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Blog@Voice - Kazimierz Wóycicki
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Germany, Ukraine and Armed Freedom Fighters
Kazimierz Wóycicki By Kazimierz Wóycicki   
From the Polish point of view, German President Joachim Gauck stated the obvious when he said that “When you fight for freedom, you also do it with a gun in your hand.” In Germany, however, Gauck stirred up a storm, and his words even led to an emotional debate in the Bundestag.

Gauck, an East German pastor who used to be in the opposition and was once inspired by Poland’s Solidarity movement, is no stranger to challenging German stereotypes. Notably, Gauck said what he said while referring directly to Ukraine and the conflict between Ukraine and the West on the one hand and Russia on the other.

Contrary to appearances, Germany is deeply divided over the Ukraine vs. Russia conflict. This runs counter to the stereotypical view of Germans in Poland as being overly friendly towards Russia.

The German stance on the conflict cannot be appropriately judged until more light is shed on these divisions. Some light has been shed by Norbert Röttgen, deputy chairman of the Bundestag committee on foreign policy, who said that German politicians, except for those from the postcommunist Die Linke party, are essentially unanimous in their disapproval of Putin’s policies. The problem, however, is that a large part of the public in Germany, around 50 percent, seems to have too much understanding for Moscow and is inclined to believe Russian propaganda, including allegations that Ukraine is home to fascists. Pointing to this dissonance, Röttgen argues that German politicians need to put more effort in clarifying the situation to the public. Gauck seems to fully agree with Röttgen and his words appear to be a response to Röttgen’s plea.

The task Röttgen has set for himself will not be an easy one. The 50 or so percent of Germans who support Russia are by no means some steadfast and determined advocates of Putin. They are just people who have been conditioned by German history and a way of thinking that has evolved over the past several decades. An important factor here is the German public’s general ignorance of all things Eastern European, Ukrainian in particular. Germans do not really view Ukraine as a separate nation with its own culture and history. Whoever uses the Cyrillic alphabet and is an Orthodox Christian tends to be pigeonholed as a “Russian” in Germany. As far as Germans are concerned, Ukraine emerged only recently as an unknown land, which, of course, makes it all the easier for Moscow to spread its false and mendacious picture of things.

The next factor is Germany’s guilty conscience about World War II. Germans have adopted the Soviet narrative of World War II under which Russians were the main victims of the war “in the East.” This guilty conscience leads to another factor, Germany’s own kind of pacifism that was taught especially to people in the former East Germany. Given that East German society was strongly militarized, there was a lot of hypocrisy in that.

All of this shows that the debate over the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not only about German foreign policy, but concerns the very essence of Germany’s identity shaped in the last half a century. It is about defining the international position of Germany and the country’s responsibility for the international order and its understanding of the ideals of freedom. In fact, these ideals could be the central issue of the ongoing debate. Somewhere behind the debate is also the geography of contemporary Germany. Germans from the eastern part of the country tend to sympathize with Putin’s policy to a far greater extent than those who used to live in West Germany.

The dispute has been going on for some time now. Even though those who “understand Putin” are many, those who demand a change in the perception of Russia are more belligerent. The German press is full of articles whose titles speak for themselves: “Unpredictable Russia” (Die Zeit, June 12, 2014), “Putin the Provoker” (Internationale Politik, May/June 2014), and “How Putin Lost Berlin” (Internationale Politik, May/June 2014), to name a few. Similarly, studies by Germany’s leading think tanks, such as the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Politik and Stiftung fuer Wissenschaft und Politik, are resolutely and harshly critical of Putin and his neo-imperialist ideology.

A recent bestseller in Germany is a book by Boris Reitschuster, a long-time correspondent in Moscow who writes about his profound disappointment with Russia.

Despite the many Putinversteher (“those who understand Putin”) in Germany, the public debate seems to be headed in one direction. Poland’s stance on the matter plays a part as well, especially in terms of the extent to which the Ukrainian issue can dominate Polish-German dialogue. The views that Poland and Germany share with regard to the European Union’s eastern policy are important to these two countries as well as to the EU as a whole.