Why do so many Russians support the Putin’s war against Ukraine? While it is hard to get a clear picture given the oppressive nature of the Putin regime, available data and anecdotal evidence suggest there is reasonably strong support for the invasion of Ukraine, with many even supporting aggression further West. A lot of reasons for this support have been given. One important point I would like to make in this context is the complete lack of Russia to address its 20th century history, large parts of which have been rather dark, very different from Germany after World War II, which did – as I will discuss in the following – address its very dark past, even if imperfectly. There is even a very German word for this process:“bewaeltigen”, translated as “to deal with or cope with”, but it has a much deeper meaning.
It is important to note that coping with genocide, war aggression and totalitarianism of the Nazis was not a linear process in Germany. After initial attempts by the Allied Powers in West Germany at denazification and confronting the German people with the Nazi crimes, the topic was not really openly discussed for two decades. My mother told me that the Nazi regime was not discussed in school and that history lessons (which in German curriculums start in Stone Age and then slowly proceed to 20th century over a couple of years of high school education) always stopped in 1914; ‘somehow the teacher always ran out of time to discuss 20th century history’, she told me. That certainly changed after 1968 and definitely in my generation. Starting high school in 1978, our classroom teacher made it his personal mission to teach us the horrors of the Nazi regime. Later during my high school years, the Nazi past was not only discussed in history lessons, but in political science, German, religious education etc. Part of my reserve officer training near Munich (in the late 1980s) was a visit to the concentration camp Dachau.
On the political level, it wasn’t until 1985 that the then Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker remarked on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II that this day was to be celebrated as day of liberation rather than defeat for Germany, but also that “there can be no reconciliation without remembrance”. While he also made clear that the young generation had no personal guilt for the Nazi crimes, there was thus an obligation for Germans to never forget. It is striking that it was von Weizsäcker giving this speech since as a young man he defended his father (a high-level diplomat during the Nazi regime) in a Nuremberg follow-up trial. One can argue that the fact that right-wing parties have not been successful until 2017 in federal German elections is this confrontation with its own history. It is also very different from the approach in East Germany, where the Nazi history was declared the responsibility of the capitalist West Germany, or Austria, which declared itself as victim of Nazi Germany, without properly confronting its own role during World War II (with Kurt Waldheim in spite of his Nazi past being elected as federal president in 1986), a tendency heavily criticised by the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard in his writings.
One might argue that by now Germany has again become a normal European country, at least to the extent that the largest country in the middle of Europe can be a normal country, and is not a military threat whatsoever to its neighbours (obviously, European integration and French-German reconciliation played a big role but went hand-in-hand with this process of Germany confronting its past. And that is the crucial difference to Russia, which has never addressed the brutality of the Communist regime, more generally, and the wide-spread violence if not genocide under Stalin, more specifically, as well as its history of aggression against its neighbours. The way World War II (when the Soviet Union was both aggressor and victim) is being used as rallying cry for the current aggression shows this lack of confronting history, as does the way Lenin and Stalin are being again acclaimed as national heroes.
After World War I, Germans did not cope well with their defeat, with one of the factors of the rise of the Nazi part being the denial of military defeat and a sense of victimhood (unfortunately being also fuelled by massive and unreasonably high reparation demands by the Western Allies). Similarly, after Russia and the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and following the economic decline and socio-political chaos of the 1990s, there was certainly a sense of victimhood and unjust loss in Russia, tendencies that Putin benefitted from to strengthen his powerbase. What was missing both in Germany post-War World I and Russia post-Cold War was a clear confrontation of the societies with the dark chapters of their respective past. Germany past-Word War II took a long time but did go through the process (and I hope it has become clear by now that I do not claim that the process has been perfect or complete).
Will Russia be able to accomplish something similar? I am rather pessimistic. It took Germany two generations to go through the process and only after a complete societal and political collapse and military occupation. Not something that one would want to wish for Russia! Which also means that even if and when Russia loses this latest confrontation with its European neighbours, there will be no easy path forward domestically and globally for Russian society and political system.
11. May, 2022