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.
*) 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.