The Battle for the German Soul

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Nya Utrikespolitiska Samfundet



Die Gretchenfrage: wie hast du‘s mit der Bundeswehr; The Battle for the German Soul

Russia is a conservative country with fixed views about history. The list of Russia’s “traditional” enemies is static: Tartars, Turks, Poles, and Swedes. But nota bene neither the French nor the Germans despite bitter wars. The present Feindbild does, of course, include NATO, the perfidious British and the arrogant Americans, to say nothing of “fascists”, which are most useful as an imaginary enemy.

As to the French, there is more admiration for Napoleon than resentment. In the case of the Germans, there is a long history of proximity. After the partition of Poland, Russia and Prussia-Germany shared a border. Germans, especially the Baltic German nobility, played a central role in the Imperial army and administration. France was the largest investor, but the Germans were omnipresent in pre-revolutionary Russia. Both St. Peterburg and Moscow had large German colonies, not to mention the rural German colonies established already in the 18th Century. Despite the abrupt end brought by the beginning of The Great War, epitomized by the change of the name of the Imperial capital St. Petersburg to Petrograd, the two pariahs of Versailles found each other quickly after the war. The well-known example being, of course, the cooperation of the Red Army with the Reichswehr, which played an important role in the mobilization of both countries for war. 

The run-up to the Second World War saw a chilling episode of shared animosity towards Poland resulting from a “diabolical mutual attraction” to quote John Lough (Germany’s Russia problem; The Struggle for Balance in Europe, 2021). In Molotov’s words, Poland was a bastard of Versailles. In Soviet parlance, the new states that emerged after World War One on Russia’s western borders were lumped together as limitrophe, a term that recalls the post-1991 Russian expression of “near-abroad”. 

When Harry Truman congratulated Stalin in Potsdam on the conquest of Berlin, the Generalissimo responded that Alexander made it to Paris. As it turned out, Berlin 1945 was the last Soviet success vis-à-vis Germany. Stalin’s blockade of West-Berlin 1948-49 failed and his proposal for German unification in 1952 was rebuffed. In 1954, Molotov proposed a Conference on European Security and Cooperation. This was a Soviet attempt to prevent West German rearmament and NATO membership, but it failed and resulted in the foundation of the Warsaw Pact. The idea surfaced twenty years later in another form in a changed Europe. It was quite a gamble when President Kekkonen in 1969 re-launched this idea. The rest is history, and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 became a milestone of the Cold War.

Finally, Khruschev’s attempts to force the Western allies to accept West Berlin as a separate entity failed. The building of the Berlin Wall was an admission of defeat. His furious language of ultimatums and deadlines demanding “immediate” (nemedlenno) answers was paralleled by Putin’s irate trolling in the run-up to the Russian attack on Ukraine. Both overestimated their hand and underestimated the opposition. 

It was the gamble of nuclear missiles deployed in Cuba that finally brought Khruschev down. Loose talk about nukes, which was characteristic of Khruschev’s bluster was strictly banned in Brezhnev’s times only to resurface again with Putin. This is where the parallel with Putin becomes interesting because there is no Politburo in today’s Russia. 

The last battle for the German soul during the Cold War was the Euromissile crisis when the Soviet Union was forced to yield. The double-decision of NATO as an answer to the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles starting in 1976 was the last actual clash between a weakening Soviet Union and the West. But the real battle took place in West Germany where half a million people took to the streets opposing the deployment of American Pershings as a countermeasure to the SS-20’s. 

It was Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who had defined the threat of Soviet missiles in 1978 which, because of their limited range, carried the potential of decoupling the security of the United States and Europe. The fierce resistance in West Germany weakened Chancellor Schmidt who lost the support of his Social Democratic party and was replaced by Helmut Kohl as Federal Chancellor in 1982. Kohl stood firm as West Germans protested. Soviet propaganda had a field day when a strong peace movement took root. The next generation of leaders, Gorbachev, and Reagan signed the INF-treaty banning intermediate range missiles in 1987. 

Finland was the largest Western trading partner of the Soviet Union until the mid-1970s until West Germany overtook it after the deal of supplying high-quality large-diameter gas pipes beginning in the mid-1970s. The Federal Republic became hooked on Soviet gas, but at the same time cheap gas ensured Western Europe’s rapid economic growth. It was a win-win situation until it turned sour. The Soviet Union of Brezhnev and Gorbachev proved to be reliable partners and so did Yeltsin’s Russia, but in 2006 the flow of gas to Ukraine and via Ukraine to Europe was interrupted for political reasons with dire consequences. The spell was broken, energy was turned into a weapon. 

We all know the slogan Wandel durch Handel, which was also fully shared by Finland. But as John Lough notes “the Germans listened to the music from Moscow without hearing the tone”. Up to 2014 – Crimea and Donbas – Russia built close relations with the strongest economic power in the EU and tried to exploit its sense of obligation to Russia. 

The call to free the Leopards finally led Chancellor Olaf Scholz to drop his resistance to the delivery of the German-made tanks to Ukraine but not without ensuring that the Americans would send their Abrams tanks, too. For Germany, this linkage of tank deliveries serves again to prevent the decoupling of the United States from its European allies. Olaf Scholz is not facing an angry German street and his own party is not revolting, but to carry his party and assure the support of the German people, Scholz’ moves are deliberately cautious. But talk about avoiding further risks of escalation belies a lack of strategy. The strategy needed to assure that Ukraine does not lose the war, to use the Chancellor’s own words. 

After a year of a war called a special military operation, the Russian army has even failed to reach its goal to conquer the Donbas, to say nothing of subjugating the rest of Ukraine. The Russian propaganda effort is relentless with its obsequious talk shows and wet dreams of annihilating Western capitals. The decision to free the Leopards prompted Putin in his speech commemorating the 80th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad to vent his anger at the prospect of German tanks being deployed once again against Russia. The speech included also a veiled nuclear threat, which is not new and is repeated every night on Russian TV. But in his annual address 21 February Putin abstained from threats to use nuclear weapons. The consensus in Western capitals seems to be that the risk of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons in its failed war against Ukraine is very low. This was backed by Xi Jinping noting to Olaf Scholz in Beijing and later to Presidents Biden and Macron in Bali that nuclear blackmail is unacceptable. This position was repeated in the Chinese peace proposal for a political settlement of the “Ukraine Crisis”.

Putin’s war is carried out on many fronts. At the end of the day, Russia is also fighting to prevent Germany assuming its leadership in Europe. Wooing the far left and the far right simultaneously in Germany is not new to Moscow. This was exactly the approach used in the 1920s. After decades of economic cooperation and bromance with Russia, Germany’s role is now central in marshalling European resources and strengthening European defense against Russia. But this goes against the grain of the German instinct to avoid conflict with Russia. Ostpolitk logic still acts as a straitjacket in thinking about Russia, now an aggressor threatening not only Ukraine. Avoiding a conflict with Russia is again something the Finnish experience shares with Germany even though Finland lost a just war because we were attacked. The war in Ukraine has triggered an appeasement reflex in many Germans. 

Olaf Scholz’ cautious steps reveal the fact that grand strategy has been outsourced to the Unites States. Lack of strategic thinking explains the neglect of the Bundeswehr. To turn the ship around and implement the policies necessary to address the demands of the Zeitenwende is no small task. The Chancellor must convince his own party that he can assure it the support of the German people. But as the former Federal President Joachim Gauck notes the Chancellor must convey what his policy is. The Gretchenfrage remains – wie hast du‘s mit der Bundeswehr.

The coalitions needed to supply Ukraine with further weapon systems beyond the new redlines appearing after every delivery will not succeed without Germany. To paralyze Germany in its fear of further escalation is one of the most important goals of Russian propaganda. But there is every reason to give Olaf Scholz the benefit of the doubt. One year ago, the prospect of Germany suspending Nord Stream 2 and sending heavy artillery and tanks to Ukraine was unthinkable.