The other day I called the author of an indignant letter to my newspaper to find out why he was so angry at us. It was because, he said, my paper had taken a critical line against Russia over its actions in Crimea and Ukraine. Having grown up in Communist East Germany, he said, gave him a “special antenna” for when the news media started to act in conformity with the government — and against the interests of the people.
My paper isn’t alone: Most major news outlets in Germany have criticized Russia, and almost all of them have been accused of being anti-Russian, either having been steered in that direction by American interests or, at least, having uncritically adopted a pro-Western worldview. With much the same furor, countless Germans have denounced government politicians who have dared to speak out against Russia’s actions.
Remarkably, many of the most outspoken critics are from Eastern Germany, and are old enough to have lived under Moscow’s oppressive East German puppet state. In Dresden, thousands of pro-Russian protesters have taken to the streets for several weeks, denouncing the “Lügenpresse” (“liar press”) as part of an out-of-touch political elite.
Polls find a significantly friendlier attitude toward Russia among Easterners. In the six states that once made up the German Democratic Republic, 58 percent of respondents want Europe and the United States to stay out of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and to lift the sanctions. In Western Germany, only one-third share this view.
The pro-Russian sentiment tracks with a general antipathy toward Western-style capitalism; when asked what they most associate with the phrase “market economy,” 82 percent of the Eastern Germans said “exploitation,” as opposed to 43 percent of residents in Western Germany.
As someone born in West Germany in the middle of the Cold War, I struggle with such attitudes. If anybody in this country should have no illusions about Moscow-style imperialism, it should be those who have lived through 40 years of Soviet occupation. And if Eastern Germans are so sensitive about disinformation, why don’t they condemn Vladimir V. Putin’s campaign of outright propaganda? The answer may be that Germany has its own little Russia inside itself, a state of mind that we are only now coming to grips with.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was, of course, a political liberation, but it turned many lives in Eastern Germany into rubble, too. It wasn’t just a matter of economic and political upheaval. The ease with which one system was replaced by another amounted to an insult to the struggles of many East Germans, even those who never sympathized with Communism. We in Western Germany should have been more sensitive; we will never know what it is like to have the values we grew up with thrown on the scrapheap of history.
As justified as the rejection of the totalitarian East German regime might have been politically, Westerners underestimated the psychological effects that went along with the rapid upheaval. One appears to become clear only now: If grand political systems are so easily swapped in and out, it’s easy to conclude that capital-T Truth is a myth.
It is telling that the same strong sentiment cannot be found in Poland or the Baltic states, which underwent similarly jarring post-Communist transitions. One reason might be that they were able to see themselves as going through a process of national emancipation, while East Germany was simply absorbed into another state, whose beliefs and practices were not supposed to be questioned.
What Eastern Germany got was more convenient — and lucrative, as it now shares in Europe’s strongest economy — but psychologically it was much more damaging. Poles can look at themselves as the captains of their own ship; Eastern Germans have had to live with the feeling, right or wrong, that Western elites, like the Soviets before them, are in charge of their fates.
Until now, however, that sentiment has been muted, easily ignored when even Russia itself seemed to be moving, in fits and starts, toward accommodation with the West. Mr. Putin’s aggression, and his anti-Western propaganda, has given disgruntled Easterners an outlet. When he decries the West for trying to impose its values on the world, he is reflecting their own experiences within Germany.
And it’s no surprise their anger is directed at the news media, which has long dismissed their concerns as so much sour grapes. To them, we Western pen pushers have been so arrogant and wrong in analyzing post-Communist Germany — why should they trust our analysis of post-Soviet Russia?
Likewise, it’s payback time for Western German politicians: You guys stop telling us about the dangers of Russia and its international rights violations, they say; the truth is that, unlike Eastern Germans, you are still under the control of your longtime occupiers, the United States.
Which brings me back to the angry reader. His claims to some sort of sixth sense about the media notwithstanding, I do acknowledge that Eastern Germans have a particular allergy to boogeymen: The Communist regime in East Berlin played blame games against the West for many years, and it’s only understandable that they would fear the West is now doing the same thing with Mr. Putin.
That’s why German journalists and politicians should not dismiss the Easterners’ anger out of hand. It is not about misplaced nostalgia, or naïveté. If we allow our justified criticism of Russia today to become habitual tomorrow, then we will fail to convince skeptical Easterners that we really do want what’s best for the entire country, leaving Germany, and the rest of Europe, much worse off.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.