The Irish Times view on Germany and Russia: reassessing a key relationship

A franker and more public examination of Berlin’s past relationship with Putin’s Russia is now justified

Historian Heinrich August Winkler has written many standard works on Germany’s past. So, when he speaks out, many listen. Last week they heard him accuse the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) of “not facing up to reality” on Russia.

In a blistering letter, Winkler and four less prominent historians said Chancellor Olaf Scholz had failed –repeatedly – to show “unambiguous solidarity” towards Ukraine. Instead of making arguments for more military aid, they suggested, the chancellor had tied himself up in “arbitrary, erratic and often factually incorrect” arguments for doing less.

They reserved the greatest criticism for Rolf Mützenich, the SPD’s Bundestag leader, for asking, rhetorically, if the time had come to think about how to “freeze” the conflict. Such logic meant an effective end to the war, they warned, “in favour of the aggressor”. Such swipes against the SPD are not new and Berlin has answers ready for most critics. They point out how, since February 2022, Germany has, along with Poland, been Ukraine’s biggest supplier of arms while accepting the largest number of refugees.

But Winkler is not most critics. He has been an SPD member for 60 years. He knows how many in his party view themselves as heirs to former chancellor Willy Brandt. They credit Brandt’s 1970s Ostpolitik for thawing the Cold War through rapprochement and trade.

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Winkler is just the latest critic to suggest that many in Germany happily distorted this legacy to justify a profitable push into post-1989 Russia. In this argument, emotion and sentiment – in particular lingering war guilt – compounded a blindness to the risks of Russian energy dependence.

Germany’s discredited Russian policy had many masters over the last decades but most often with SPD fingerprints. Last year party co-leader Lars Klingbeil stated the obvious – his party’s previous Russia policy was a mistake – but failed to state why those mistakes were policy.

Similarly, Rolf Mützenich conceded he had “underestimated completely” Putin’s imperialist thinking – but did not explain Berlin’s wilful deafness to warnings from its eastern neighbours, including those whose territory Putin began carving off.

The letter has focused these criticisms and left the SPD struggling to explain who speaks for the party on Russia. Olaf Scholz has influence as chancellor, but he is not party leader; Mützenich, meanwhile, enjoys considerable support in the parliamentary party. This is the party that, in its 2021 manifesto, asserted: “peace in Europe cannot be organised against, only with, Russia”.

SPD leaders have invited the historian critics for a meeting after Easter. A more public, frank examination of its bias and blindness on Russia would benefit Germany – and Europe as a whole.

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