Merkel in Moscow: What does the legacy of WWII mean for Germany?

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Questions:

1. What does the WWII mean for Germans after 70 years, how much is the Germany society, politics, culture influenced by the legacy of the WWII?

2. Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Moscow on May 10. Of course, situation is totally different, but still, bearing in mind what happened 70 years ago, what does the fact that Russia and Germany are politically on opposite sides because of Ukraine crisis mean for Germany?

Answers:

Alexander Clarkson, Lecturer in German and European & International Studies, King’s College London

1. Of course the memory of the second world war still plays a very large role in German society. In particular, the contemporary democratic German state draws its legitimacy from the claim that its institutions have decisively turned away from the nationalist and imperial traditions that made the National Socialist state possible. This ‘never again’ narrative provides the foundations for Germany’s institutions and their turn towards European, multilateral and democratic frames through which to legitimise their actions.

For the wider population, the central role of the war period and the holocaust in historical education also help to reinforce public memory. It is still a frequent theme that recurs in television, film and the arts and it there are many regular references to it on a day to day level. Yet if you step back a little, you can see how in terms of everyday life the role of World War II has receded a little as more recent historical developments have come to play perhaps as important a role. The legacy of the GDR and the waves of mass immigration from 1945 to 2001 have had left a more recent impact on day to day life, one to which many Germans are still having difficulty adjusting.

Thus while in public discourse there is a (apart from vocal fringe elements on the radical right) consensus about the terrible legacy of National Socialism and the need to overcome it, the memory of the GDR and reunification as well as of the impact of 1950s-1990s mass immigration is fiercely contested, leading to deep divisions within the mainstream of German society.

2. So while the legacy of the Second World War and National Socialism are still hugely important in German society, it is no longer solely defines political legitimacy, identity and debate. Rather it now sits aside deeply contested discourses surrounding the legacy of the GDR and mass immigration to West Germany in shaping cultural understandings of national identity.

On the second question, this isn’t the first time Germany and Russia have been on the opposite sides of a geopolitical divide. West Germany was a pillar of the Cold War alliance against the Soviet Union, which (incorrectly) many Germans still conflate with Russia. For many in the CDU/CSU, which was always more hawkish during the Cold War, a robust stance marks a return to a clear political tradition of Westbindung and alliance solidarity going back to the Adenauer era. For many East German CDU members, who largely stem from church-based groups hostile to the SED and the Soviets during the Cold War period, a robust response to Putin’s actions also connects well with a long tradition of hostility to Moscow’s anti-democratic expansionism. While some within more economically focussed CDU circles dislike sanctions, a large swathe of both Eastern and Western German Christian Democracy is able to distinguish between the Soviet Union of 1945 and Putinist Russia. Both von der Leyen and Merkel share this worldview.

It is the German Left that has been deeply divided by the current crisis. The Linke, building on its tradition as a successor party to the SED is deeply hostile to current support for Ukraine and containment of Russia. The Greens, as a party that grew out of civil society movements in East and West has deep contacts to civil society networks across Central and Eastern Europe including Ukraine. As a consequence it had a pretty robust attitude to Putin’s Russia even before the Crimea seizure and is unwilling to work with any party or movement that tries to whitewash the current regime in Moscow. The SPD is deeply divided and disoriented. While there is deep shock at Putin’s actions, the party’s leadership still has difficulty coming to terms with the failures of its Ostpolitik focus on Wandel durch Annäherung and remains deeply uncomfortable with moves to isolate Russia and rebuild NATO defences in response to Putin’s aggressive moves. With the Ostpolitik model in tatters, the SPD is still struggling to find a policy approach that is not seen to be weak while still maintaining dialogue with Russian elites in a way that reflects Germany’s particular historical relationship with former Soviet states.

These ideological divisions between the parties is reflected in popular discourse, where differing attitudes towards the current crisis often reflect the political background or loyalties of individual members of the public voicing their opinions. On the level of high politics, the current conflict is helping to consolidate and unify the Christian Democratic centre right, while creating deep divisions between the various parties on the Left that would need to work together if they want to push the CDU/CSU entirely out of power. All of this makes it difficult to see what could prevent Merkel from retaining the Chancellorship for quite a while yet, perhaps after 2017 in coalition with a Green Party that shares her focus on containing Russia.

Stanley Payne, Professor Emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of History

1. Probably, I think, a great deal of suffering and loss. That of course is not so different from the attitude of citizens of countries victimized by Germany, but a difference in Germany is that the latter has done better than any other perpetrator country in its Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, even though there is now more of a purely “historical,” less politico-guilt ridden, attitude than in the past.

2. Germany is now the leader of the EU, so its position vis-a-vis the Ukraine question is inevitably adversarial to Russia. These and other things show that in the 21st century Germany has “normalized” and returns to a more active role.

Richard Overy, Professor of History at University of Exeter

1. Germans are still very influenced by the legacy of World War II because it has shaped the development of postwar German politics and culture by leaving little public space for ultra-nationalism and creating high public awareness of issues of racial discrimination and political illiberalism. There are nevertheless two approaches now to memory of the war. The first emphasizes German responsibility and acknowledges the crimes of the Hitler regime in acts of public memory, particularly the Holocaust. The second tries to see Germans too as victims, both of the Hitler dictatorship but also of the bombings and the Soviet occupation (mass rapes etc). This second view deflects attention from the criminal character of the Hitler regime while highlighting German suffering. The first is associated with the mainstream democratic politics in Germany, the second with the extreme right. Memory of the war is still closely linked to politics.

2. The decision of chancellor Merkel to go to Moscow is a sensible decision because the crisis over Ukraine has no bearing on memory of the war and is not related to the wartime legacy. Nothing will be gained by trying to see the Ukraine crisis through the lens of the German-Soviet conflict. I think Merkel’s visit will emphasize this. I admire here political stance, which is firm but not confrontational or strident. The German public will nevertheless not be unanimous in support, given the divisions that exist (see answer 1). Cheap historical analogies are very easy to make, but are out of place here.

Richard EvansRegius Professor of Modern History, University of Cambridge

The memory of World War II for Germans, as for Americans, is less important nowadays than the memory of National Socialism and its crimes, which of course reached their worst extent during the war but were by no means confined to it. Memorials to the victims of Nazism are everywhere in reunited Germany, especially in Berlin. The military side of the war, whether in North Africa or the Middle East or Europe, or at sea, has been largely forgotten. On the other hand, the mass bombing of German cities is very much in the public memory. and a substantial minority of Germans consider themselves victims too because of it.

Germans have not forgotten that the Red Army played a, perhaps the major part in defeating Hitler, but in recent years more attention has been paid to the rapes, murders and other atrocities it committed in Germany during the course of its invasion in 1944-45. However, I do not think that more than a tiny minority of Germans equate this with the atrocities committed by the SS and the German armed forces in the course of their invasion of the East in 1941-43, though most people in the Baltic States and many in Poland do.

2. Chancellor Merkel is aware of the closeness of Ukraine to Germany and has consistently played a mediating role, rejecting calls from neocons in America for military action; I do not therefore think it entirely correct to claim that Germany and Russia are on opposite sides in the crisis. It is very much in Germany’s interest to settle it peacefully, and I do not think that memories of World War II are very relevant to this process.

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One Response

  1. Reblogged this on Andreas Umland.

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