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Stop Being Surprised by Germany

Blinded by their own Cold War propaganda, Americans can’t see Berlin’s Ukraine policy for what it is

Jeremy Stern
June 27, 2022
Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images
Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Germany tries hard to make itself dull, but it still can’t help inspiring an unusual amount of exasperation around the world, for reasons that many if not most Germans believe to be deeply unfair. World War II ended over 75 years ago, after all, before the overwhelming majority of Germans today were born. And didn’t Germany denazify itself while other Western countries continued to pillage weaker nations in the name of colonialism, postcolonialism, anti-communism, and other isms? Isn’t Germany today the very model of a decent, grown-up modern society, repealing a Nazi-era ban on the advertisement of abortion services on the same day the United States turned back the clock on reproductive rights by 50 years? Why must Germany always be held to account?

The prevalence in Germany of this type of lament tends to obscure the actual reasons so many people—Americans, Britons, Poles, Balts, and especially Ukrainians—tend to roll their eyes at German policymakers. While world war has indeed been commendably removed from the policy menu in recent decades, the crimes of national solipsism and wishful self-contradiction remain as German as ever. See, for example, the performance of Chancellor Olaf Scholz over the last two weeks, during which he helped lead a pledge for Ukraine’s candidate status as a future member of the European Union, then dispatched his foreign policy adviser to clarify that Ukraine shouldn’t expect EU membership “just because you’re attacked,” then made an obviously unrealistic demand for more German voting weight in the European Council and greater representation in the European Parliament as a condition of Ukrainian membership. In other words, Germany supports Ukrainian accession to the EU, and the reason it probably won’t happen is that Germany will block it—a by-now familiar maneuver that has left many of the states stuck between Germany and Russia rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Trying to keep track of Berlin’s decisions and their relation to any underlying policy has been for many like trying to make sense of a drunk who keeps falling asleep.

In the last month alone, while insisting that “Putin must not win this war,” Scholz has blocked a sale of infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, diverting them to Greece so that Athens could be responsible for sending Kyiv its older stock instead. He has promised to send Ukraine 30 decommissioned anti-aircraft tanks it never asked for—and for which Germany has insufficient ammunition anyway—which are not slated to arrive until later this summer. And he announced his intention to send Ukraine an air-defense system the German Defense Ministry reportedly hadn’t ordered yet.

There is an undeniable Sprockets-like undertone to Germany’s policy gyrations.

The chancellor also spent the month of May making a show of refusing to visit Kyiv because he believed Volodymyr Zelensky—who was then organizing the evacuation of Mariupol—violated diplomatic etiquette by declining to receive Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s figurehead president and a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin. Scholz still refuses to say whether he would like Ukraine to win the war, and frequently calls for a “cease-fire” rather than a Russian withdrawal.

There is, moreover, an undeniable Sprockets-like undertone to these policy gyrations, as difficult as they can be to follow day-to-day or month-to-month. On the same day that the strategic Lyman railway hub fell to Russian forces, Scholz tweeted airily from a convention of Catholic pacifists (who were apparently debating whether Jesus was trans), “Can violence be fought with violence? Can you only create peace without weapons?” Indeed, Herr Chancellor.

Needless to say, even well-informed German commentators have been speculating about what kind of kompromat Putin might have on Scholz and other Social Democrats, or at least what kind of threats he must be making in private. Other common accusations range from Scholz’s supposedly poor communication skills to a more general German capacity for indecision, complacency, administrative sloth, and childlike credulity—qualities not otherwise associated with a country that dominates its political and economic environment with consistent and often ruthless determination.

It’s getting harder, in fact, to square the popular impression of Scholz and his cabinet as weak and confused naïfs who see the world as if from inside a Brandenburgian dollhouse with the reality that, for all its twists and turns, Berlin’s Ukraine policy has been firmly grounded in both German history and an interpretation of strategic realities more plausible than most of what passes through Brussels and Washington.

While President Joe Biden dispatched the U.S. attorney general to Kyiv last week to advise the Ukrainians on how to prosecute Russians for war crimes, Berlin performed a simple calculation. The German energy firm Uniper, Europe’s largest buyer of Russian gas, has seen shipments from Gazprom fall by more than quarter. Gazprom has reduced shipments to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline by 60%, and is about to shut it down completely for “planned maintenance” of undetermined duration. The longer Ukraine frustrates Putin’s attempts to win a conventional war, many Germans worry, the more inclined he’ll be to opt for a total gas embargo on Europe. A gas embargo might cause a German depression. Much of its industrial sector would simply shut down. There would be a fiscal crisis across the eurozone, and the return of a balance-of-payments crisis. European unity would split. Trans-Atlantic cohesion would crater.

There is no sense in pretending that Putin could never afford a gas embargo, German officials have come to believe, given the experience of sanctions. After the imposition of Western sanctions in March, Russian exports increased by 8% in April. The explosion in the value of Russian commodity exports means Putin’s current account surplus this year may double from last year, making the loss of his foreign exchange assets irrelevant. The West’s arrogant miscalculation about the size and importance of Russia’s economy contributed directly to ruinous dynamics that routinely convulse Western democracies: spiraling inflation, cost of living crises, a looming rise in immigration and refugee flows as supplies continue to fall. The consequences of the anti-Russia sanctions have been worse, Germans argue, than if we had imposed no sanctions at all.

While Olaf Scholz may have multiple fraud scandals in his past and all the political charisma of a former mayor of Hamburg, a more credible explanation for the gap between German rhetoric and policy with regard to Ukraine is that Berlin simply believes Moscow was right—right that the sanctions regime was doomed to fail, that Western financial and military support for Ukraine is unsustainable, that trans-Atlantic unity will fray, and that Russia will eventually win, no matter what kinds of weapons Germany provides or where it buys its gas. If Germany has a “special responsibility” to “remember history,” many German officials believe, it probably shouldn’t risk an economic catastrophe for the sake of the Donbas.

Americans have been especially susceptible to the idea that the German approach to the Ukraine conflict so far—and the two-decade Merkel era of which it is only the latest expression—represents a dramatic break with the historical legacy of 1989 and the diplomatic achievements of reunification. Yet current German policy appears well-aligned not only with Germany’s economic interests, but with the traditional German preference for serving as a “bridge” between Russia and the West—rather than as a bridgehead of the West in the East.

Americans are prone to their own varieties of solipsism in foreign policy, but there is a peculiar and little-understood reason why we seem to be doing a particularly bad job when it comes to Germany today. Paradoxically, it is not Germany’s struggle to come to terms with its own history that is to blame, but American Cold War efforts to suppress and replace that history with our own self-serving, tutelary mythology—which became a kind of self-evident gospel with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but which Germans themselves never believed.

The first thing Americans tend to forget about the war and the occupation period is that Germans experienced it very differently than Americans did. When Franklin Roosevelt announced a war policy of “unconditional surrender” in Casablanca in 1943, various U.S. officials opposed it for a number of reasons—but whatever its efficacy, there’s no doubt about how the policy was implemented. Allied strategic bombing campaigns killed approximately 400,000 civilians in Germany, wounded 800,000 more, and rendered 7.5 million homeless. The bombing of Hamburg killed 37,000 people in one week; the firebombing of Dresden killed 25,000 people in three days. Civilians, of course, were not collateral damage, but often deliberate targets of the Allied air raids.

There are many good reasons that require no elaboration for why we retain a clearer memory today of the supernatural evil of Auschwitz than of the apocalyptic violence of Dresden. But there is a specific reason why Americans tend not to remember the latter much at all.

In the two years after the Potsdam conference, American priorities in Europe were reaching a settlement with Stalin, withdrawal, and demobilization. There was nothing about “nation building,” in other words, no intention of “democratizing” Germans or even “liberating” them. (A directive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Eisenhower shortly after Roosevelt died clarified that “Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation.”) But after negotiations with Moscow broke down, Czechoslovakia fell to a communist coup, and Stalin blockaded Berlin, the United States quickly recognized that it would need a noncommunist bulwark in West Germany for the coming showdown with the Soviet Union. Washington initiated talks about German rearmament only five years after Hitler shot himself. The psychological foundation for a new U.S.-German relationship would have to be conceived.

It was far from obvious at the time that the occupation forces—a military dictatorship that owed its existence to the preceding wartime policy of violence maximization—would be able to rapidly convert Germans into a prosperous, democratic people. Nor was it clear whether American voters and soldiers would be open to considering Germans their friends. So the urgent but awkward need to anchor at least half of Germany in the emerging Western bloc gave birth to one of the earliest and still most salient official myths of the postwar American empire: “democracy promotion.”

Americans were henceforth in Germany not as victorious foreign occupiers, but as liberation forces sharing the light of democratic values, market economics, and freedom with the German majority, which had been held hostage by the Nazis but was now open to embracing the American way. And if Germans were eager to repress the recent memory of war and their widespread complicity as individuals and as a nation in a decade and a half of fascist crimes, Americans were suddenly eager to help them. By 1948, the defining image of U.S. involvement in Germany was no longer a sky blanketed by thousands of bombers setting German cities on fire, but of GIs passing out chocolate bars and nylon stockings and dancing with the natives to Benny Goodman as they broke the Soviet blockade of Berlin.

The way the Cold War ended suggests the democracy promotion myth was both effective and justified. From a distance of 75 years, it is also clear how it warped and in some cases deranged Americans’ understanding of a defining moment in their own history. Four generations of Americans have now grown up under the assumption that a primary legacy of “The Good War” is that the United States brought freedom and democracy to people and places where it had never existed before. In the case of Germany (among others) this isn’t exactly true—Germany before 1913 had a parliament, freedom of the press, and intellectual freedom, in some cases more robust than in the United States at the time.

In reality, the eventual West German growth miracle owed more to German corporatist economic principles, and to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community, than it did to any free-market values introduced by the United States. It would likewise take a special kind of self-deception to mistake Germany’s greatest postwar achievement—one of the world’s most effective and admirable welfare states, which harks back to Bismarck’s social bargain with the German labor parties—for a postwar American import. Yet it was the example of “democracy promotion” in Germany (and also Japan) that U.S. politicians and statesmen repeatedly invoked in their later misadventures, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The democracy promotion myth that American Cold Warriors invented to position West Germany as a key ally and U.S. dependency prevented later generations of Americans not only from understanding themselves, but from ever truly understanding Germany. Beneath the very real achievements of the Nuremberg trials, the Marshall Plan, and the Berlin airlift was the grubby reality that Americans played a remarkably limited role in Germany’s transition out of Nazism. The policy of denazification in particular left little trace: U.S. control of the press and campaigns to force German civilians to visit concentration camps and watch documentary films of German atrocities were brief, and had pointedly little effect on German attitudes during the years of occupation. By 1950, the vast majority of ex-Nazi teachers, bureaucrats, military officers, lawyers, and academics in both East and West Germany had been welcomed seamlessly into the new system. Neither Washington nor Moscow could afford to alienate their German clients for fear of losing them to the opposite bloc.

Nor did ordinary Germans experience life among the American occupation armies as fondly as Americans tend to remember it. Life in the immediate aftermath of unconditional surrender was far worse for most Germans than it had been under the Nazis. There were individuals like Gail Halvorsen, the “Berlin Candy Bomber,” and plenty of other Coca-Cola-drinking, Gary Cooper-miming American eyefuls (hence the U.S. War Brides Act of December 1945). But life in the rubble of cities like Hanover and Frankfurt was preferable only to the Soviet-occupied East, where the Red Army was officially sanctioned to rape and loot. In the years that followed the division of Germany, it was the Americans who were seen as prolonging the suffering of Germans by “using” them as pawns in their terrifying nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. Many Germans thus came to understand and remember World War II not on its own terms, but as a kind of overture to the main drama of the hateful Cold War.

The public American position that Germany should be made whole and free itself masked a deep and bipartisan but private recognition that the division of Germany actually served U.S. interests in Europe pretty well. The emergence of two separate Germanys in 1949 put an end to fears that Stalin might march the Red Army to Dunkirk; even the appearance of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was received with quiet relief in Washington, which had spent 12 sleepless years trying to avoid a nuclear standoff over the Allied status in the city. The foreboding image of an Iron Curtain still suggests darkness and tragedy—but from the standpoint of U.S. strategic interests (as opposed to popular American political aspirations), it was for many years preferable to a united, unaligned Germany playing Washington and Moscow against each other.

The fiction of an urgent U.S. desire for reunification also helped convince Americans over time that East Germans were, for the most part, victims like any other of Soviet imperialism and communist oppression. The 4 million East Germans who migrated to the West between 1945 and 1988—and the 140 East Berliners shot and killed at the Berlin Wall—testifies to the substance of the American assumption. But many East Germans also found in the German Democratic Republic both an escape hatch for uncomfortable memories of the Nazi period (blame for Hitler was assigned by the GDR exclusively to the West Germans and their capitalist overlords) and a familiar type of political system in which many ex-Nazis thrived alongside Jewish communists like the Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf. The writer Peter Schneider (often quoted by Tony Judt) referred to these dynamics as the “double zombification” of East Germans—a reality that contrasted for a while with the idea of a second Germany eagerly awaiting American liberation.

The effect on Americans of buying into their own Cold War mythologizing was that it eventually became difficult for U.S. observers and policymakers to understand what was really going on in and between the two Germanys. Ostpolitik, West Germany’s policy of détente with Eastern Europe and particularly East Germany that began after 1969, ushered in more than just a slackening of strained relations. The West Germans took the opportunity to flood East Germany with hard currency, propped up its imploding economy, and invested the GDR with a conspicuous degree of diplomatic and political legitimacy, helping to extend its zombified existence.

At the same time, social unrest in West Germany was providing evidence that the American democratic mythos had sprung some serious leaks. In the 1960s and ’70s, much of West German politics and society moved in the direction of the kind of hysterical anti-Americanism that still distinguishes parts of Germany today; as the Stasi and Baader-Meinhof gang murdered and kidnapped their fellow countrymen, West Germans turned out in historic numbers to protest U.S. actions in Vietnam and the location of U.S. short-range ballistic missiles. Popular books began to appear in West Germany on events supposedly not permitted in what would later be termed its Erinnerungskultur, or official “culture of remembrance”: the mass murder of innocent German civilians during the strategic bombing of German cities; the forced population transfer of innocent ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Balkans.

Franz Josef Strauss, then minister president of Bavaria and the leader of the Christian Social Union for three decades, famously pronounced during this period that “a people that has achieved such remarkable economic success has the right not to have to hear anymore about Auschwitz.” It was in fact not until the generation that came of age in the 1980s and ’90s that Germans transformed into a people intimately familiar and intensely conscious of the history of the Holocaust, some of the worst scenes of which had taken place in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on June 16, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on June 16, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.Alexey Furman/Getty Images

By the time the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union imploded, 55 years of mythologizing about the U.S. role in Germany and Europe had provided a ready-made explanation for what Americans saw on television: Communism collapsed because the United States had defeated it. The spirit of near-delirious triumphalism likewise applied to the U.S. interpretation of the significance of German reunification. Americans’ incomplete understanding of the Germans and postwar German history was perhaps never more vivid than when they rapturously applauded the return of a unitary German state—the wealthiest and most populous in Europe, stretching from Belgium to the Baltic Sea—before quickly moving on to more immediate problems, like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Yet it was not for nothing that Lech Walesa, founder of the anti-communist Solidarity trade union and the first-ever Polish president elected in a popular vote, commented as he watched the wall come down that Poland would “pay the price” for that happy event. Walesa couldn’t have known at the time that a reunified Germany would be anchored in NATO, the European Union, and a common European currency, or that a future Polish foreign minister would eventually come to “fear Germany’s power less than her inactivity.” He didn’t need to. What Walesa understood was that a reunified Germany would once again see itself as a “bridge” between East and West at just the moment the liberated peoples of the former Warsaw Pact were reaching for the long-awaited prize of self-determination: namely, membership in the West itself.

Today, the United States is once again putting itself at the center of someone else’s story—invoking Lend Lease and the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift to conjure the happy ending we’ve already determined is required of the Ukrainian nightmare. Rather than aim for a “dirty, contemptible compromise,” Washington has—rightly or wrongly—made support for an unconditional Ukrainian victory a litmus test for the American democratic ethos, even as American voters have started to lose whatever interest they had in helping the heroic Ukrainians. Convinced of their own centrality to the drama, U.S. leaders can’t or won’t understand that many U.S. allies can’t and won’t stake their futures on whatever the American position happens to be at any particular moment—because according to the internal logic of American partisan warfare, that position will be reversed every few years.

No one fears and loathes this toxic U.S. political dynamic more than our allies in Berlin. For them, Donetsk and Luhansk are simply not worth a Lehman-style contagion in Germany’s energy sector. Neither, for that matter, is Odessa, or Kyiv, or Transnistria, or the Suwalki Gap. And why, they ask, should it be otherwise? There is “our relationship with Russia [in the] future” to consider, as Scholz’s foreign policy adviser reminded Germans last week after the chancellor’s trip to Kyiv. “That is at least as exciting and relevant an issue.”

Americans are entitled to wonder what all this means for Germany’s status as a member of the Western alliance. What we’re no longer entitled to is surprise.

Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.