The only reason my German grandfather survived as a Russian prisoner of war was that he had a beautiful singing voice. He had been drafted into the Volkssturm militia in 1944, during the final phase of the war in which the Nazi party recruited most able-bodied males into the armed forces, regardless of their age. The Russians captured him during the Siege of Breslau and he was taken to a labor camp, where he was forced to work as a logger.
There was barely anything to eat and he said the men died like flies. Every now and then, the camp cook would serve my grandfather an extra portion of the water gruel or an additional bit of bread because he had such a nice voice. At night, when he would sing his songs by the fire, the Russians would sit there as well, passing round the vodka bottle, and his voice would literally bring tears to their eyes — or at least that’s the version of events passed down in the family.
Right up to this day, Germans and Russians maintain a special relationship. There is no other country and no other people with which Germans’ relations are as emotional and as contradictory. The connection reaches deep into German family history, shaped by two world wars and the 40-year existence of East Germany. German families still share stories of cruel, but also kindhearted and soulful Russians. We disdain the Russians’ primitiveness, while treasuring their culture and the Russian soul.
‘Tug-of-War’ of Emotions
Our relationship to the Russians is as ambivalent as our perception of their character. “When it comes to the relations between the Germans and Russians, there is a tug-of-war between profound affection and total aversion,” says German novelist Ingo Schulze, author of the critically acclaimed “Simple Stories,” a novel that deals with East German identity and German reunification. Russians are sometimes perceived as Ivan the Terrible, as foreign entities, as Asians. Russians scare us, but we also see them as hospitable people. They have an enormous territory, a deep soul and culture — their country is the country of Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy.
It’s thus no wonder that the debate about Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis is more polarizing than any other issue in current German politics. For Germany, the Ukraine crisis is not some distant problem like Syria or Iraq — it goes right to the core of the question of German identity. Where do we stand when it comes to Russia? And, relatedly: Who are we as Germans? With the threat of a new East-West conflict, this question has regained prominence in Germany and may ultimately force us to reposition ourselves or, at the very least, reaffirm our position in the West.
In recent weeks, an intense and polemical debate has been waged between those tending to sympathize with Russia and those championing a harder line against Moscow. The positions have been extreme, with one controversy breaking out after the other. The louder the voices on the one side are in condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the louder those become in arguing for a deeper understanding of a humbled and embattled Russia; as the number of voices pillorying Russia for violating international law in Crimea grows, so do those of Germans raising allegations against the West.
One of the main charges is that the European Union and NATO snubbed Moscow with their recent eastward expansion. Everyone seems to be getting into the debate — politicians, writers, former chancellors and scientists. Readers, listeners and viewers are sending letters to the editor, posting on Internet forums or calling in to radio or television shows with their opinions.
“Most Germans want to understand Russia’s side of things,” says Jörg Baberowski, a prominent professor of Eastern European history at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Historian Stefan Plaggenborg of the Ruhr University in Bochum has described the sentimental relationship between Germans and Russians as “doting love.” But how is it that this connection still exists after two world wars?
Perhaps a man who grew up in East Germany can explain what links Germans and Russians: Thomas Brussig, a novelist from the former East Berlin, says he first got to know Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union when he visited during a book tour. During his stay, he recalls being constantly asked which Russian writers influenced him. Brussig didn’t give the obvious answers — Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. He instead named a third-rate Soviet writer, Arkady Gaidar. “I did it to exact a bit of revenge and to remind them what imperialists they had been,” he says.
Brussig says he has no special attachment to the Russians. He says the only Russian figure he actually views positively is Gorbachev. It was “his vision of a Common European Home that cleared the way for the demolition of the Soviet Union.” It was a dream of a Europe without dividing lines. “We shouldn’t act as though the border to Asia starts where Lithuania ends,” says Brussig. “Europe reaches all the way into the Ural Mountains.”
Romanticism and War
There are some obvious explanations for the bond between Germans and Russians: economic interests, a deeply rooted anti-Americanism in both countries on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. But those are only superficial answers — dig a little deeper, and you’ll find two other explanations: Romanticism and the war.
The war explanation is inextricably linked to German guilt. As a country that committed monstrous crimes against the Russians, we sometimes feel the need to be especially generous, even in dealing with Russia’s human rights violations. As a result, many Germans feel that Berlin should temper its criticism of Russia and take a moderate position in the Ukraine crisis. It was Germany, after all, that invaded the Soviet Union, killing 25 million people with its racist war of extermination.
Hans-Henning Schröder, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs describes this as Russophilia and says it is a way of compensating for Germany’s Nazi past. Noted German historian Heinrich August Winkler fears Germans have adopted a “pathological learning process.”
The question of guilt has created a link between Germans and Russians, but the issue evaporated fairly quickly for the Russians after the war. Unlike the French, Scandinavians and Dutch, the Russians don’t tend to name and shame the Germans for crimes committed during the German occupation.
“Those who suffered the most had the least hate for the Germans,” says Baberowski, as if the issue of German guilt evaporated in the first frenzy of revenge at the end of the war. He believes it dissipated, at the very latest, after the return of the last prisoners of war to Germany. “The Russians told stories that would make your blood freeze in your veins, but they were never accusatory towards us,” says Schulze, who spent several months in St. Petersburg during the 1990s.
Despite the fact that German politicians exploited fears of Russia for many years in the postwar period, the war still connects Germans with Russians today. Our relationship is characterized by the “intimacy of a relationship that arose out of two wars,” says Herfried Münkler, a professor of political theory at Humboldt University. He describes the war as an experience shared by both Germans and Russians. He argues that conflict creates a stronger community dynamic than peace — and that, as a result of the war, Germans learned another thing: to never again attack Russia.
Then, of course, there are Germans’ romantic ideas about Russia. The country has always been idealized by Germans. No other country was as thrilled as Germany when glasnost and perestroika ushered in the de-escalation of the East-West conflict. Finally, they felt, it was acceptable for them to love Russia again. In Gorbachev, the good Russian had returned and the Germans saw no reason to continue living in fear of Russia.
Documentary programs about the remote reaches of Siberia and the banks of the Volga River attracted large viewership numbers. In the preceding decades, works by German-language authors like Heinz Konsalik — whose book “The Doctor of Stalingrad,” dealt with German prisoners of war — and Johannes Simmel — whose novels delved into Cold War themes — had been best-sellers.
“The east is a place of longing for the Germans,” says Münkler. The expanse and seeming infinity of Russian space has always been the subject of a German obsession for a simpler life, closer to nature and liberated from the constraints of civilization. The millions of Germans that were expelled from Eastern Europe and forced to move to the West after 1945 fostered that feeling. To them, it represented unspoiled nature and their lost homeland.
A Tradition of Anti-Western Sentiment
The flipside to Germany’s longing for Russia is its desire to differentiate itself from the West. Fundamental opposition to the West’s putative superficiality is seen as being part of the Russian soul: The perceived busyness and money-grubbing ways of the Western man stand in contrast to the East’s supposed depth of emotion and spirituality. “When something is romanticized, there is always an antidemocratic streak,” says Baberowski. It privileges harmony over conflict, unity over confrontation.
This tradition of anti-Western thinking has a long tradition in Germany. In “Reflections of an Unpolitical Man,” written during the First World War, Thomas Mann sought to strongly differentiate Germany from the West, even citing Dostoyevsky in the process. “Being German,” Mann wrote, “means culture, soul, freedom, art and not civilization, society, the right to vote, literature.” Mann later revised his views, but the essay remains a document for those seeking to locate Germany’s position between East and West.
Winkler points to a battle between the era’s German intellectuals, which pitted the “Ideas of 1914” — propagated by Johann Plenge, and emphasizing the “German values” of duty, discipline, law and order, ideas that would later influence National Socialism — against those of liberté, égalité, fraternité — which were adopted in 1789 during the French Revolution.
When West Germany became politically part of the West after 1945, the Eastern way of thinking was pushed to the wayside. But Russia remained a country of longing for the East Germans. Münkler believes that the longing for Russia is also a symbol of “what we used to think but are no longer supposed to think.”
A Special Role for Germany?
Henrich August Winkler argues that Germany has now arrived at the end of a “long journey to the West.” But with the Ukraine crisis and the threat of a revival of the East-West conflict, that arrival now seems less final. Suddenly old questions about a special role for Germany have resurfaced. Of course, no one would throw our membership in the EU or NATO into question, but Germany’s special ties to Russia — which differentiate it from other Western European countries — have a justifiable effect on our politics.
“The ideology of taking the position in the middle has exhausted itself,” Winkler told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper in a 2011 interview. That was easy to say at a time when the East-West rivalry seemed to have disappeared. Nowadays, that’s no longer the case.
If the EU manages to speak with a single voice, it remains possible that the West will be able to achieve something close to a consensus position. But if the conflict with Russia escalates and decisions have to be made about economic sanctions or the stationing of troops, the situation could get very tricky for Germany. It may also force Germans to confront the crucial question of where they stand in their relationship with Russia. It would be a tough question for Germans to dodge, given Germany’s current — voluntary or not — de facto leadership role in Europe.
In the Ukraine crisis, the stakes for Germany are higher than for perhaps any other country in Europe. So far, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have managed, with difficulty, to maintain a unified position, but cracks are already showing. Leaders of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which implemented Ostpolitik policies of detente with the East under Chancellor Willy Brandt, are far less inclined to assume the role of adversary to Russia than Merkel’s conservatives. The Social Democrats have now adopted the same strategy with Putin’s authoritarian regime as they did in the 1970s, when they sought a better understanding of the Communists. Their approach — to seek a better understanding of Russia’s positions — has been a successful political model for the party.
Germans Divided over Affiliation with West
Still, a divide is growing between the political elite and those in Germany who are sympathetic towards Russia. A recent survey conducted by pollster Infratest dimap showed that almost half of all Germans want the country to adopt the middle ground between Russia and the West. In the states that belonged to the former East Germany, twice as many people as in western German states believe that Germany should adopt a special role. But even in the western states, there is only a narrow majority which believes Germany should stand firmly on the side of NATO and the EU in the conflict with Russia. It’s fair to say that when it comes to the question of its affiliation with the West, Germany is a divided land.
Old anti-American sentiments, intensified by the NSA spying scandal, could very well be playing a role, along with fear of an escalation in the conflict with Russia. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that the majority of Germans want to revive the former East-West order.
As a child in West Germany, I personally feared the Russians. I couldn’t sleep at night because we had, technically at least, only reached a cease-fire agreement with the Soviet Union and it sounded like the shooting would resume again after a short pause. Fortunately, there was a lot of singing in my family. Perhaps it had to do my grandfather. Maybe they wanted to provide us with an important tool for survival later in life — just in case the Russians came. In any case, my grandfather, who had sung for years for his very survival, never spared a nasty word about the Russians.
This essay was published in “Der Spiegel” on April 9th, 2014, under the title “How Western Is Germany? Russia Crisis Spurs Identity Conflict”.
If we are offering it to our readers in a moment in which Germany is entering a phase in which crucial choices will have to be made, it is because – in very simple and clear words – this masterpiece of journalism sheds a long overdue light on same permanent features of German society. And because in no way the subsequent oscillating somersaults of German politicians and the frequently contradictoryabout-faces of the Chancellor Merkel can affect its enduring validity.