The unbearable heaviness of Teutonic regret
It's all fun and games until someone gets invaded
No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
In Ukraine, Russia is just the latest in a long history of aggressors to find itself on the losing end of this maxim, which is often attributed to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a 19th century Prussian field marshal.
War may be unpredictable, but the political crisis that spins out from it rarely is. You can almost set a clock to the consequences of conflict, or at least your news coverage. Shock and outrage are swiftly followed by official condemnation. There is public protest and, depending on the nature of the conflict, counter-protest. Then comes policy action of various degrees of efficacy and seriousness, usually in the form of emergency meetings involving important acronyms.
Once scenes of violence and devastation grind on long enough, there’s time to take a breather from the relentless pace of developments. Cue the think pieces, finger pointing and hand-wringing. From there it all gets rather exhausting, as the persistent navel-gazing can cause considerable neck strain.
This is the phase in which German Officialdom now finds itself, as it quickly moves through the classic stages of grief:
Russia is a reliable partner with too much to lose!
Unbelievable! Lindner, where’s my checkbook?
We are so done with Russian gas. Just give us, like, a year.
Wait a minute: Are we the baddies?
Verdammt! I guess this means rethinking China, too. (NB: We might not be quite there yet.)
We’re way past just beating up on Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former chancellor and everyone’s favorite Putin sidekick. Schröder’s own Social Democrats (SPD) are trying to throw him out of the party, which he led to national victory twice at the turn of the century. Those who have been close to him for decades are avoiding him like a tax deadline, and he’s apparently ignored messages from them to cease and desist.
The blame game has metastasized to engulf Germany’s entire body politic. That’s fair, because no German party or politician has a monopoly on embracing Putin’s Russia. Broadly speaking, only the motivations differ: For the socialist Left, the fealty is historical and emotional; for the SPD, it’s largely ideological — peacemongers they are; the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian buddies, the CSU, long saw Russia as good business; and the far-right AfD has profited from the Kremlin’s misinformation efforts and sowing of democratic chaos.
Only the Greens and the libertarian-leaning Free Democrats (FDP) can point to a somewhat more critical record, but that’s easier from the peanut gallery. On this point, their ascent to government now is fortuitous. But aside from wanting to nix Nord Stream 2, neither party’s policy prescriptions were much tougher or more concrete than any other’s. The FDP dithered on SWIFT sanctions. The Greens — and much of Germany’s political class — had a fit last year when then co-chief Robert Habeck came out in favor of sending “defensive weapons” to Ukraine.
You bet he walked that one back real quick.
Anyway, the only parties that really matter here are the CDU and SPD, which have dominated postwar German politics — more the former than the latter — and together formed most of Angela Merkel’s 16 years in power in a so-called Grand Coalition.
The SPD is an easy target for popular blame, given its socialist roots and Ostpolitik ties. The CDU has been happy to lean into that, trying to claim Merkel’s governments would have been harder on Putin if only their infatuated junior partner had let them. The SPD, after all, was always in charge of the foreign ministry.
There’s some truth to that, and state and national Social Democrats have done the party few favors with such high-profile Putin PDA. As recently as summer 2021, the northeastern state of — deep breath now — Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania, which is dominated by the SPD, put on its fourth Russia Day to promote longstanding commercial and cultural ties. Official sponsors included Nord Stream 2, whose gas pipeline makes landfall in the state, alongside its predecessor, Nord Stream 1.
But to suggest that Merkel’s CDU was powerless to push back against an SPD crush on Russia is to overlook the significant power imbalance their years in government together created between them, thanks largely to Merkel’s talent for either sidelining or co-opting her partner’s positions. Elsewhere, Merkel changed course on nuclear power, migration and same-sex marriage, so there’s little reason to think she couldn’t have done so on Russia, too.
Aside from the odd nip and tuck, she never did, despite several politically convenient opportunities. After Russia illegally annexed Crimea and backed a separatist takeover in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Merkel lobbied then U.S. President Barack Obama against arming Ukraine to fend off further Russian incursions. Six years later, she had her closest brush yet with ending Nord Stream 2, but declined to see any connection between a “purely commercial project” and the politics of Putin’s likely poisoning of his nemesis, Alexei Navalny.
The two issues were best “decoupled,” she said at the time.
That she stuck to this line as Navalny — on her government’s invitation — laid comatose in a Berlin hospital bed just minutes away from her news conference that Friday in August 2020 is perhaps the starkest expression of a very German dilemma: ever the defender of human rights and liberal norms, never missing an opportunity to undermine them for economic ease.
The contradiction is not unique to Germany, of course. Much of politics anywhere is about dealing with hypocrisy and poison picking.
For German officials, however, the balance is always more precarious. They were the baddies in the only history that seems to matter in western minds, which perpetually puts the onus on them to demonstrate they no longer are. Germany doesn’t get to enjoy its own “son of a bitch,” in the way Franklin Roosevelt, supposedly, referred to America’s ruthless, but convenient, allies.
This is how we get obtuse statements like “what’s good for Europe was and is good for us,” no matter how many acute instances we can point to — German-Russian relations maybe most of all — that demonstrate otherwise. German expressions of do-gooder liberal allegiance are not only a performative exercise aimed at an external audience, but also one of self-reassurance. It never hurts to double-check that you’ve stepped out of the long shadow of your own historical sins.
Nor is hindsight unique to Germany. Hindsight’s vision is perfect everywhere. Except when it comes to Russia, it’s not really about a danger that went unseen at the time only to appear obvious in retrospect. The warnings were always there and the dangers were always visible; often they were cited as the very reason to engage.
Germany’s policymakers and private sector leaders maintained a course of openness all the while the Kremlin was launching real and cyber attacks on neighbors, meddling in democratic elections, sowing far-right discord, violating arms control treaties, testing anti-satellite weaponry, participating in war crimes in Syria, restricting free media and jailing queer activists at home, and murdering and poisoning opponents, including in broad daylight in western cities (Berlin no exception).
At the very most, these actions are objectively reprehensible. At the very least, they threaten Germany’s own national interests and those of its allies.
Discounting the possibility that Germany’s Putinversteher would rather appear naive now than morally dubious then, a genuine and deep belief in Wandel-durch-Handel (change through trade) can be the only explanation left for the profound and sudden remorse for the long road to hell they built with nothing but the best of intentions. If this is the case, I have misjudged German leaders in their misjudging of Russian ones.
For years, I have listened to and spoken with a range of political actors from different parties, places and levels of government. Whenever they’d bring out statements like “reliable partner” or “better to engage than isolate” or “trading beats fighting,” I took them with an assumed wink — and a nod to the aforementioned German need to couch political expedience in moral terms. Perhaps this was sometimes the case, but it was often hard to tell. Just three weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, I was in a port town on Germany’s Baltic coast, which has done brisk business with Russian counterparts. Its mayor expounded the importance of those ties in ensuring lasting peace in Europe.
I have not had a chance to check if that is still his stance.
Say what you want about American, and other western policymakers, but very few would ever claim that buying oil from the Saudis or paying Pakistan to fight the Taliban were anything more than realpolitik (China policy, until recently, may be a different story). In Germany, it appears that buying oil and gas from Russia was not just a soothing and clever cover for banal, national and market-driven interests, but many thought it was actually a good — or at least, benign — idea.
The seemingly genuine naivete is at least partly rooted in the very “historical responsibility” Germany’s foreign policy is built on. Since the war started, Ukrainian officials have blasted German ones for paying lip service to the refrain “nie wieder” — never again. Their frustration is borne out of an understandable, but incorrect read of German Erinnerungskultur (remembrance culture).
To help clarify to whom and for what Germany is historically responsible, let’s turn to Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The recently reelected German president and a former SPD foreign minister has been praised as the model statesman in his current role and more recently slammed as quintessential Putinversteher in his former one.
Long before he was uninvited by the Ukrainians, he was welcomed by the Poles. In 2019, he showed up proverbially “barefoot” in Warsaw for the 80th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, which kicked off World War II, to lay out his country’s concept of remembrance culture.
For us Germans, our responsibility also means this: Nie wieder
may nationalism resurge! Nie wieder may Germans cry "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!" Nie wieder should nations rise over other nations — people over other people, races over other races. Nie wieder should reason be lost. Nie wieder should hatred and egoism be unleashed among the peoples of our world.
The lack of a clear subject and ample use of passive voice may leave you wondering who exactly is responsible for realizing many of these ideals. Whose reason is not to be lost? Who is actually tasked with keeping hatred and egoism on a leash?
Steinmeier doesn’t really specify. Germans ought to keep a lid on their own Übermensch aspirations, yes, but there’s nothing here about their responsibility to check other’s murderous intentions.
There doesn’t need to be. For the German guided by Erinnerungskultur, a clear subject who can exercise agency is superfluous. Peace is the only option because war can only mean annihilation, foremost of the self, and is therefore both morally repugnant and self-defeating. That assumption helps spawn the naivete we’ve seen, leaving Germany ill-equipped to respond to those who might disagree with Steinmeier’s aforementioned view and indeed see the benefit of “rising over other nations.”
When that nation is Russia, Erinnerungskultur is all the more an Achilles’ heel. It is a constant reminder of Germany’s aggression that targeted (Soviet-)Russia, an aggression that Germany keeps reliving as one does any unresolved trauma. There is no way to confront today’s Russia when beholden to the memory of a past one, and for a long time Germany didn’t have to worry about doing so. American-backed security and the so-called peace dividend meant Germany could bathe in the shallow waters of moralizing with very little fear of getting pushed into the deep end of action.
Now it’s sink or swim, and Germany is treading furiously to keep its head above water.
Erinnerungskultur is an effective mechanism for German Officialdom to steep in its past’s guilt and shame, but it leaves Germany with a takeaway so vague it is almost meaningless: Whatever you do, just don’t go full Nazi.
Like a flu vaccine mismatched for that season’s strain, Erinnerungskultur inoculates against a threat that is about 80 years out of date. Being so narrowly focused on the literal Holocaust has created blind spots to lesser and metaphorical ones. That means other political crimes can only fall short of the threshold required to act, because it has been set so far beyond the pale of abhorrent human behavior that the moral trip wire can never be crossed.
Nie wieder accomplished.
Much to the disappointment of the Ukrainian president and his man in Berlin, Germany’s remembrance culture is not meant for them, now; it is for Germans now, for whom the “past is not over.”
[The war’s] impact is a legacy that lasts generations. This legacy is a painful one. We Germans accept it and pass it on.
“Historical responsibility” is therefore responsibility to the past, and therein lies the disconnect. Steinmeier can go to Poland for his own brand of Kniefall, beg for forgiveness and express gratitude for Poland’s “spirit of reconciliation [that] gave us Germans the gift of a new beginning” while simultaneously totally ignoring warnings from Poland, and other Nazi victims-turned-European partners, that Nord Stream 2 was bad for Europe.
The German president now acknowledges the pipeline was a mistake. Too little, too late, perhaps, but still more than what Merkel has so far been able to muster — sending thoughts-and-prayers, but otherwise standing by her record on dealing with a big, difficult neighbor with which Germany has a long, turbulent history.
In determining just how much of an epochal shift Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” really is, a key indicator will not be if he gets his €100 billion for military upgrades, checks NATO’s 2% box, or sends Ukraine Leopard tanks. It will be if German Officialdom can pull itself out of the abyss of its own history enough to think beyond itself and act as the world is, not as it once was.
“Decouple,” you might say, as Merkel and others repeatedly insisted on doing with Russia. Or, in the words of the German president in Poland:
You should measure us by the responsibility we take on. Europe is our responsibility!