Why is it so difficult for Germany to speak of a fascist Russia?


{Maidan protests in Kiev in 2014.}

War and the politics of memory: Why is it so difficult for Germany to speak of a fascist Russia?

[Originally published in German in Der Spiegel on 27th May 2022. Source: https://www.spiegel.de/ausland/ukraine-krieg-warum-faellt-es-deutschland-so-schwer-von-einem-faschistischen-russland-zu-sprechen-a-6511c1ca-e90b-4497-a88f-76d7453a244d Translated into English, added context notes in […] and emphasis added ie bold and underlined text.]

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A debate contribution by [Professor] Timothy Snyder. The Germans should have started a debate about Ukraine 30 years ago. Now there is a chance to break with the colonial tradition – and to be on the right side.

For a moment, the Americans felt alone. They had taken a risk when they made public their intelligence on Russian plans to invade Ukraine. No one seemed to believe them. The Russians scoffed at them, and even Western allies seemed skeptical. But then, in December 2021, the newly elected [German] chancellor called the White House. He believed the information, he said. It coincided with that of of his party and his government and also with their attitude towards the fascist regime in Russia. The best thing to do now, he said, was to act decisively to prevent war or to keep it as short as possible. With German encouragement, the Americans supplied heavy weapons to the Ukrainian army. The British did the same. The Germans took longer, but by early February they had delivered artillery and Gepard tanks, as well as large quantities of vests, helmets, and night vision equipment. At a conference, the head of the German navy said Ukrainian President Zelensky deserved respect. A German government official told a Ukrainian diplomat that he believed the Ukrainian army could hold out for three months, by then other allies would also help. On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, as the Americans had predicted. Zelenskyy, offered a chance to flee Kiev, famously replied, “I don’t need a ride because I have ammunition.” The Ukrainians won the battle for Kiev within a week. When the Russian atrocities at Butsha [Bucha] were exposed, German left-wing intellectuals condemned the Russian regime as fascist and called for an immediate crackdown and a war crimes trial of those responsible. The Russian propaganda machinery was not prepared for war and even less for a quick defeat. Protests in Russia increased, and the rattled police……..

No, it wasn’t like that. Of course not. But why, in fact, wasn’t it? Why were the German government and much of the German public so surprised by the invasion and the Russian atrocities? Why did it take three months for the German public to grasp the truth of this war? And why do some Germans still believe that it is their duty to support the aggressor? How did it happen that during the last invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia was rewarded by Germany with a natural gas pipeline that bypassed Ukrainian territory? How is it possible that now, in the second attack, German politicians focused on Ukrainian manners? And why do Germans find it so difficult to speak of a “fascist Russia”?

Germany is the most important democracy in Europe, perhaps even in the world. Germany is proud of its anti-fascism and its politics of remembrance. And the Germans are absolutely right that democracy requires a regular confrontation with history, especially with the Second World War and the Holocaust. But the history at stake is not only German history, because almost all German killings took place in territories that Germany brought under its control only after 1938. For this reason, the politics of memory has always been intertwined with Ostpolitik [>1969 normalization of relations with communist Eastern Europe], sometimes in a perverse way. Thus, in the second decade of the 21st century, many Germans were convinced that it was primarily a moral decision to depend on energy supplies from an aggressive, revanchist, far-right empire. Then in February 2022, Germany found itself funding a clearly fascist Russian regime waging a war of extermination against a neighbor – a neighbor that had been the target of Germany’s war in 1941: Ukraine. The combination of Ostpolitik and the politics of rememberance enticed the Germans to forget their own history, making a new war in Eastern Europe possible in the first place.


{Discussion partners Brandt and Brezhnev in 1971. Soviet collaboration with the Nazis remains unmentioned to this day.}


{Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop with dictator Josef Stalin 1939.}

Morally, it has been a mistake of the last 30 or 50 years to confuse categories such as guilt and responsibility, both of which lead in very different psychological and political directions. Guilt is linked to power. If the Germans should feel guilty about World War II and the crimes committed, then that is an invitation to others to emphasize and abuse that guilt. It is easy to understand why Willy Brandt traveled to Moscow in order to achieve the establishment of diplomatic relations with Eastern European states, especially with the GDR. At that time, in the early 1970s, West Germany had just begun to deal with its Nazi past. But seeing Leonid Brezhnev as an authority on German guilt was problematic from the start. Brezhnev had no interest in dealing with history. His troops had just invaded Czechoslovakia, 30 years after German troops had invaded there. Under Brezhnev, the Soviet Union had begun holding military marches on May 9, and a cult of war and victory had developed. Brezhnev pursued the Russification of Ukraine, and Kiev was to play no role in discussions about the German-Soviet past. And because the intervening alliance between Nazis and Soviets was taboo, Brezhnev also denied the existence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (often called the Hitler-Stalin Pact), a German-Soviet nonaggression treaty concluded in August 1939, a week before the outbreak of World War II. Under the German-Soviet Ostpolitik, the war was limited to the years between 1941 and 1945; a war in which the Soviet Union not only made the greatest sacrifice, but also won the greatest victory. The fate of Ukraine did not matter to both the Germans and the Soviets. Ukraine was invisible.

Unspokenly, a precondition of Ostpolitik was not to talk about Ukraine, which was actually the central topic of the politics of remembrance. In the thirties and forties, the country had suffered from a double colonization carried out by both Moscow and Berlin. The rapprochement between Moscow and Bonn in the 1970s and 1980s reinforced the silence about this. In the 19th century, the Ukrainian national movement was one of many national movements in Europe. At the end of World War I, Ukrainians, like other peoples living in crumbling empires, tried to establish their own state. In the process, the Ukrainian People’s Republic got caught between the fronts: The Germans recognized it but wanted to exploit its food resources, and the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy Ukraine. The Bolshevik leaders had no doubt that there was a Ukrainian national feeling. There was a Ukraine, anything else would have been eccentric: it appears as much in Joseph Roth’s reportages [German reporter of early Soviet union], as in the statistics of the League of Nations. Precisely because Ukraine was a nation, Lenin and his comrades founded the Soviet Union as a union of federal republics with national names. This eventually enabled Stalin to carry out a kind of internal colonization of Ukraine and other agricultural regions of the USSR. When collectivization of agriculture proved inefficient, he blamed the Ukrainians and imposed a series of measures against the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR that resulted in some four million deaths from starvation. Hitler, for his part, saw this as a model. He too believed that the black earth of Ukraine could become a profitable colonial project. Ukraine was to be the “living space” that would enable Germany to become a world power.

So, in World War II, the Soviet Union and the German Empire fought over Ukraine, with more civilians dying in Soviet Ukraine than in Soviet Russia. As well, more Ukrainian soldiers fell fighting the Germans than Americans, British and French soldiers  combined. As a result of Soviet and German colonial policies, Ukraine became the most dangerous place in the world between 1933 and 1945. All this was very actively ignored after the end of the Second World War in Bonn as well as in Moscow.

Putin and his comrades-in-arms have been very happy to use German guilt as a political resource.

In the last years of the Bonn Republic, the Historikerstreit [term for 1980s dispute between historians on how to interpret Nazism and the Holocaust] revealed a fundamental problem with this memory politics. In the Historikerstreit, mainly German sources were used by German historians to talk to Germans about other Germans. The most important rule of postcolonial memory politics, however, is to listen to the voices of the colonized. In a debate about the Holocaust, that would have been the Jews. But as Saul Friedländer noted, German historians assumed that Jewish voices would not contribute to or detract from the debate because they were too emotional. In fact, the inclusion of these voices was essential not only to understand the horror of the events, as Friedländer pointed out, but also to understand their magnitude. Only about three percent of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust spoke German. That meant speaking Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Hungarian and other languages, languages spoken by large numbers of Jews but almost never by West German historians. Learning these languages would have provided a glimpse of that Holocaust that took place in Eastern European territories during the German colonial war over Ukraine. In the late eighties, such a perspective was completely absent. When the Soviet Union ended, hardly anyone in West Germany thought about the German colonial past in Ukraine. And almost no one thought of the idea that Germans needed to listen to Ukrainian voices in order to understand part of their past. In this sense, German colonial traditions have continued.

Of course, one should not underestimate the challenges of the Cold War and German reunification. Brandt and other German politicians had to balance widely differing values and interests. Although the continuity of a German colonial attitude in the Berlin Republic [term for Germany after reunification with GDR] can be explained by the legacy of the past, it can hardly be justified. In the 30 years since the end of the USSR, it was mainly German historians who pointed out the colonial character of the 1941 war, but this found little echo in German politics or in public debates in Germany. No one suggested, for example, that Kiev should be the center of a refocused politics of remembrance or Ostpolitik. Instead, the historical myths that had proved successful in the Bonn Republic [term for Germany between WW2 and reunification with GDR] became entrenched. The Russians were to be understood as the main victims of the war (after the Jews). People traveled to Moscow to get absolution (and natural gas). Doing business with Moscow autocrats was morally justified by World War II. Ukrainians were seen as troublemakers who got in the way of this story. This was convenient because it meant there was no need to morally question doing business with Russia. If Ukrainians speak Russian, why shouldn’t they be Russians? If they speak Ukrainian, they are “nationalists” and have not learned the lessons of World War II. This name-calling was nothing but a subtle form of colonial arrogance. During the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Germans seemed fascinated by stories of Ukrainian nationalism, but these were orchestrated by Russian propaganda to make Germans feel superior. This worked well. Ukrainians were disappointed at the time because Germans would not listen to them. They were right. Germany was a former imperial power that had not yet come to terms with its own imperial past and instead preferred the clichés of another imperial power.

The confusion of responsibility and guilt became a Russian weapon over the last ten years. Domestically, Putin pushed the Brezhnevian cult of the past in a clearly fascist direction: toward the cult of victory, the cult of the leader, the cult of death. For Putin today, someone who has invaded Russia, or who the Russian leadership says might invade Russia, or someone who opposes Russia in any way is a “Nazi.” Serious engagement with Nazi ideology rarely took place, and still does not. From such a perspective, it is impossible to see oneself as a fascist. So a fascist is by definition the other, and a Russian is by definition an anti-fascist – even if what he does is obviously fascist. That is why in Russia today the history of Russian collaboration with the Nazis goes completely unmentioned. Laws forbid debates about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the difficult subject of Stalinist crimes, including the famine in Ukraine, is officially taboo.

The Germans seek atonement for their fascism from people who are obviously fascists themselves.

“Russian memory politics” is thus the exact opposite of “German memory politics” – and yet this was never a problem for Germany. Since guilt was the relevant category, not responsibility, the Germans did not ask how Russia actually deals with its past. Blame, as Vladimir Putin knows, is an instrument for exercising dominance. Putin and his cohorts have been very fond of using German guilt as a political resource. Domestically, the Nazi accusation was levelled at those who opposed Putin in any way. In foreign policy, it was an accusation meant to get others to do what Putin wanted. Russians, when there are no Germans in the room, like to boast about this strategy. But the tragedy of recent years is that Germans sought atonement for their fascism from people who are obviously fascists themselves.

One More Time: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the high point of cooperation between Berlin and Moscow and literally changed the world. Perhaps the discussions about Germany’s energy dependence on Russia would have taken a different turn if the pact had played a role more often in Berlin’s and Moscow’s jointly designed politics of remembrance. In any case, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was followed by two economic agreements that enabled Germany to invade large parts of Western Europe, and the Soviet Union to invade large parts of Eastern Europe. At the heart of these agreements were German purchases of Soviet oil.

Of course, the situation today is different in many respects. But had German policymakers been aware of the significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it would have been difficult to morally justify the purchase of natural gas from Russia. Instead, German payments for fossil energy resources have helped finance two more Russian wars of aggression in Eastern Europe. After the second invasion, the Germans now declare that their dependence on Russian oil and gas limits their political options. However, entering into this dependency was a conscious political decision; there would have been other possibilities. Since then, this dependence has shaped the German debate, which in turn confirms the deficits of Ostpolitik and the culture of remembrance. Gerhard Schröder [former SPD Chancellor and still Putin’s personal friend] is only the vulgar symbol for a general phenomenon.

And so the war of 2022 began as it began, not as I described it at the beginning of this text. Some Germans who spoke out against war and fascism were not prepared for it. Very strong impulses, perhaps even reflexes, led them to blame the real and historically proven victim of this colonialism for a new war of aggression. Or they believed that the best way to deal with fascism was to surrender. And yet Germany remains the most important democracy in Europe and perhaps in the world.

The Germans are right: democracy can only thrive in constant confrontation with history. The catch is that history is always uncomfortable, because voices that hurt have to be heard. The Germans should have started a debate on Ukraine 30 years ago, now it took place in just three months. In a moment of such cacophony, it is inevitable that one sometimes falls back into old colonial habits or considers oneself a victim. Of course, the progress of German debate and policy is encouraging, but it needs to come to terms with its history, especially now, in these weeks and months that will, after all, also go down in history. Germany has the chance to break with its colonial tradition, and the chance to finally be on the right side in a war against fascism. German democracy needs this, and the rest of us (not only the Ukrainians) need German democracy. 

About The Author:

Timothy Snyder, born in 1969, is a professor at Yale and researches the history of Eastern Europe. In his book “Bloodlands” (2010) he describes the mass murders of the Nazis and Soviets in the years from 1933 to 1945.

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