Why Germany Has Learned the Wrong Lessons From History

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz briefs the press on Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the German Chancellery in Berlin on Feb. 24. MICHAEL KAPPELER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz briefs the press on Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the German Chancellery in Berlin on Feb. 24. MICHAEL KAPPELER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht,
Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht
Ich kann nicht mehr die Augen schließen,
Und meine heißen Tränen fließen.

—From Nachtgedanken by Heinrich Heine, 1844

In his poem Nachtgedanken (“Night Thoughts”), written in 1844, the Jewish German writer Heinrich Heine yearned for unity and modernity in his fragmented, feudal-ruled homeland. “If I think of Germany at night, it robs me of my sleep”, he wrote in the first two lines of one of the country’s best-known poems.

I feel similarly about Germany right now.

First as a language student and then as a young foreign correspondent, I spent some of my formative years in what was then West Germany. For the first time in my life, I lived, loved, and dreamed in a foreign language. It was the frontline of the Cold War, and I still remember how the smells of tobacco, food, and car exhaust changed as you crossed the Berlin Wall. The division of Germany exemplified the Soviet empire’s post-war grip on Europe just like German reunification epitomized its end.

Yet Germany dismays as much as it delights. I was bemused by “Gorbymania”—West Germans’ infatuation with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. I was outraged by what followed. Newly reunited Germany swooned over Russia and largely ignored the countries in between. Rather than prioritizing the security and welfare of countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—which the 1939 alliance between Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin turned into killing fields—German politicians of all stripes pursued a greedy, sanctimonious, and irresponsible policy. Germany dragged its feet on admitting the new eastern democracies to the European Union and—particularly—NATO. Meanwhile, it pursued highly lucrative bilateral deals with Moscow, notably the two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines across the Baltic Sea.

Attempts to counter this got nowhere, as I experienced firsthand. Whenever I tried in my journalism, lecturing, and consulting to alert Germans to the danger presented by nascent, and then fully revived, Russian imperialism, they laughed at me. I still recall the sardonic, patronizing response I received in the German Chancellery around 2010, when I tried to warn my interlocutors about the danger of Russian hybrid warfare tactics—the cocktail of disinformation, economic coercion, subversion, espionage, and threats of force that Russia uses against its neighbors. “You are not seriously saying that Russia would conduct these operations against the Federal Republic of Germany?” my hosts asked, incredulously.

“Duh, yes”, I replied. (Memory may have paraphrased my exact response). Berlin’s complacent approach allowed Russian spies, crooks, and thugs to run wild, stealing secrets, assassinating critics, and building bastions of influence in Germany. News that an officer in the Bundesnachrichtendienst—the German foreign intelligence service—was  arrested last week for spying for Russia will come as little surprise. “If you want the Kremlin to take something seriously, give it to the Germans and tell them it’s a secret”, an exasperated intelligence officer from a NATO country told me in the 1980s. If anything, Russian (and now Chinese) penetration of the German security services has worsened since then.

The historical, geographical, and geopolitical blind spots are linked. Allergic to nationalism because of its abuse by Hitler’s Nazi regime, Germans flinched at the role that patriotic sentiment played in the uprisings of 1988-91 that toppled communism. East Europeans were “nationalist”, Germans muttered disapprovingly (though Russian nationalism, a far greater and more toxic force, was conveniently ignored). Credit for the ending of the Cold War, Germans told themselves, was really due to their own Ostpolitik—or “Eastern policy”—of the 1970s and ‘80s, which focused on rapprochement and confidence-building with the Soviet bloc. Moreover, the Soviet Union had given the nod to German unification and pulled its military out of the former East Germany. Gratitude, not skepticism, was the appropriate response.

Military spending, never popular, went out of fashion, halving to barely 1 percent of GDP by 2005. In the modern world, German policy wonks piously intoned, problems should be solved by dialogue, not anachronistic confrontation. The way to avoid conflict was to boost trade and investment. Russia would never attack its customers. We see now how that worked out. Germany is scrambling to disengage itself from Russian energy supplies and increasingly worries about its dependence on China.

Throughout these years, a pervasive climate of anti-Americanism in Germany stoked moral equivalence and whataboutism. Yes, the Putin regime has its flaws—but what about the United States, with its failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its overmighty security state (many Germans regard Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information and sought asylum in Russia, as a hero), and alarming, rebarbative figures such as Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump?

Germans wallow in guilt about their country’s Nazi-era crimes, but are barely aware that World War II brought far more death and destruction to Ukraine than to the territories that now comprise the Russian Federation. Their self-satisfied ignorance about history stops them from applying lessons of the past to other crimes and dangers. Pointing out the indubitable similarities between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich, for example, was long condemned as an attempt to relativize the Holocaust. In the late 1980s, the furious Historikerstreit— or “historians’ dispute”—about this issue took arcane historiographical questions into the political mainstream in a way barely conceivable in any other European country. Even today, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime easily ticks the boxes of the definition of fascism, most Germans remain stuck in the uniqueness of their own history. Russia’s past suffering at German hands protects it from censure. Ukraine’s invisibility in the German historical memory precludes outrage at its fate.

Illusions died hard. Just before Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine in February, the government of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attracted mockery for offering 5,000 helmets as “military aid” to beleaguered Ukraine.

Days later, reality dawned. Scholz announced a  Zeitenwende—or “change of era”—featuring a 100 billion euro increase in his country’s defense budget. Rhetorical support for Ukraine stretched across the political spectrum, with only the hard left and radical right dissenting. German civil society stepped up to host hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. By past standards, the change was indeed astonishing.

But words and deeds are falling short of the promises. Already, Germany is  walking back its commitments to speedily raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, a target that will now be reached only in 2025. The barnacled procurement system is simply unable to absorb more money efficiently, officials explain.

Worse, Scholz publicly hankers for a return to Europe’s “pre-war peace order”. That suggests that the lessons of 2022 have yet to sink in in Berlin. The past decades were not a security nirvana, but a dangerous strategic time-out, in which Europe’s most important economy ignored looming threats from Russia and China. The trust deficit between Germany and many of its European partners remains huge. At a conference in Berlin, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks summed up allies’ worries: “We’re willing to die for freedom. Are you?”

Germans may enjoy their sleep. But their country still leaves others sleepless.

Edward Lucas is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament, a former senior editor at The Economist, and the author, most recently, of Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet.

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