nord Stream Pipeline-01

During the 19th century, almost half of the army officers in Czarist Russia were of German descent, and this elite stood by Germany against Napoleonic France. As the German historian Heinrich August Winkler has shown, Germany’s elite was also Russophile. Intellectuals such as Thomas Mann dabbled in vague notions about affinities between the Russian and German “souls,” implying that they are culturally deeper than the rationalist civilizations of “the West.”

That changed under Adolf Hitler. Nazi Germany viewed Eastern Europe and Russia as racially inferior, as “living space” (Lebensraum) to be conquered and colonized for Aryans. The Germans killed tens of millions in the east. Other Germans, especially now-elderly women, carry with them the trauma of mass rapes by the Soviet soldiers as they swept westward to destroy Nazi Germany.

Beginning in 1949, Germany split in its views of Russia. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer “bound” the new West Germany into the West, to America within NATO and to France and other neighbors through European integration. The Soviet Union became an existential threat to be deterred. East Germans, meanwhile, were under Soviet influence and, while not free, became friendly with their Russian overlords over the coming decades in what has been called a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Relations changed permanently once the first Social Democrat became chancellor of West Germany in 1969. Willy Brandt began the German tradition of Ostpolitik (“eastern policy”), based on “change through rapprochement,” or what later became the better-rhyming Wandel durch Handel – “change through trade.” To this day, many Germans, and especially Social Democrats, credit this opening toward Russia, more than America’s deterrence and superior might, with ending the Cold War.

Mr. Schröder and Mr. Putin became pals, united by a macho style of leadership that made for good bonding in the sauna.

When Mr. Schröder, also a Social Democrat, became chancellor in 1998, he picked up on this tradition of Ostpolitik. Germany and Russia deepened their commercial ties, pro-Russian business lobbies in Germany became powerful, and various German-Russian forums – above all the so-called Petersburg Dialogue – brought Germans and Russians into regular contact. Mr. Schröder and Mr. Putin became pals, united by a macho style of leadership that made for good bonding in the sauna. Soon after losing the chancellery to Ms. Merkel, Mr. Schröder was made chairman of Nord Stream, which is majority-owned by Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant.

Ever since, Mr. Schröder has remained a reliable apologist for Mr. Putin, even when the Russian president annexes Crimea, stirs up trouble in Ukraine or supports the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. A loaded, and often ironic, German word for people like Mr. Schröder is Russlandversteher: “those who understand Russia.” From the extreme left to the hard right, Germany has lots of them. They often combine varying degrees of anti-Americanism with a belief that Russia in recent years has only been reacting to years of NATO provocation.

Ms. Merkel represents Germans who are not Russlandversteher but view Russia warily. She grew up in East Germany and speaks fluent Russian – just as Mr. Putin, who used to be a KGB agent in East Germany, speaks good German. But instead of Mr. Schröder’s back-slapping cordiality, an icy mutual respect reigns between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin. It is she, more than any other Western leader, who has kept him in line since his invasion of Ukraine.

A German national herself, Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia from 1762 until 1796 and her rule marked the beginning of the history of Russian-Germans. Source: Wikimedia
Stalin supervising the signing of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. One week later, the Second World War began with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. Source: DPA
A picture taken in June 1942 during World War II shows Soviet prisoners of war captured by Nazi tanks in the south of Ukraine walking to a concentration camp. Source: AFP PHOTO / FRANCE PRESSE VOIR
A Red Army soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, 1945. Source: picture alliance/CPA Media
Soviet party chairman Leonid Brezhnev points towards the shore explaining a sight to visiting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt during a boat ride on the Black Sea, off the coast of Crimea, Russia, September 1971. On the right is West German State Secretary Egon Bahr. Source: AP Photo/Fritz Reiss
"Tear down this wall!" is the famous line from the speech made by US President Ronald Reagan in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, calling for the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to open up the barrier which had divided West and East Berlin since 1961. Source: Wikimedia
Best buddies: Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in St. Petersburg on October 7, 2005, ahead of Putin's 53rd birthday celebrations. Sourc: REUTERS/ITAR-TASS
Vladimir Putin's pet dog Koney walks in the room, where the Russian President is talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their meeting at his residence in Sochi in 2007. Putin claims he was not aware of her aversion to dogs. Sourc: EPA/DMITRY ASTAKHOV PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/ITAR-TASS

As Mr. Putin continues to crack down on free expression, the media, homosexuals and other minorities in Russia, German public opinion appears to be shifting against Russia. A survey last year by the Körber Foundation, a German think tank, found that while 60 percent of Russians see similarities between Russian and German values, only 11 percent of Germans do. But the differences between eastern and western Germans remain. In the same poll, more than half of westerners, but only about one third of easterners, regard Russia as a threat.

Following a high-profile but failed attempt by Russian propaganda to spread fake news in Germany last year and suspicions that Russia interfered in the recent American and French elections, Germans appear to be growing more vigilant about Russian disinformation. At the same time, Donald Trump in the White House is also a gift to those Germans who harbor anti-American prejudices. The old German habit of seeing Germany as culturally equidistant between West and East may yet return.

Ms. Merkel, it is said, is all too aware how viscerally a pipeline like Nord Stream threatens countries like Poland and the Baltic republics, which are still traumatized by the memory of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 that spelled their doom. And yet, the lobbies and sentiment in support of Nord Stream are so strong in Germany that even Ms. Merkel cannot, or will not, stop it. Germany and Russia seem doomed to stay connected in ambivalence.

Daniel Tost is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: tost@handelsblatt.com

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