Germany: Is “The Ivan” Back?

The Russians are coming was a standard line when I was a child. Sometimes, everyone into the blockhouses would be added. it was meant to be fun, but there was an underlying fear in it.

Another term for Russians in general would be The Ivan*) (probably an echo from “Ivan the Terrible”). At least in West Germany, fear of Russia was part of collective post-war identity – much more so than in Britain or France.

There may be many possible explanations for this, and I tend to believe that it was a combination of several factors (Germany being subject to allied, including Soviet, control being one that lasted particularly long) was one of them. West Germany’s existence and raison d’être as a frontline state was another. And then, there was a widespread inclination among many Germans to see their country as a victim in the first place, rather than as an initiator of Nazism and boundless war.

By 1983, it had become evident, at least in certain quarters, that the USSR had lost most of its expansionary power. In terms of soft power, Moscows message had become about as attractive as athlete’s foot, and in military terms, the “Evil Empire” was grossly overestimated.

But there was a narrative, and as usual (when the narrative is well crafted), it prevailed over facts. On March 31, 1983, US president Ronald Reagan told a Los Angeles World Affairs Council Luncheon that

In the last 15 years or more, the Soviet Union has engaged in a relentless military buildup, overtaking and surpassing the United States in major categories of military power, acquiring what can only be considered an offensive military capability. All the moral values which this country cherishes-freedom, democracy, the right of peoples and nations to determine their own destiny, to speak and write, to live and worship as they choose—all these basic rights are fundamentally challenged by a powerful adversary which does not wish these values to survive.

Der Spiegel, back then a center-left and liberal German newsmagazine, took issue with Reagan. While the USSR was certainly no paper tiger, and while it was true that Soviet military had seen a huge push during two decades under Leonid Brezhnev (with American military budgets being  reduced by some 2.5 percent per year during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies), the USSR’s military power wasn’t as strong as first reported.

Shortly before a paper was published by US secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger (also in March 1983, and supportive of Reagan’s March-31 remarks), the CIA had retracted all its US statements concerning Moscow’s military budget:

military expenditures had been overestimated by fifty percent. Rather than by three, four, or more percent, there had been growth by a maximum of two percent since 1976.

Such subtleties, however, didn’t put Ronald Reagan off-message. His story remained the same; the Soviet Union was about to put an end to [a]ll the moral values which this country cherishes.

Fourty-year-old statistics like those debted in the early 1980s are hard to verify (or falsify). But in at least one respect, the Spiegel authors, in 1983, were wrong: contrary to what they believed (quoting “experts”), America proved able to finish the USSR off in a gargantuan arms race, and the factors that lead to the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991 were pretty much the weaknesses that the Spiegel authors themselves had pointed out less than a decade earlier.

The rest, as they say, is history. The world, from Alaska to Siberia (the long way round, of course), and from Pole to Pole, happily awaited huge peace dividends. After all, we had reached the end of history.

But Russia felt squeezed by NATO – understandably, the Baltic nations and Poland had felt rather urgently that they needed a strong reassurance against potential future Russian expansionism. (Not everyone appeared to trust the story about the end of history, and besides, a democratic society doesn’t necessarily live in a peaceful, unaggressive state.

Germans have viewed Russia – and the Soviet Union – differently since the mid-1980s. By 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had overtaken Ronald Reagan, in terms of popularity here. That didn’t change after the USSR’s demise: while Gorbachev was seen as a failure, or even a “sellout” of sourts, among many Russians, Germans considered him “the” man who had made German unification possible. And Boris Yeltsin‘s Russia, even if not looking terribly respectable at the time, certainly didn’t look like something to fear either.

In an article in Germany’s weekly Die Zeit, a Moscow correspondent stated in May 1994 that once again, a majority of Russians considered the end of the USSR a greater calamity than its beginnings, and that Russian reformers had not been successful in “learning from the West”, as stipulated by Yeltsin two and a half years earlier.

Yeltsin had to accept that the safeguarding of authority, which had for centuries been based on expansion rather than on enlightenment, could not be redesigned with a new constitution alone.

Jelzin hat einsehen müssen, daß Herrschaftssicherung, die seit Jahrhunderten durch Ausdehnung statt durch Aufklärung erfolgte, mit einer neuen Verfassung alleine nicht umgestaltet werden kann.

Only pacts and compromises with conservative forces could save the “autumn” of Yeltsin’s presidency, the correspondent wrote.

In economic terms, a Stratfor paper dating from November 1999 suggested that veterans of perestroika, such as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, could strip the oligarchs of their wealth and influence, and enact more centrist policies.

To quite an extent, this seems to be what Vladimir Putin‘s presidency has done. In its early years, it continued the ideological consolidation started by Yeltsin himself, and his administration began to implement a policy that the “Zeit” Moscow correspondent described as west-oriented as a matter of principle, but moving away from America in particular. […] In America, however, the “Zeit” article quoted Yeltsin, forces were concentrating that would like to keep Russia in a state of controllable paralysis. That said, Putin  – in the eyes of investors – may have arrived at a point similar to Yeltsin’s, by now. Too little appears to move, economically.

When reading the press these days – certainly the German press -, you might be forgiven if you think that Russian policies had fundamentally changed since the 1990s. But they haven’t. There has been a remarkable Russian continuity – and a tendency in the West to disregard realities in Russia, and in its remaining sphere of influence.

When late German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told Moscow in December 2013 that it was “not appropriate” for the EU “to ask third parties for permission before inviting the Ukraine to develop into Europe’s direction”, this represented widespread western- and central European illusions.

Russia, too, is a European country – most Russians live on the European continent, and Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Volgograd not least, are European cities. The discriminatory – and self-centred – approach of equating Europe with the EU has done much to its recent crises, be it on its eastern, be it on its northwestern boundaries.

There is an important difference to make: it would have been unethical if NATO had refused Polish or a Baltic country’s accessions, and it would have been particularly unethical if Germany a main author of Polish partition and loss of the Baltic states’ sovereignty,- had demanded such a refusal.

But in Ukraine, there had been no consensus to join an alliance with the West. In a row, administrations closer to Moscow or closer to the West had been elected, but there had been no continuity. There was Russian intervention, but there had been unwarranted Western interference prior to that. I have no doubt that any Russian leader, be it Putin, Yeltsin, or Gorbachev, would have reacted just the way Putin did. That was no matter of conviction; it was a matter of geopolitics.

Now, Germany’s federal government intends to counter Russian espionage, propaganda, and disinformation in Germany, writes German daily Die Welt. What they mean is, that Russian and pro-Putin publications have blown several issues in the news – issues that have recently troubled many Germans – out of proportions, or given them a slant that favored narratives from the fringes, rather than the much-conjured “center” of German society.

If the German public can be persuaded by domestic propaganda to swing back from a rather “russophile” (since the 1980s) to a rather anti-Russian attitude again (as from the 1940s to the 1970s) remains to be seen. But if the political class have their way, it is going to work that way.

That said, there are surprises, once in a while. In May 2015, Joachim Gauck, not particularly famous for being a friend of the Russian people, gave a speech in the Westphalian town of Schloß Holte-Stukenbrock, a prisoner-of-war campsite during World War 1 and, more notoriously, World War 2. What Gauck said, was this:

We have gathered here today in Schloß Holte-Stukenbrock to recall one of the worst crimes of the war – the deaths of millions of Red Army soldiers in German prisoner-of-war camps. They died in agony without medical care, starved to death or were murdered. Millions of prisoners of war for whose care the German Wehrmacht was responsible under the law of war and international agreements.

Saying that was laudable, especially as most Germans I know aren’t even aware of this chapter in their history. But there is a catch: to say something only once hardly changes anything. Only regular repetition – as anyone with just a faint idea of how propaganda works can tell you – will make sink inconvenient truths like these sink in. Most Germans I know aren’t actually aware of the scale of German warcrimes against Soviet war prisoners. And to make the warprisoner story sink in isn’t deemed desirable: neither by most of Germany’s media, nor by the German population in general, many of whom would like to see a Schlußstrich, a “final stroke” underneath the complete chapter of Nazism.

Some time in the early 1980s – prior to Gorbachev’s tenure as Soviet party secretary -, the West German foreign office published a booklet for use in school classes. Our school was a rather conservative environment, but the booklet made it into our classroom anyway. Titled “Aufrüsten-Abrüsten” (Armament-Disarmament), it was a try to educate us in foreign politics, and I don’t remember much of it. But there was a remarkable line in it which basically said that, no matter to which conclusions we, as school students, might come concerning the Soviet Union’s role in Europe, we should develop some sympathy – even if not necessarily acquiescence – in the light of the past.

I guess that this booklet had much to do with the man at the helm of the foreign office at the time – Hans-Dietrich Genscher, German foreign minister from 1974 to 1992, who died on Thursday. As phobic as West German feelings against the “East” might have been back then, there seemed to be an understanding, at least in some substantial quarters of the political class, that you can’t have peace without trying to understand those who may (or may not) become your foes, and that your own decisions may matter in the process.

This understanding may no longer be here, and I’m wondering how much misery it may take before we will regain some common sense.

____________

Notes

*) Max Frisch, in his novel “Homo Faber”, raised a modest monument for German anti-Russian sentiment, in the shape of an, as it turns out later, otherwise/actually/mostly quite likeable German philistine:

No German desired re-armament, but the Russian forced America into it, tragically, which I, as a Swissman […], couldn’t judge, because I hadn’t been to the Caucasus, he [the German] had been in the Caucasus, he knew the Ivan, who could only be taught a lesson with weapons. He knew the Ivan! He said that several times. Only possible lesson through weapons!, he said, because nothing else would impress him, the Ivan —

I peeled my apple.

Distinction between Herrenmenschen and Untermenschen, as advocated by the good Hitler, was, of course, nonsense; but Asians remained Asians —

I ate my apple.

Kein  Deutscher  wünsche  Wiederbewaffnung,  aber  der  Russe zwinge  Amerika  dazu,  Tragik,  ich  als  Schweizer   (Schwyzzer, wie  er mit Vorliebe sagte)  könne  alldies  nicht   beurteilen,  weil  nie im Kaukasus gewesen,  er sei  im  Kaukasus gewesen,  er  kenne den Iwan, der nur durch Waffen zu belehren sei. Er kenne den Iwan!
Das  sagte  er mehrmals. Nur durch Waffen zu  belehren!  sagte  er, denn alles andere  mache  ihm keinen Eindruck,  dem  Iwan   –

Ich  schälte meinen Apfel.

Unterscheidung   nach  Herrenmenschen   und   Untermenschen, wie’s  der  gute  Hitler  meinte, sei  natürlich  Unsinn;  aber  Asiaten bleiben Asiaten –
Ich  aß meinen Apfel.

____________

6 Comments to “Germany: Is “The Ivan” Back?”

  1. In my modest opinion, Russia cannot be considered a European country. There are certain attitudes towards politics and religion which people share all over Europe, but which the Russians don’t. It’s very clear from my experience that Russian culture and attitudes differ significantly from European ones, including Eastern, Western and Southern European ones. In their eagerness for a strongman who can solve the country’s problems, and their willingness to overlook the abuse of individuals’ rights in favour of the “greater good”, the Russians are closer to the Chinese than to the Europeans.

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  2. I think there’s a EU mainstream ideology that can make it kind of easy to consider Russia non-European – but by the same standard, many French people would not be European, and Poland (a country which considers itself the heart of this continent, not least ideologically) could be on its way “out of Europe”. This may sound absurd, but to me, the idea that Russia should not be a European country looks equally absurd.

    If Russians are really more “Chinese” than “European” – I’m trying to join the thinking game by your rules -, I think they’d be a stubbornly Taoist minority, far from sticking to the mainstream ideology. Yes, most of Russians do believe in the concept of strongman leadership, but only very few of them seem to become sycophants in the process. To me, the general Chinese relationship with the powers that be is less complex than that of Russians. Russians like to listen and to argue, they are usually open for debates, even if they change nothing, and they don’t object to “disharmonies”.

    In discussions with Chinese people – no matter if I know them well or if we’ve never met before -, exchanges of arguments look predictable to me. Not so in a debate with a Russian.

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  3. Ok, Russians obviously don’t come from a Confucian background. That doesn’t alter the fact that they are very different from Europeans. Over the last 100 years, their ideological trajectory has been much closer to the Chinese one. So are the realities of their lives. Their regime has gone from professing Marxism to promoting a cynical, nationalistic world-view based upon anti-Americanism and paranoia over foreigners trying to break up the country.

    I have know Russians in China, and it seems to me that while their comments on the behaviour and lifestyle of the Chinese are similar to the ones Westerners make, their attitude towards China’s political system is very different. Basically, they admire the Chinese government for being strong and resisting the Americans. I have known a few Russians who expressed such views.

    There is really no great reason to consider Russians European, except that they are white. Yes they are Christian, but so are Ethiopians. Their lifestyle and mentality show obvious differences from the European norm. That isn’t true of France or Poland, even though every European country has its particularities.

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  4. Personally I find all this talk about the Russians “not being European” rather reminiscent of the way my own countrymen in the UK are occasionally talked about. Defining “European” on the basis of what some people living primarily in the Low Countries and the lower reaches of the Rhine believe being “European” to be is a nonsense: Europe, if it exists at all, has to be much more than that – it has to embrace the Balkans, the Baltics, the Balearics, and the Boyne as well as Brussels.

    A couple of months ago I was in Luxembourg on business: it was easy to see how the residents of a country enriched by the hosting of major European institutions paid for by others might be enthusiastic about the EU, especially with this richness added to by companies from the world over moving their European operations there to take advantage of the low (non-existent in many cases) corporations tax rate. Things look rather different from any country to which this arrangement is detrimental, and their enthusiastic talk about the EU sounds somewhat self-interested and vacuous.

    All the same, I find myself reluctantly pro-staying in the EU, and a part of the reason for why is the actions of the Russian government – never mind what the cultural values of the Russian people are, it’s the (lack of) principles that their government exercises that I find most concerning. Their attempts to undermine the EU by invading and annexing the territory of countries that wish to join it, and their suspected funding of extremist parties throughout the EU, call for us all to stand together, not just under the military banner of NATO, but also the economic and cultural banner of the EU.

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  5. I certainly wouldn’t define Europe on the basis of the norm in Benelux and Germany, since I have never lived in those countries. I have lived in two European countries, Italy and Britain, both of which are pretty far from that norm. In fact, both countries feel somewhat peripheral, and the people talk about Europe as if it was somewhere else.

    All this doesn’t stop me from seeing one thing: in terms of politics and ideology, all European countries have something in common which Russia just doesn’t. As much as the British, Polish and Italians may be quite far apart in terms of lifestyle and culture, their basic values don’t change that much. Russia is another story however (as is Belarus, and some other ex-Soviet countries).

    I think contemporary European values can be defined as secularism (as opposed to the Muslim world to its south-east) and pluralism, democracy and a suspicion of nationalism and militarism (as opposed to the Russian neighbour to its East).

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