Ordinary Germans Don’t Want a Fight With Russia

The German government’s reluctance to join an anti-Russian bandwagon owes at least as much to commercial interests as to historical guilt. But calls for Berlin to play a stronger role in NATO should be emphatically resisted.

Protesters in front of the Russian embassy gate on January 30, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. (Hannibal Hanschke / Getty Images)

In Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, Nora Krug writes of her life being raised in Cold War West Germany. She speaks of a land in which, after the horrors of World War II, “it was important to maintain peace at all costs. The notion that other countries still wage war was incomprehensible.” Yet today — amidst speculation that Russia-Ukraine tensions could escalate into Europe’s biggest conflict since 1945 — this prospect is becoming more “comprehensible,” with Germany under pressure to more firmly take sides.

Pundits in fellow NATO members deride Berlin for failing to arm Ukraine; Polish chat shows even mock it as Vladimir Putin’s “Trojan horse.” Chancellor Olaf Scholz reportedly complains that Germany is being criticized by allies more than Russia is. Domestically, two rival foreign policy camps accuse each other of either “saber-rattling” or else shirking responsibility faced with Russian aggression. In the middle of this is Nord Stream 2, a controversial gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that critics say could be used as leverage against Ukraine.

Despite the heated rhetoric, the debate is focused on a very small range of security options: whether Germany should deliver a small quantity of “defensive” weapons to Ukraine and allow German-manufactured weapons in other countries to be delivered, or if Germany should focus on its role as regional mediator. This role was especially earned through the Minsk Protocol in 2014, when Germany, alongside France, attempted (and failed) to negotiate a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. A recent decision to deliver a field hospital and five thousand helmets pleased neither side.

Yet this debate is two-sided only among Germany’s political and security elite; the public remains staunchly anti-militarist and perhaps surprisingly sympathetic to Russia. A massive 73 percent majority oppose delivering weapons to Ukraine, and a similar figure support finishing Nord Stream 2. Most are generally skeptical that Russians will invade Ukraine or cut off Germany’s gas supply. Despite the best efforts of the German security establishment in a myriad of Atlanticist groups, or such fora as the Munich Security Conference, “deterrence” through stockpiling weapons is seen with similar suspicion. Polls show that Germans oppose increasing defense spending to meet NATO targets.

So why is the debate in the Federal Republic — a firm NATO member and an EU founder state — so far removed from its Anglosphere allies?

Part of the answer lies in history: Nazi crimes and then divided Germany’s central place in the European Cold War gave rise to a pacifist tradition in postwar West Germany. This was especially true of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens, today both in government.

Before 1990 there was an active peace movement on both sides of the inner-German border — socialist East Germany described itself as a “Peace State,” and many security experts speak of reunified Germany having a “values-first” foreign policy. Yet if postwar Germany has a (now-threatened) tradition of diplomacy over war and even pacifism, many of these supposed “values” are also a convenient justification for elements of the ruling class pursuing their own interests — especially with regard to Russia.

A Virtuous Circle?

While in recent years many liberals hailed Angela Merkel as filling in for the leadership role squandered by Donald Trump, this vastly overstated German virtue. Between 2018 and 2020, Germany sold €4.7 billion worth of weapons to Arab dictatorships including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and in 2020 it sold €1.16 billion worth to countries involved in conflict in Libya and Yemen, despite self-imposed rules meant to prevent this.

Merkel’s outgoing government rushed to approve a further €5 billion worth of arms deals in 2021, bringing total sales to a record-breaking €9 billion. The biggest recipient was General Sisi’s Egypt. The Green Party wants stricter rules on arms exports and criticized this move before it entered government in December — but, keen to be a reliable partner in international affairs, did not then try to cancel them.

While some measure of political sympathy for Putin derives from German guilt about the Nazis or Soviet nostalgia in the East, there are also civilizationist narratives and even yearning for an old-fashioned strongman. Last week, the head of the German navy had to resign on such grounds, after he caused outrage by commenting that Putin “deserves respect” and that he prefers “Christian” Russia to China.

Long before Putin was around, Willy Brandt — West Germany’s first chancellor from the SPD — advocated a more conciliatory foreign policy. This meant recognizing the western Polish border, the de facto existence of East Germany, and increasing trade with the Soviet Union. Ostpolitik, as imagined by Brandt’s assistant Egon Behr, sought “change through rapprochement.” Even today, many Social Democrats credit Ostpolitik with not just peace, but securing reunification itself.

Many SPD politicians’ respect for Brandt’s legacy means they tend to value negotiation and rapprochement over military conflict, especially with Russia. Senior figures like parliamentary leader Rolf Mützenich can make criticisms of NATO expansionism that sound almost like Jeremy Corbyn. This was displayed in 2016, when SPD foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (today president, a largely ceremonial role) condemned troop maneuvers in Poland that simulated a Russian invasion as “saber-rattling.” A foreign minister of a NATO member state condemning NATO troop exercises within another NATO country didn’t exactly show blind loyalty to the alliance.

However, far from being entirely values-based and altruistic, this foreign policy also serves German capital: in Brandt’s day the Federal Republic wanted to sell goods to the Eastern Bloc and use it as a source of cheap labor; now it needs Russian gas. Also indicative are Germany’s ties with China: it is Beijing’s biggest commercial partner in Europe, and trades more with that country than with the United States.

Industry figures rebut human rights protests by claiming that exposure to the prosperity brought by the free market will inherently rush along democratic progress and civil liberties — an ideology of convenience known as “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade). This is most cynically represented by former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a “Russia-understander” now on the board of both Russia’s second-biggest gas company and Nord Stream 2 — a project green-lit by Schröder himself.

Although it has Atlanticists in its ranks and wanted to join the Iraq war, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) also has dovish figures, especially when it comes to potentially expensive tensions with Russia. New CDU leader Friedrich Merz was happy to deride the SPD’s conciliatory approach to Moscow, until sanctions that excluded Russia from the SWIFT payment system started being floated as an option. The former BlackRock banker Merz denounced this prospect as an “atom bomb for the economy.” Markus Söder, head of the Christian-Democrats’ Bavarian sister party, spoke out against the same sanctions, especially those that “often damage us just as much.” Not surprising from someone who has personally visited Putin.

While today’s rhetoric may be tougher than when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, many on the center-right are keen to keep concrete measures that could hurt German companies off the table. Business leaders from the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations are themselves planning to meet with the Russian president.

Transatlantic Swingers

Thanks to a strange realignment, Germany’s most hawkish party is probably the Greens. Starting off as a ragbag of dissident communists, peaceniks, and antinuclear activists, they have ever-professionalized and ideologically adapted to become a party of the urban liberal middle classes.

Upon their first entry to the federal government in 1998, Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer sent the army into Kosovo; this was the postwar Bundeswehr’s first ever foreign deployment. At a special party congress, Fischer claimed this was necessary “to stop a new holocaust.” This wasn’t popular with all Greens at the time: at the congress Fischer was splattered with red paint and only narrowly won the vote, with many members leaving the party afterward. However, this did signal a fundamental shift, with the Greens abandoning their radical roots and accepting the Western security status quo.

Many of Fischer’s successors as Green leader have been members of the Atlantik-Brücke, an invite-only elite organization branded a “transatlantic swinger’s club” by a satire show. This path has been repeated by both Annalena Baerbock — who became foreign minister in December after being Green candidate for chancellor — and newly elected party coleader Omid Nouripour.

In her quest to be seen as moderate and realistic before last September’s election, Baerbock was at pains to differentiate her party from the Left, claiming that Germany’s security priority was “to be a competent and reliable partner.” She specified that this meant standing by NATO and aligning with the United States. Despite coming from the peace movement and being against nuclear energy at home, Baerbock claims Germany has a duty to stay part of NATO nuclear weapon sharing, even while also demanding the implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Being a reliable ally is clearly more important than consistently sticking to your policy beliefs.

Though many on the Left condemn the Green Party as “Olive Green” militarists, it is worth noting that they see a UN mandate as a precondition for foreign deployments and have proposed restrictions on weapons exports, especially to conflict zones and human rights violators. These vestiges of Green pacifism were, however, cynically ignored by the “realo” (centrist) leadership in the run-up to the 2021 election; ahead of a crackdown on protesters in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, the left-wing Die Linke proposed a motion banning all weapons exports to that country, a NATO member.

The Greens, not wanting to expose themselves to criticisms of not embracing NATO “from the heart,” hammered out a compromise that pleased no one: they abstained on the vote but tabled their own proposal to cancel German submarine contracts with Turkey. One might wonder how key submarines really are to Erdogan’s arsenal of domestic repression. The party has a blind spot looking westward: the European Greens wanted to ban anything produced with forced labor, but didn’t even consider the modern-day slavery of the US prison system.

Where is Die Linke in all this? It supports a foreign policy independent of NATO and the imperialist power bloc, and wants to stop almost all German weapons exports. MPs such as Sevim Dağdelen claim that the government is “saber-rattling by delivering helmets” (“helmet-rattling” sounds a little less dramatic) and undermines Germany’s role as a mediator. But as a divided force — and one easily written off on account of the share of “Putin-understanderers” in its ranks — Die Linke is marginal to public debate.

Russian Takeover?

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote for the Atlantic Council about Russia’s “other European invasion” — a supposed capture of the continent’s political elite. True, Putin is a master networker able to buy influence — and many in Europe’s political class are distinctly buyable. One might wonder, however, why this accusation is never leveled against organizations like the Atlantic Council, itself funded in large part by the British government, or to the many transatlantic think tanks and fellowships which convince German leaders to align themselves more closely with the United States.

This is clearly not just a tale of hired Russian stooges. (West) Germany has long benefitted from its middle-position between competing empires and power blocs. As both an industrial-export superpower and Europe’s true center of power, Berlin is far from vulnerable; it is no longer what Nikita Khrushchev memorably termed “the testicle of the West,” so easy to squeeze.

There are increasing siren songs from elite Atlanticists that Germany needs to earn its place in the sun by echoing Western imperial powers like the United States and UK, and that it should ignore the historical awareness and aversion to militarism that makes it unique among great powers. But Germany’s historical responsibility to countries of the former Soviet Union counsels continued efforts to de-escalate the conflict, rather than taking sides. In any case, given the precedents plus a certain Germanophobia, it is unlikely that many countries would really like to see a more militarily assertive Germany.

Even the relatively hawkish Baerbock’s main aim is de-escalation, being clear that Germany plays a different role within NATO to the United States or UK. According to her rather strained metaphor, not all members of a football team have to play the same position, and Germany shouldn’t be an attacking player: this isn’t Kosovo or Afghanistan where intervention could be justified citing the UN mandate. Ordinary Germans have no interest in sending weapons to kill Russians and even less so in sending their own troops to do it.

Ultimately politicians from across the political spectrum are unwilling to do anything that challenges Deutschland GmbH’s business-dominated political economy. While competing interests can give the impression of discord, the foreign policy divides in Germany’s elites are not as severe as they may at first appear. Whichever path Berlin takes, we can expect that monetary values will come first.