By thinking that imperialism and colonialism are things of the faraway past, Germany has approached Russia like most other developing democracies, but Russia has nonetheless stuck with its imperialist identity — and fully embraced it, writes Tallinn University (TLÜ) political science and international studies lecturer Benjamin Klasche.
Germany has lost a lot of its credibility and status since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many European nations have been disappointed by Germany's lack of urgency to support Ukraine and its hesitancy to cut its economic ties with Russia. Even though it seems that Chancellor Scholz and his government are slowly changing course, many have been asking what is wrong with Germany?
This is a country that stresses its support of liberal values and uses the 'never again' – referring to its atrocities committed during the Second World War – slogan as the unofficial motto of its foreign and defense policy. Yet, we find Germany lacking in support of preventing crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
To me, the answer to this question is not simple and straightforward. Therefore, in the following, I would like to offer somewhat more implicit explanations for Germany's behavior in this situation.
Before I start, I would like to stress that I am a German living now for nine years in Estonia. I fully support the Ukrainian government and believe that the states of Europe should offer all support possible and requested by the Ukrainian leadership. This support also includes the delivery of more heavy weaponry.
I am, therefore, not trying to excuse the actions – or better lack thereof – of the German government, but I am trying to explain to myself and others why the response has been so disappointing (I wrote not long ago that I was rather optimistic about this government).
As I implied above, many aspects are presumably at play here, but I cannot cover them all. I want to engage with two factors I know best: German pacifism and a deep misunderstanding of Russia's imperialism.
German pacifism is rooted in the memory of the two world wars at the beginning of the 20th century. In both cases, Germany was the aggressor and committed some of the cruelest crimes against humanity in the Second World War. The pacifist notion is rooted in avoiding repetition of these events at any cost.
Nevertheless, it is a paradoxical term. It allows for the country to be one of the largest weapon manufacturers in the world; however, it refrains, at least officially, from sending those to crisis areas. On the other hand, Germany's pacifism dictates avoidance of military conflict of any kind. We saw the pacifism famously expressed in Germany's refusal to join the Iraq War in 2003 and abstaining from the Kosovo War in 1999.
Whereas the absence in the Iraq War can be considered rather positively in hindsight, the nonattendances point to the fact that pacifism is regarded as a universally valid position. By this, I mean that it is applicable in any situation. This interpretation has led to some upsetting calls (here or here) from public intellectuals – some also quite valued by me – to stop the fighting in Ukraine immediately without considering the consequences.
These open letters never addressed how this goal should be achieved and completely ignored what would happen to the people living under Russian occupation. They further rely on a 'moral' argument that the continued fighting would lead to more death and suffering and is, therefore, a worse option than laying down arms.
We can trace here that German pacifism created a sense of moral superiority, that the German way of abstaining from any military confrontation is just, right and maybe even noble. What we missed this whole time, however, is that this privilege was rooted in geopolitical safety, a lack of realism and false hope about the future of Europe and is, therefore, anything but universal.
This privilege has not been something limited to the leadership but was felt by the whole population. I, for once, happily applied for an exemption from the mandatory military service and substituted it with community service – an option that over 70 percent of the drafted male population chose in 2010, the last year before the suspension of the conscription.
Similarly, when I started to live in Estonia, I was shocked by the role that military security played in everyday life of Estonians, where, for example, nearly nobody rejects their military service and where people organize themselves into militias (Kaitseliit) even outside of it.
Today I understand that I have been socialized in a country that has convinced itself that it is the only potential source of aggression on the European continent and installed a pacifist mindset to avoid its re-awakening. The Estonians and many other Eastern and Central European people always knew this not to be true and that an active imperialist power is just a little further east.
This brings me to my second point: Germans still vastly misunderstand what Russia is.
Last week, the German chancellor published an essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – one of Germany's most-read outlets – appealing that Germany needs to change in light of the Russian aggression. In this essay, he calls Putin a 'neo-imperialist' and suggests that his actions 'towards Ukraine showcase neo-colonialist traits.'
There are several problems here. Scholz still excuses the Russian population by focusing on Putin and implies that the colonialist and imperialist traits are a recent development. Russia and Russians – not just Putin – have a long history of viewing themselves as an empire that takes a colonialist approach to its neighborhood. This has also shown in recent altercations in Chechnya, Georgia, Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Therefore, Scholz still has a very wrong understanding of what he talks about when he mentions Russia, which subsequently impacts how Germany reacts to the threat.
Today I also think back on how past acts of Russian aggression were portrayed in the German media. The brutal intervention in Chechnya is still closely connected to the reading of a fight against (Islamist) terrorism, and Russia simply supported separatist movements in Donbas, Luhansk and Transnistria.
I guess that the dominance of these narratives is a result of the Germans' desire to frame their business partner in good light, or must be considered a great success of Russia's disinformation campaigns; or most likely is a result of both these aspects.
The false assessment of the nature of Russia is nothing new in Germany either. It catapulted the country into this (inter)dependency relationship with Russia, which today is used as blackmail. In line with the 'Neue Ostpolitik' (New Eastern Policies) of the 1970s that brought Western Germany closer to the Soviet Union and its satellite states, the united Federal Republic of Germany continued this course. It sought economic closeness with the Russian Federation as early as the 1990s, culminating in the signing of the Nord Stream projects.
I assume that the plan to become dependent on Russian gas (and Russia becoming dependent on the German market) was envisioned to be as effective as the rapprochement with France in the 1940s and 50s, which ultimately led to the founding of the predecessor of the European Union. However, and this is to my point, Russia was never France.
Again, when thinking back to my own experience, I always believed that the Estonian population worried too much about Russia because its imperialist days were obviously over. I cannot say that I thought Russia was a spotless democracy and solid trade partner or trusted the German leadership, which seemed to have good relations with Putin. Still, it certainly implicitly played a role in my thinking. Therefore, with the rest of most Germans, I have also vastly misunderstood what this country is.
Timothy Snyder, the famous historian, specializing in Central and Eastern European history, noted recently that this error of judgment is engrained in the Germans' (and other Western Europeans) failure to find a place for (their own) colonial wars in their historical memories. In other words, if you forget what colonialism looked like, you will not be able to recognize it.
By thinking that imperialism and colonialism are things of the far-away past, Germany has approached Russia like most other developing democracies – if we engage in trade and increase their wealth, the growth of democratic and liberal values will follow. In an alternative historical timeline, this might have worked. Regardless, due to the lack of these developments, Russia stayed with its imperialist identity and fully embraced it.
Based on this misunderstanding and the feeling that Germans have a superior moral position in the form of universal pacifism, the response has been cumbersome and disappointing. It has created many headshakes, particularly in countries once occupied by the Soviet Union, which know Russia's real nature.
Here, I want to refer again to Snyder, who put it best: The Germans "miss one important aspect: an empire needs to lose a colonial war to make sure that it stops being an empire."
Based on Scholz's essay, this realization is slowly being accepted in German leadership. However, the focus on Putin instead of the country still points towards the hope that a post-Putin country will receive another chance from Western democracies to become a partner. I hope, however, that the mistakes of the last 30 years are not repeated and a serious engagement with Russian colonialism, in and outside the country, happens first.
Furthermore, it is time that German pacifism loses its universal validity and adjusts to the times. Similarly, to the end of Swedish and Finnish neutrality, it is time that Germany stops outsourcing its security needs to others realise and normalizes its relationship with armed forces (e.g. that certain capabilities are necessary for the 21st century). In this context, it is also important that Germany assumes some responsibility in line with its role and standing in Europe's collective defense.
The arguments put forth here paint the picture more complexly, which I believe is appropriate as we are dealing with a complex problem. The more simple explanation attempts – such as Germany is only interested in maintaining its wealth, or German politicians are most interested in appeasing their voters in light of higher living costs – are not entirely wrong but often only touch a certain part of the problem. I hope to have offered additional options to read the situation.
Editor: Marcus Turovski