Hostages to history

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced Germany to reconsider the penance it has paid to its past – and, unwittingly, to Putin

Screenshot 2022-05-06 at 09.23.00

The past preys on Germany’s present. It guided the country’s lamentably indulgent approach to Vladimir Putin. It weighs heavily on its belated – but stunning – change of course. It ensures that the country always has to try harder than others.

In his recent video speech to the Bundestag, the latest of his many addresses from his military HQ in Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had German MPs almost in tears as he upbraided past governments for getting Russia wrong. 

Germany, he said, had put “business, business, business” above all else. Invoking the Berlin blockade and American-led airlift of the late 1940s, and the 30 years of the wall dividing the city, Zelenskyy said Germans would be “ashamed” if they didn’t do more alleviate the plight of Ukrainians by ensuring that Nato impose a no-fly zone. 

A new wall was rising in the heart of Europe, he told them, between “freedom and lack of freedom”. This wall, he said, “is only getting bigger with every bomb that lands on Ukraine and with every decision that is not taken”. Invoking President Reagan’s famous exhortation to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, Zelenskyy declared: “That is what I want to say to you, dear Chancellor Scholz: tear down this wall. Show yourself to be the leader Germany deserves, so that your descendants will be proud of you.”

Zelenskyy then did what very few world leaders do. He invoked the Second World War, not to praise Germany, but to chastise it for learning the wrong lessons. “What is the historical responsibility worth if you still don’t regret what happened 80 years ago?” As he spoke, the interpreter’s voice appeared to crack.

To what extent was Zelenskyy correct in his analysis? To what extent was he resorting to a time-old reflex among many to use
Germany as the whipping boy for much that is wrong in the world?

After all, merely two weeks earlier, Chancellor Olaf Scholz had performed one of the most spectacular geostrategic U-turns of
recent history, turning every facet of his country’s foreign and security policy, of its energy and economic policy, on its head. 

Scholz’s promises were staggering: a €100 billion fund to upgrade the armed forces; a commitment, finally, to meet the Nato target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence; an upgrade of fighter bombers; a commitment to sharing the nuclear burden with the United States; and the sending of combat weapons directly to Ukraine. These followed an agreement to close off most bank transfers to Russia and to halt the once-sacrosanct Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Any one of these announcements would, before February 24, before Putin’s invasion, have been deemed unconscionable. Germany was, for the first time in its history as a democracy, embracing hard power as a tool to defend democracy.

In subsequent days a series of opinion polls showed that three quarters of voters approved of the rearming, with around 15 per cent against. This is an almost exact reversal of the past. Germans have taken to the new reality with gusto, seizing oligarchs’ super-yachts, kicking out Putin-supporting music conductors, even removing Russian vodka from shelves. 

It was a stunning political coup by Scholz, barely three months into office. He had bounced pretty much everyone into what is now called the Zeitenwende, the generational change. He had kept most of his cabinet in the dark. The two top Green cabinet members, economics minister (and vice-chancellor) Robert Habeck and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, had been told the bare bones. Only the finance minister and leader of the liberal Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, had been consulted on the money to be spent, and only on the night before. 

The transformation has gone far deeper than Scholz’s specific policy announcements. It has challenged pretty much everything German citizens were brought up to believe in: that peace was their country’s highest calling, and that no price was worth paying if it came to war. 

Germans’ coming to terms with the past – or, to use the compound noun, Vergangen-heitsbewältigung – has been part of their identity. It also became a badge of pride that clouded their judgement. On Russia – and possibly on China, too – they followed two mistaken mantras. The more well-meaning one: “We are so terrible, we couldn’t trust ourselves in the field of battle ever again”. And the less endearing variant: “We, unlike you [Americans, Brits, whoever], have got over war. We are better than that.” 

Germans have been fastidious about building a democracy that is second to none, both in architecture as in practice. Yet the very idea of fighting to maintain it has been anathema. Russia was a particular blind spot. In a speech in June 2021, Germany’s President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, invoked Germany’s “monstrous, criminal war of aggression and annihilation” against the Soviet Union, apologising repeatedly for the death of 27 million of its citizens. 

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, he declared: “Only those who learn to understand the traces of the past in the present will be equipped to help shape a future which avoids wars, rejects tyranny and makes possible peaceful co-existence in freedom.” Steinmeier, a thoughtful and popular figurehead, did what so many Germans did. He conflated his country’s war guilt to a people with a desire to accommodate its government. To put it another way, being friends with Putin was part of the penance. 

Germany wanted to think better of Russia in order to think better of itself. In practice, this led to exasperation among allies, mixed messages to the public and confusion among policy makers. 

This was personified in Angela Merkel. She, like all Western leaders, embraced Putin at the outset. They wanted to believe the best of him, even after he had invaded Georgia, poisoned opposition leaders and cracked down on dissent. 2014 should have removed any lingering delusions about his intentions. It did, but only in part. When Putin invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Merkel was at the forefront of drawing up sanctions. Yet only a year later, she signed Nord Stream 2, making Germany uniquely dependent on Russian gas. 

When opposition leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned, she sent a German plane to Siberia to bring him back for treatment and save his life. Yet she did not seek to punish the Kremlin for trying to kill him or, later, for imprisoning him. 

Commentators in Germany, who love nothing more than self-flagellation, have taken to trashing Merkel’s reputation. Her propensity to triangulate, to find the middle ground, is now being seen as an unequivocal negative. This is too simplistic. Her approach was consistent, transparent and, for much of the time, effective. And it was popular. It won her three elections and, at the time of last September’s election, many Germans – including those who did not vote for her Christian Democrats – lamented her departure. Indeed, many wondered how their country could cope without her.

In one respect, it is doing just fine. The enigmatic Scholz has defied his many detractors and is growing into a surprisingly impressive leader. In other ways, Germans are more fearful now than they have been for decades. They worry about the possibility of nuclear or chemical warfare. They worry about the spread of conventional conflict. They are disorientated by everything that has happened. They ask whether they can keep the lights on.

The stats demonstrate the country’s vulnerability. Germany gets 55 per cent of its natural gas, 52 per cent of its coal products and 34 per cent of its oil from Russia. They are looking far and wide for ways of diversifying their energy needs. Everything is now up for grabs. Habeck made clear Germany must rapidly accelerate solar and wind alternatives. He admitted he was prepared to think again on plans to speed up the exit from coal, even to rethink the country’s exit from nuclear power. Energy security now trumps environmental targets – even for the Greens. 

Pressure is growing to cut all energy links with Russia. The Americans have done it, but they bought less than 10 per cent of their oil from there. Ministers have warned that an immediate boycott of oil and gas would hurt Germany more than it would Russia, bringing mass unemployment and poverty. For the moment, Germany’s hands are tied. It is trying to buy time.

Yet every day that Germany (or, indeed, any other country) buys oil or gas from Russians means hundreds of millions of dollars for Putin’s war machine. “We are step-by-step in the process of making ourselves independent,” Habeck told MPs. “But we can’t do it in an instant. That is a bitter pill to swallow. It is not a pleasant thing morally to confess to, but we cannot do it yet.”

This is but one of many moral blows to Germany’s sense of self. There are tougher times to come. The crunch will not come immediately. But it will come later in the year, as autumn and winter set in. Germans are quickly learning to live
in a colder, darker, more perplexing world. They know the old assumptions are shot. 

6th May 2022