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Sunday, April 13, 2014

German Nostalgia for Russia?

Battle for Berlin

Der Speigel reports on the growing "love" of Germans for Russia:
It's thus no wonder that the debate about Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis is more polarizing than any other issue in current German politics. For Germany, the Ukraine crisis is not some distant problem like Syria or Iraq -- it goes right to the core of the question of German identity. Where do we stand when it comes to Russia? And, relatedly: Who are we as Germans? With the threat of a new East-West conflict, this question has regained prominence in Germany and may ultimately force us to reposition ourselves or, at the very least, reaffirm our position in the West.

In recent weeks, an intense and polemical debate has been waged between those tending to sympathize with Russia and those championing a harder line against Moscow. The positions have been extreme, with one controversy breaking out after the other. The louder the voices on the one side are in condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine, the louder those become in arguing for a deeper understanding of a humbled and embattled Russia; as the number of voices pillorying Russia for violating international law in Crimea grows, so do those of Germans raising allegations against the West.

One of the main charges is that the European Union and NATO snubbed Moscow with their recent eastward expansion. Everyone seems to be getting into the debate -- politicians, writers, former chancellors and scientists. Readers, listeners and viewers are sending letters to the editor, posting on Internet forums or calling in to radio or television shows with their opinions.

"Most Germans want to understand Russia's side of things," says Jörg Baberowski, a prominent professor of Eastern European history at Berlin's Humboldt University. Historian Stefan Plaggenborg of the Ruhr University in Bochum has described the sentimental relationship between Germans and Russians as "doting love." But how is it that this connection still exists after two world wars?

***

There are some obvious explanations for the bond between Germans and Russians: economic interests, a deeply rooted anti-Americanism in both countries on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. But those are only superficial answers -- dig a little deeper, and you'll find two other explanations: Romanticism and the war.

The war explanation is inextricably linked to German guilt. As a country that committed monstrous crimes against the Russians, we sometimes feel the need to be especially generous, even in dealing with Russia's human rights violations. As a result, many Germans feel that Berlin should temper its criticism of Russia and take a moderate position in the Ukraine crisis. It was Germany, after all, that invaded the Soviet Union, killing 25 million people with its racist war of extermination.

Hans-Henning Schröder, a Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs describes this as Russophilia and says it is a way of compensating for Germany's Nazi past. Noted German historian Heinrich August Winkler fears Germans have adopted a "pathological learning process."

The question of guilt has created a link between Germans and Russians, but the issue evaporated fairly quickly for the Russians after the war. Unlike the French, Scandinavians and Dutch, the Russians don't tend to name and shame the Germans for crimes committed during the German occupation.

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Then, of course, there are Germans' romantic ideas about Russia. The country has always been idealized by Germans. No other country was as thrilled as Germany when glasnost and perestroika ushered in the de-escalation of the East-West conflict. Finally, they felt, it was acceptable for them to love Russia again. In Gorbachev, the good Russian had returned and the Germans saw no reason to continue living in fear of Russia.
I would never have dreamed, after the horrors of WWII, that Germans would admire or like the Russians, let along question their Westernness.. But this is just another symptom or sign of the pending dissolution of the European Union. For Germans to question their Westernness is  to separate themselves from Europe as a whole--from the idea of European unity.

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