Contradictions in the German Discourse Around the War in Ukraine

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany was dumbfounded. For years there had been a broad, if not unanimous, consensus that a full-scale war would be out of the question even though Russia was clearly following its own agenda in Ukraine and desired more influence. As late as December 2021, with Russian troops massing at the border, the public broadcast station mdr ran an article entitled “The Russians don’t want war.” It listed all the reasons why the outbreak of major armed conflict was not in the cards. This assessment accurately captured the prevailing wisdom among most German policy experts at the time, which led to considerable confusion when the (allegedly highly improbable) invasion finally unfolded. The immediate reaction was a shock that easily surpassed any major war within the past thirty years and quite possibly beyond that. It seemed hard to make sense of the situation, even though Germany’s political experts are highly experienced in rationalizing situations according to the needs of the national agenda. The following article tries to examine this confusion and its impact on Germany’s political landscape that will likely continue to reverberate for many years to come. In the first part I shall try to provide a short characterization of a few general considerations of German foreign policy that are by no means exhaustive, yet necessary to understand what generally shapes considerations of international relations in Germany. Then, in the second and third part, I will try to show how those considerations were applied to the situation in Ukraine specifically and shaped the German response to the conflict both abroad and domestically. Finally, I shall have a look at the German left, whose disarray in response to the war has all but mirrored the general confusion in Germany.

From the outset, German policy on Ukraine was situated within another framework than the one prevalent in other wars, as for instance Kosovo, Darfur, or Iraq were in the late nineties to early aughts. The essential difference to those conflicts was that the open conflict with Russia not only threatened a pillar of German energy—namely Russian gas imports—but also put the strategic position of Germany as a Mittelmacht [untranslatable, roughly “middle power”] to a test that was at odds with the very structure of this role. This German self-conception alludes to several things at once: It first became popular in the seventies, following Waldemar Besson’s formula of Germany as a middle state between the ussr and the usa that was not only geographically situated in between those two, but also had to act as a political intermediary. Furthermore, the Mittelmacht concept terminologically distinguished the rather limited capabilities of the German state from the vastly superior international force of the so-called superpowers.1 Lastly, the commitment to serve as a Mittelmacht entailed an ostentatious disavowal of pursuing national(ist) interest, or at least of publicly articulating them, which became a tool of German foreign policy in its own right. Deliberately presenting itself as an honest broker became part of the Federal Republic’s political capital and granted it a seat at the negotiating table even if Germany had no proper involvement in the issue at hand. This can be exemplified with the negotiations over Iranian nuclear program. These talks were conducted by the so-called P5+1 group: the “five” being the members of the un’s security council, the “plus one” being Germany.

Such a strategy enabled Germany to have a say in international matters while the lion’s share of the expenses was shouldered by other parties. Maintaining this position made it necessary to pursue its own interest with a putative modesty. In consequence, Germany developed a tendency to realize its aims by expressing approval or disapproval towards the activities of its allies and partners, thus creating the impression that it simply acted out of diplomatic necessity rather than in pursuit of its national agenda.

Understanding this strategy is crucial to get a grasp on Germany’s position towards Ukraine that consists of simultaneously acting as a part of nato while at the same time acting as a permanent obstacle within it. Germany’s opposition to Ukraine’s membership action plan in 2008 is paradigmatic in this regard.2 When the us administration at the time proposed nato membership for both Ukraine and Georgia at the alliance’s Bucharest summit, France and Germany blocked the corresponding motion. While France at least somewhat coyly and only semi-officially admitted that this was due to Russia’s firm opposition to the plan, Germany insisted on stressing that the main reason was Ukraine itself, specifically the corruption in the country: Condoleezza Rice mentions in her memoirs that France was hesitant at first but finally fell in line with Germany’s reservations.3

In the case of Ukraine, this form of foreign policy is catalyzed by the contradictory material interests that are intertwined with possible positions towards Russia’s war. Historically, Germany’s reemergence as Europe’s economic motor was predicated upon its firm integration with the Western Bloc through nato and the ensuing ideological commitments as expressed in the so-called fdgo [freiheitlich demokratische Grundordnung]. The fdgo can be understood as an implicit negation of the socialist east on the one hand and the fascist past on the other: it institutionalized a tendency of Germany’s ideological state apparatus to rely on its Western allies that also guaranteed the security of capitalist reproduction in Germany. Until today, Axel Springer Verlag, which also publishes Germany’s biggest daily newspaper (bild), contractually asks its authors to affirm their commitment to maintaining Germany’s status as part of the “Western states” [westliche Staatengemeinschaft].4

Yet, ignoring the warnings of its “Western” allies—notably the two Donalds, Trump and Tusk—Germany has increased the reliance of its material reproduction on Russia. Donald Trump’s repeated claims that 70 percent of German natural gas came from Russia were a typical exaggeration. Yet in the wake of the Russian invasion in February 2022, German politicians were forced to publicly concede that the critics of German energy supply by Russian companies warning of political blackmail by Russia had been proven right.5 This debate, which keeps influencing the reasoning of the German political establishment, emerged in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukraine crisis.

Up until then, the political establishment had managed to portray Gazprom’s increasing penetration of the energy market as a pluralization, which was true at least to the extent that the cooperation of the chemical giant basf with Gazprom in the 1990s broke the pipeline monopoly of Ruhrgas.6 In fact, pluralization was complemented by the political argument of rapprochement with Russia, which since the Cold War era had been a means of German Ostpolitik under the “change through trade” concept. Given the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy in 2014, however, this suddenly turned from a bonus into a malus. Against its own wishes, Germany was predestined to take a leading role in coordinating European activities in response to the unfolding crisis. Not in spite but precisely because of Germany being Russia’s most important European trading partner, all eyes were on Berlin, which was left with little choice but to spearhead the very sanctions that would directly affect its own economy in significant ways: in 2015, the German share of the loss in trade volume due to the sanctions regime amounted to almost 40 percent. This was almost tenfold higher than France, which, in comparison, had to put up with just 4.1 percent.7 The fact that the concessions made by German foreign policy in the context of these sanctions were made much more grudgingly can be seen quite well in the speed with which the rapprochement with Moscow was resumed as soon as the international attention on this issue died down. Whereas in 2017–2018, the debate on Russian influence in the us elections and the Skripal affair acted as spoilers, in 2019, the continued stagnation of the Minsk process no longer prevented Germany from seeking a rapprochement with Russia at the diplomatic level: on the economic level, it had never quite ended anyway as the reliance on Russian gas remained a constant in German planning.8

It was not until the recognition of the People’s Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk on February 22, 2022, that Chancellor Scholz finally decided to put an end to the prestigious, yet controversial Nordstream 2 project—a pipeline that until then had been emblematic of Germany’s special approach to Putin’s Russia and whose accompanying ideological program had blossomed into something as absurd as the sponsoring of several attractions in Germany’s largest amusement park.

To summarize: Even if one were to subscribe to a somewhat simplistic understanding of the notion of material interest, Germany’s position with regard to the Ukraine crisis was riddled with contradictions from the very outset.

Ideology and interest

It was precisely this contradictoriness—or, if one sticks to Althusser, the overdetermination—of the situation that ensured that no ideological uniformity emerged in the German response to Putin’s war of aggression. As far as the press apparatus was concerned, the journalist Hasnain Kazim summarized the state of affairs in ZEIT weekly on May 30. In an article entitled “Can it be that democracy is doing fine?” Kazim sang the praises of the “debate culture in Germany,” alleging one had to attest that its disputes “are largely oriented toward content, despite all their harshness.”9 In defiance of cancel culture and social division, he rejoiced, there was now an open debate on the ways to shape the long-neglected relations with Eastern Europe, the dependence on a totalitarian Chinese state, and the manner in which human rights and freedoms can be defended most efficiently. Offering his concluding verdict on the supposedly open debate culture in Germany, he brought to the fore the whole cynicism of a take such as his: “One could speak of an intellectual spring, if this were not forbidden in view of the catastrophic situation of the people in Ukraine.”10

In reality, Kazim’s argument was rooted in the fact that the sudden outbreak of war set in motion contradictions that up to that point had been in an indissoluble stalemate, and that the bleak technocracy gave way to a mirage of intellectual heroism in which every open letter and every position had a virtual influence on the course of the war. It was precisely the indecisiveness of the war that enabled German realpolitikers to mobilize it as an argument and bargaining chip on issues that were considered difficult to negotiate in Germany: rearmament of the Bundeswehr, the composition of the energy mix, the position of the Federal Republic in international affairs, especially with regard to its willingness or unwillingness openly assume a leadership role (in Europe?), and finally, the question of the Germans’ relationship to their state as a whole. Each of these debates could claim to have a factual basis in the structure of the conflict: the crux of the matter remained that they were not designed to end the war in Ukraine.

While public statements, especially by the foreign minister, sometimes went so far as to decree that a “peace of surrender” was unacceptable—a position that went far beyond the line usually peddled by proponents of arms exports, namely that it was the people of Ukraine and not the Germans who had to decide whether they were tired of fighting—material aid to Ukraine fell far short of expectations and even promises. The prelude in this respect had been the delivery of 5,000 steel helmets at the beginning of February, instead of 100,000 units of protective equipment including helmets, which Ukraine had hoped for. The alleged “gesture of solidarity” (Defense Minister Lambrecht) drew scorn not only within Germany and, in the runup to the war, raised the question whether German solidarity was little more than a paper tiger. In concrete terms, German officials were extremely reluctant to provide aid as far as concrete material support was concerned. In addition to heady declarations of solidarity and appeals to perseverance, Germany provided enough aid by absolute numbers to place fourth among international donors (after the usa, the eu, and the uk) but in terms of gdp it was only enough for fourteenth place.11 Compared to other eu countries, especially the neighboring Baltic states and Poland, Germany’s response could therefore have been much more resolute if not for the lack of political will. However, Germany’s move to block Russia’s expulsion from swift—citing potential economic repercussions—raised early doubts that such will could ever emerge to the same extent as in other Western countries.

In general, the main burdens on the German economy as a result of the Russian attack on Ukraine were less due to the aid to Ukraine rather than because of changes in the relations with Russia, whose most significant influence is its centrality for German energy supply. Consequently, the German government refrained from using the most sensitive economic lever in its policy vis-à-vis Russia: it is not least thanks to its effort that no European gas embargo against Russia came about, as the projected economic consequences with additional costs of up to 1,000 euros per capita seemed too threatening in spring.12 Not only with regard to the conflict dynamics in Ukraine, but also to its own budget, Berlin’s hesitation ultimately brought about the worst of both worlds.

The combination of verbal armament and a willingness to fight “to the last Ukrainian” all while refusing to provide the Zelensky government with the forms of military support it urgently demanded led to a situation in which 1.2 billion euros in aid had flowed into Ukraine by August. However, during the same period Germany compensated the allegedly hostile Russia with 12.5 billion in June for the gas it had supplied since the outbreak of the war.13 From the beginning, the line was that a Ukrainian “peace of surrender” was to be avoided at all costs, which precluded attempts to undermine Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in exchange for de-escalation: at the same time, however, Germany proved incapable of pushing the Russian Federation into a position of weakness in the long term or giving up its own dependencies. Decreeing end to Russian gas imports by 2024 instead of forcing a switch to alternatives as early as this spring not only shored up Russian financial reserves and thus its war chest but it also failed to create incentives to bring about alternative supply options in timely manner, which would have minimized the economic consequences:14 To some extent, this echoed Germany’s approach in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when it had declared Russian gas to be without any alternative.15 This time around, Germany maneuvered itself into a situation allowing Putin to take a position of strength vis-à-vis Europe and effectively retaliate against European sanctions. September brought a complete halt to gas deliveries through the Nordstream 1 pipeline. In the end, the gas embargo came in spite of everything: yet it was Russia pulling the trigger, and not the West.

Irrespective of how one ultimately assesses the German reaction to the Russian aggression, there was one obvious lesson: In the end, it is neither debates, nor declarations or positioning of any kind that proved decisive, but rather the interests of capitalist statehood in a narrowly understood sense. Just as German politics did not count on the fact that even the most sworn-in population would comply with privations forced on them over the winter—even the otherwise resolute Annalena Baerbock declared that gas embargoes were out of the question given the prospect of popular uprisings—so too will the lively feuilleton debates not cause significant changes in the concrete policies of the federal government. Nevertheless, debates about the war did not simply go nowhere: instead, the ensuing insecurity led to new dynamics in domestic disputes.

Zeitenwende: Between “Sondervermögen” and “Gasumlage”

Whereas Germany stuck to the Western consensus as far as possible—ideologically, at least—on the international stage, while still keeping open its channels to the East, a clear change was perceptible with regard to the home front. Perhaps for the first time since 1945, German ideologists considered themselves to be a direct party to a war. Of course, not everyone went as far as Spiegel best-selling author Katrin Eigendorf, whose book Putin’s War. Wie die Menschen in der Ukraine für unsere Freiheit kämpfen [Putin’s War: How the People in Ukraine Are Fighting for Our Freedom], explicitly linked German freedom to the fighting in Ukraine. However, that the political viability of her position was certainly politically viable was testified to not least by the German foreign minister’s confession that Ukraine was also defending “our freedom, our order of peace.”16 There was a clear preference early on for an interpretation that conceived of the nation, at least virtually, as being under attack. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, Chancellor Scholz had delivered a speech in which he described February 24, 2022, as a “turning point [Zeitenwende] in the history of our continent.” He went on to affirm that “we want and will secure our freedom, our democracy and our prosperity… It shatters the European security order as it has endured for almost half a century since the Helsinki Accords.”17

This rhetoric went far beyond the statements that Foreign Minister Fischer had made in 1999 about the war in Kosovo: although it was recognized as a war with German participation, it was a war in which the Bundeswehr essentially acted as a humanitarian intervention force to mediate an external conflict. In other words, at that time it was a question of the Bundeswehr participating in the war, whereas this time the participation of the state of Germany—albeit as an imposed one—was on the agenda: our security order, our freedom and our democracy had been attacked.

This point could not be entirely dismissed: there is an argument to be made that February 24 was also an attack on the Pax Americana, which as of yet remains one of the most decisive components of Germany’s security considerations. The attack on Ukraine, which was not formally under nato’s protection but had long since received the us blessing for its membership application and considerable military support since 2014, confronted the German leadership with the inevitable question of whether, going forward, the big brother across the Atlantic would still guarantee peace and security in Europe. In this sense, it was only logical that one of the first consequences of the war resulted in announcing a special fund of 100 billion euros for the Bundeswehr, thus bringing the German defense budget at least close to the 2 percent demanded by nato.

Thus, the unity government of the spd, fdp, and Greens would now realize what the nominally left-wing parties of the coalition—i.e., the spd and Greens—had steadfastly opposed under the aegis of the cdu as late as 2019 and 2022: an increase in the defense budget, for which even the debt ceiling had to be lifted by a two-thirds majority of the Bundestag. While calls by the Left Party to spend the money on social issues instead had been foreseeable, thirty deputies from the rightwing populist afd also refrained from voting for the motion, even though at least half of their parliamentary group was in favor of it. In the end, an overwhelming majority of 590 to 80 decided that an increase of its defensive capabilities was in Germany’s interest.

The votes of liberals and conservatives in favor of rearmament to defend human rights testify to the fact that the Zeitenwende is the confident admission that the European order comes from the barrels of guns and that the Social Democrats and Greens will fall in line with the military needs of this order. The astonishing unity with which the nation’s representatives appeared on this issue anticipates a possible resolution of the split that had existed in recent years between the left and right wings of capital, described by Nancy Fraser as the opposition between reactionary populism and progressive neoliberalism. The fact that Ukraine can serve as a projection surface for two kinds of longings helps: on the one hand, it can rightly claim to be a bastion of civil freedom—especially for people from the lgbtqiap+ spectrum—at least relative to the Russian Federation; on the other hand, its national ethos even appeals to broad swathes of the right.

However, this theoretical potential to bridge divides does not mean that the entire political spectrum has actually rallied behind the official line: after all, projections to the contrary are also to be had with the military adversary. The initial Russian justification of the campaign as an antifascist measure could appeal to paleo-Left sympathies for the legal successor of the Soviet Union. At the same time, rightwingers could approve of a supposed military strike against Jewish corruption and the Globohomo elite. Still, beyond small splinter groups of the “lunatic fringe,” hardly anyone was ever demanded more than an end to the sanctions regime against Russia. The fact that there were voices on both ends of the political spectrum arguing for moderation—contrary to the hegemonic ideology, which called for a tougher stance on Russia—in turn enabled the nato-sympathetic bloc of ideological state apparatuses to marginalize this position extremist. The fact that similar demands were also made by factions that could qualify as either left radicals or right extremists, including trade unions and East German middle-class companies, did little to soften such an interpretation. But at best this was a topical marginal note in the political section of German newspapers.

The fact that both wings of capital met in this dual strategy, which ideologically favored a tougher approach and but politically and economically sought to curb the harsh measures advocated both west and east of Germany’s borders, demonstrated that something about it was entirely in the interests of the German state as the ideal total capitalist. This “something” consisted of the shared conviction that the capitalist order would continue to be the only game in town for the foreseeable future and, moreover, would need ever-increasing means of violence to secure its “peaceful order.” The Zeitenwende insinuating that the Pax Americana was no longer a reliable security guarantor, simultaneously implied Germany that it would now have to make greater efforts to support, or rather restore, the status quo (ante): more specifically, that it would have to experiment with the degree to which society could be expected to bear the additional defense burden. Strengthening the Bundeswehr is not just an abstract budget item but rather comes in lockstep with very real additional burdens for private households and industry alike. While it would have been possible to cushion the fallout of both sanctions and embargoes against Russia through a similar pot of funds, it was initially decided instead to pass on the increased energy costs to consumers. The formal reason for doing so was that the increased energy prices were intended to have a control effect on energy-saving opportunities. While the outcome of this program was particularly close to the hearts of the Greens, its methodology coincided with the Liberals’ desire to give the market as much regulatory capacity as possible. The Greens were given the opportunity to prove that they would continue to be a reliable partner in individualizing the costs of an energy turnaround at the highest possible level. Robert Habeck’s plain rejection of subsidizing the costs of energy-saving shower heads through state aid achieved dubious fame: when asked about a possible energy premium, he first invoked the war against Putin, then presented the individual burdens as an act of solidarity. The statement deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

It always sounds so banal: Energy and Climate Minister Habeck says: Replace the shower head, save 30 percent on energy. Hahaha, a shower head is supposed to save us from Putin… but if you look at the sum, it adds up to quite a lot. And that times forty million households… so let’s say each household manages to save 10 percent on energy, and that times forty million, then that makes a difference—and that’s what I’m betting on. We’re not having fun here, it’s a serious situation, and if we don’t help each other, we won’t get through it, and if someone says: I’ll only help if I get another fifty euros, then I’d say: “Die kriegst du nicht, Alter“. [Roughly: “You won’t get that, dude.”]

The interesting thing about this quote is not only the casual way in which Habeck rejects the call for subsidies, even though media focused on this part, but also the way in which he exhibits his understanding of the measures. The energy minister is outraged about people scoffing at the idea that “a showerhead should save us from Putin.” However, this indignation does not arise from what he might consider a fundamentally false and mocking representation of the energy measures, but from the fact that he believes the effectiveness of even such small gestures is underestimated. By accepting “we have to save ourselves from Putin” as a framing of the crisis, the German situation is put on a par with the one in Ukraine and energy saving becomes a war effort. But if changing showerheads is a war effort, then energy consumption is lacking in solidarity, not only with the other beneficiaries of German gas storage facilities, but also with the people in Ukraine. The fifty euros that the minister refers to are roughly the purchase price for one of the shower heads to be changed to. The claim that the costs of the energy crisis should not be individualized but should be borne by society is therefore understood as a form of desolidarization: those who act in such a manner need not be treated with respect either. “Die kriegst du nicht, Alter” is the signal that the Greens are prepared to let individuals bear the costs of the energy transition rather than burdening industry and capital with further taxes that could cross-finance such conversions. This also sets the course for future political decisions: as a sensible party that relies on personal responsibility and market signals, it will be able to be a junior partner for all those capitalists who do not overdo it with unecological policies in the coming energy and climate crises. However, mobilizing the logic of war takes up a traditional topos of the center-right as follows: the unity and security of the nation requires closing the ranks, being progressive now requires thinking of the national well-being, which is also that of the Ukrainians.

Barely twenty years ago, this idea would have been far outside the Overton window in Germany: the fact that the Bundestag votes unanimously in favor of war credits and the Greens take a public stand against putting additional state programs in place for the energy transition is unprecedented. Nevertheless, these bridges across the political aisle do not, of course, completely level the differences between the two camps: as is typically the case, when it comes to the national question, things are even more psychotic on the right of center. Thus Focus, Germany’s third-largest weekly magazine, taking a cue from the Economist, warned of Putin (belatedly?) implementing the Morgenthau plan and threatening to de-industrialize Germany.18 The model has nevertheless the potential to become paradigmatic: with the help of “progressive” support to ideologically and materially raise the state of capital and to swear the population to sacrifices for the ability to defend itself, it also lays the groundwork for a scenario in which this very state can be taken over again by the right. The conservatives are already waiting in the wings to do just that and are making a name for themselves by hinting at subsidies for the coming winter: and while the worst seems to have been averted by toppling the initially planned Gasumlage due to the extreme strain it would have put on the industry and the German economy in its totality, the signals have been heard loud and clear. Over and over both Green Party and Social Democrats had made clear that once push comes to shove, all their talk of supporting the economically weak in a shift towards a greener future would be thrown overboard in favor of the industry.

Beyond the logic of the state

That the Western-oriented liberal and bourgeois feuilletons had long since tried to influence the positioning of the German government, against its most shortsighted economic interests, in such a way that it should orient itself more clearly to the West or even surpass it in questions of military aid, and consistently failed in doing so, did not prevent the political left from staging itself as if it depended on its positioning how the fronts in Ukraine ultimately ran. This was exemplified by the departure of a number of authors from the venerable leftwing debate magazine konkret, who turned their backs on the journal after it failed in their view to take a clear enough stand against the Russian war.

The critics rightfully objected to the fact that immediately before the Russian invasion, konkret had published a polemic about the “nato aggression against Russia,” and that the magazine had stooped to claiming that a Russian campaign would not take place. In the past, konkret had repeatedly taken positions that appeared relatively close to Russia within the German debate landscape, but this was the last straw. It did not matter for the critics that in the following issues konkret undertook a self-critical reappraisal of the previous course, since they resented the extensive justifications being given to the past misjudgments, even though those were now prominently juxtaposed with opposing positionings. This ambiguity alone was enough to cause a rift, which was subsequently used in the mainstream German daily press as an example of the radical left finally confessing and beginning to critically reappraise its own Putinism. Conspicuously absent from the debate, however, was a discussion on the merits of such criticism: many of the authors who turned their backs on konkret had not published in the magazine for months or even years, so their dissociation could at best be considered a symbolic act. Moreover, the indictment was based on points that, even if the facts were presented in a benevolent manner, could be considered an interested misunderstanding and, understandably, were not infrequently understood as malicious slander. Thus, for example, it was claimed that Kay Sokolowsky was calling to “nonviolently confront” the “state-approved butchers.”19 The offending object referred to a passage in which Sokolowsky had tried to describe the dynamics of the mass media in the context of the conflict. He wrote in this regard in context:

The enemy against whom the regime is pitted must be portrayed as so sinister and dehumanized, so uniquely evil and beastly, that the very thought of confronting him nonviolently appears as insanity and moral depravity. To hew such an enemy image is the mission of the mass media, and they are all the more eager to carry out their task because it is good for circulation.

Remarkably, the alumni of konkret thus invoked in their accusation the very principle that Sokolowsky had warned against. This dynamic is interesting not because it represented a particularly glaring exception, but because it illustrates the rule: across the board, any ambiguity was read as direct partisanship for either of the two warring parties. Thus, not only was the possibility of neutrality—otherwise the common bourgeois fiction in the hermeneutics of conflicts—excluded, but beyond that, solidarity that ran across the front lines became suspect. Exemplary for this is the debate about those undermining the war effort by attempting to evade call-up orders, or rather the widespread failure to do so. Before the end of September 2022, for example, calls for granting Russians asylum were often dismissed on the grounds that there was no mobilization: while there had been a conscription, the official line had been that conscripts could only be deployed to defend Russian territory. Once Russia announced a partial mobilization, however, various media followed the line—often citing Ukrainian voices—that these Russians were not wanted because they had had no problems with the Russian campaign up until now and were only emigrating to save their own skin. Conversely, there was almost no debate about Zelensky’s admission to the Washington Post that he had known about the danger of war and had deliberately kept silent in order to preserve Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, even though it would be fundamentally necessary to enable male flight movements, not least in view of the situation of homosexual Ukrainians. That the voices raising such issues remained almost inaudible—although they were present in the form of refugee organizations in particular—was also due to the fact that the hegemonic structure of the debate was so unmistakably sworn to the logic of war that every statement had to be considered ipso facto pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. That significant parts of the left also allowed themselves to be coopted into this logic was hardly surprising, given that in the shape of the Greens a formally leftwing party had already been shaping opinion for some time, whose ideological principles, at least since its first government participation under Schröder, had significant intersections with a political style that since the early aughts has frequently been critically described as “human rights imperialism.” While he is certainly an exception in his explicitness, the military theorist Carlo Masala, interviewed in October in the leftwing taz newspaper, is somewhat paradigmatic of the logic hidden in the rule when he says: “I want a Bundeswehr that is woke in the best sense of the word, defensible and armed to the teeth. I want a militant democracy and I also want an army that reflects the diversity of this society.”20

While Masala is de facto isolated, that does not make him irrelevant, given that his approach is shared by German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. The vision of a feminist foreign policy driven by a “woke Bundeswehr” has considerable appeal, hence the progressive wing of neoliberalism has little difficulty in presenting rearmament as a temporarily progressive interest. Conversely, the part of the left that habitually argues in an anti-American fashion has its back to the wall due to Putin’s attack on Ukraine. and even those who until February had protested that Russia had interest in escalating the situation now declare that the war is to be rejected as a matter of course. It would be naive to take this at face value: even explicit/close friends of Putin, such as his social-democratic buddy Gerhard Schröder, are all too clearly prepared to concede that the war is a mistake. The fact that even Gazprom’s own, like Schröder, can take this position points to an objective advantage they have despite all their ideological isolation: they do not have to push for institutional restructuring but can retreat to reclaiming the status quo ante with Russia. The exception to this rule is the dkp (German Communist Party), which keeps campaigning aggressively for solidarity with the “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine and remains receptive for Putin’s arguments. The party, which is quite small with just under 2,500 members, represents only a fraction even among the classically anti-imperialist forces, but it is able to place its positions in the daily newspaper junge Welt with some regularity: in the telling of the party’s authors the situation in Ukraine before February amounted to a civil war in which Russia had rightfully intervened.21

But such an extreme position is not even necessary: Moscow never seems to have expected anything more than a return to the status quo ante. The withdrawal of sanctions and the reconstruction of economic relations are what Moscow wants, to the extent that this is at all possible after the pipelines have been blown up. It is only in this sense that “Putinist” positions are actually acceptable within the German Left.

The justification for such a restoring the status quo ante is not based on openly siding with Putin and his system. Instead, the common theme typically holds that Western support for Ukraine only prolongs the war needlessly and prevents a negotiated settlement. In this regard, public attention in particular focused on open letters by German talk-show intellectuals such as Alice Schwarzer and Richard David Precht, while the inner-and extra-parliamentary left remained relatively quiet. However, occasional remarks like those of Sahra Wagenknecht—the extreme rightwing populist fringe of the left party—or scattered pro-Russian demonstrations by various local chapters of the same party, however, sufficed to push the claim that there is a left-right „Querfront“ building up alongside Russia. Thus, the public broadcaster zdf asked in July, “Are afders and leftists ‘Putin-understanders’?”|[Sind afdler und Linke Putin-Versteher?] while the liberal faz conjured up the headline “Leftists and the Ukraine War: Understanding Putin and Capitulating.” Another public broadcaster, br, in turn offered an explanation of “Why so many leftists stick to Putin”; notably under the tagline „Querfront“. The shadow boxing against a fringe Putinism served not least to conceal a certain political powerlessness: it was neither the left nor the right that prevented a no-fly zone over Ukraine but nato’s strategic considerations, and even if the antiwar movement in Germany grew tenfold, German hesitation regarding arms deliveries for Ukraine could not be greater than it already is in the first place.

The common denominator of the fallacies of both peaceniks and progressive defenders of Western freedom is to regard the state as a neutral executor of public opinion, although the Ukrainian war offers a rare display of the extent to which external circumstances inform the state’s possible course of action. Hasnain Kazim’s German culture of debate is real—precisely because it is meaningless. Positions are heard and recorded because any position could (potentially?) justify the latest government policy tomorrow. If Nordstream explodes, they did not want gas anyway; if Russia wins on any front, avoiding an escalation involving nato was always the highest priority; and if Ukraine wins, they would have intended to deliver heavy equipment from the very beginning and had to overcome logistical issues first. Not only is there no lack of voices in Germany that want to have a say in the debate on war participation, but each additional voice in this cacophony only contributes to Germany further pushing its own claims, in particular of being an honest broker alongside the Western alliance. This does not imply quietism, since there is more than enough to be done beyond the logic of the state:

There is already talk that the creation of refugees is in fact an attack on European values and that refugees are still seen as a potential weapon.22 Countering these claims would necessitate the creation of structures, such as grassroots initiatives, proving the empty talk of such insinuations and welcoming both Russians and Ukrainians who have no desire to die for their country—without any lengthy questioning of their exact intentions or suspicion that they are either economic refugees or just trying to save their own skin. For the time being, fighting for freedom of movement and enabling (supporting?) Russian refugees are more sustainable ways to throw a wrench in the works of the war machine than equipping anarchists with a death wish at the front with old weapons or sending heavy equipment to the warzone indiscriminately. Conversely, the Ukrainian trade unions urgently need the support of Western comrades in a struggle that makes the voices of the working classes of Ukraine speak more clearly than the last deliveries from Rheinmetall and supports peace in Ukraine in the long term more than unworldly letters to the German government asking whether one could not politely suggest to Ukraine to lay down its arms.

Proletarian solidarity across borders is necessary and possible: however, it must not delude itself into thinking that it determines the front line or directs the states according to its will if only it finally speaks up. The war will not be ended at the front anyway: it will be ended somewhere else and it will not be won.

  1. Wilfried von Bredow, Die Mittelmacht, in Die Mitte, hg. von Bernd Guggenberger und Klaus Hansen (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1992), 161–76, 162.↩︎
  2., „Die Ukraine wird eines Tages der NATO angehören“, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 21. Juli 2008.↩︎
  3. Condoleezza Rice, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (Crown, 2011), chapter 51.↩︎
  4. Lars-Broder Keil, Es gilt das freie Wort, Verlagswebseite, Axel Springer (blog), 29. Juni 2021.↩︎
  5. The warning in question has been around since the eighties, when the connection between Western Europe and the Siberian Natural Gas Pipeline became a test for European-American relations. See Brandon T. von Kannewurff, UnderminingThe Deal of the Century: The Siberian Natural Gas Pipeline & The Failure of American Economic Pressure on the Soviet Energy Industry, James Blair Historical Review, Vol. 9, Nr. 2 (2019).↩︎
  6. Aurélie Bros, Tatiana Mitrova, and Kirsten Westphal, German-Russian Gas Relations. A Special Relationship in Troubled Waters (2017), 18ff.↩︎
  7. Hans-Joachim Spanger, The Perils of Path Dependency: Germanys Russia Policy, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 72, Nr. 6 (2. Juli 2020): 1053–72, 11.↩︎
  8. Spanger, 12f.↩︎
  9. Hasnain Kazim, „Debattenkultur in Deutschland; Kann es sein, dass es der Demokratie bestens geht?“, ZEIT, o. J.↩︎
  10. Kazim, op. cit.↩︎
  11. Christoph Trebesch, “The Ukraine Support tracker: Which countries help Ukraine and how?” (Working Paper, Kiel, August 2022).↩︎
  12. Rüdiger Bachmann u. a., „What if? The Economic Effects for Germany of a Stop of Energy Imports from Russia,” EconPol Policy Report, Vol. 6, Nr. 36 (7 März 2022).↩︎
  13. Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, „Financing Putin’s War: Fossil fuel imports from Russia in the first 100 days of the invasion,” 13. Juni 2022.↩︎
  14. Bachmann u. a., “What if?”↩︎
  15. Noah J. Gordon, Germany Finally Starts to Turn from Russian Gas, Internationale Politik Quarterly, Nr. Spring 2022: Putin’s War (31. März 2022).↩︎
  16. An Kiews Seite—‚so lange es nötig ist‘“, Nachrichtenseite, Tagesschau (blog), 28. August 2022.↩︎
  17. Bundesregierung, Regierungserklärung von Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz am 27. Februar 2022, 27. Februar 2022.↩︎
  18. Putin verwirklicht Morgenthau-Plan und Deutschland droht Deindustrialisierung, Focus, 11. September 2022.↩︎
  19. First quotation Sokolowsky; second quotation the ex-konkret authors when paraphrasing Sokolowsky.↩︎
  20. Jan Feddersen, Ich will eine wehrhafte Demokratie, taz, zugegriffen 16. Oktober 2022.↩︎
  21. Exemplary here is Harald Projanski, Los von Moskau, junge Welt, 19. September 2022.↩︎
  22. Isabel Schayani, Flüchtende als Druckmittelund Waffe?, (blog), 17. Oktober 2022.↩︎

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