Post-Weimar Russia? There Are Sad Signs.

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Dr. Umland is Lecturer in German Studies at the National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Ukraine, and editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.

Since the publication of Alexander Yanov’s 1995 book After Yeltsin: ‘Weimar’ Russia (Moscow: KRUK; New York: Slovo-Word), a number of Yanov’s predictions for the post-Yeltsin period have come true. Above all, during the last years, sections of the Russian elite have adopted a paranoid vision of the outside, above all Western, world which, in the 1990s, had been a minority view held by the extreme right and paleocommunists. Whether this makes Yanov’s sweeping equation of developments in post-Soviet Russia and inter-war Germany justified or not: It remains a fact that, in spite of relative political stabilization and impressive economic growth during the last years, ultra-nationalism, rabid anti-Americanism and a Russian equivalent of the Dolchstosslegende (legend of a stab in the back) have become major intellectual and political trends in the Russian Federation, and are reminiscent of the Weimar Republic. Like many German politicians, academics and literati after World War I, numerous Russian leaders, publicists and journalists today think that their country’s loss of territories, reduced role in international affairs, and, in general, miserable state of affairs in the 1990s was the product of a Western-inspired conspiracy in which a few “democratic” traitors became an American “fifth column,” sold out national interests, and led the country to the abyss of a loss of native culture, traditions and identity through total Westernization.

Russia’s comparison with pre-Nazi Germany has since Yanov’s first extensive examination in the mid-1990s been repeated many times. In contrast, Yanov’s equally illuminating reference to the experience of Germany after World War II and considerable success of the republics of Bonn (1949-1990) and Berlin (1990-today) has been less frequently replicated. This is in spite of the fact that this is the same Federal Republic of Germany that has become the preferred major foreign partner by almost all sections of the Russian elite. Not only have Russian Westernizers or moderate nationalists, including Vladimir Putin, singled out Germany as the country that would be most welcome as a worthy ally of Russia on the international arena, and preferred counterpart for economic and cultural cooperation. Even various ultra-nationalists, including Vladimir Zhirinovskii, Alexander Dugin or Gennadii Zyuganov, have admitted their admiration for Germany and interest in closer Russian-German relations.

While such aspirations are only to be welcomed, they would seem to be in need of a proper understanding of why and how Germany has become such an attractive potential collaborator, model society and tourist destination for Russians today. This is even more so as the development of the Bonn Republic founded in 1949 might serve as a blueprint for what Russia should do after the end of the Cold War. In the same way as Germany’s development after World War I might serve as a warning for post-Soviet leaders, its resurgence after World War II may teach some important lessons to Russia’s elite today.

The most important message that the Bonn and Berlin Republics would seem to have for today Russia concerns less domestic than international affairs and foreign relations, above all ties to the United States. West Germany was occupied by US troops after World War II and its sovereignty limited right until the end of the Cold War. While the Bonn Republic’s political leaders were free to determine what exact variety of democratic order their country would have, US-led Western oversight of Germany’s post-war development made clear that liberal democracy would be the only option for the Germans. Like contemporary Japan, today Germany is to considerable extent a product of US foreign intervention during and after World War II. Over decades, Germany has been the United States’ most important ally on the European continent. While German criticism of US foreign policies has, at times, been strong, like during the White House’s Vietnam and Iraq adventures, the overwhelming majority of the German elite continue to support or, at least, accept the United States’ leader-role for the Western world of which Germany now has become an integral part.

This has not always been the case. Like in today Russia, a majority of inter-war German elites thought that their motherland is not a part of the West, does not need Western democracy, and should, instead, follow a civilizational Sonderweg (special path). In the end, the most consistent and popular proponent of this idea proved to be Adolf Hitler. Oddly, it was the ultra-patriot, anti-liberal and pseudo-democrat Hitler, and not the German Westernizers who left to the Germans, apart from a destroyed and divided country, a profoundly shattered sense of national identity. Following not only Nazi ideology, but also the opinion of many, if not most German political, intellectual and social leaders of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s subjugation under the West as a result of World War II should have led to a loss of German national distinctiveness. What came about in 1945 should have been much worse than what was happening to German ethnic identity in the 1920s: The country’s independent development was not only limited as had been the case after World War I; it was altogether terminated after Germany’s capitulation on 8th May 1945. This – if one believed the rhetoric of most German politicians, professors and writers of the Weimar Republic – should have been the end of the Germans as a distinct nation.

What instead happened was that radical German anti-Westernism led to the rise of Nazism which left today German national consciousness with a non-resolvable problem—the dilemma of German responsibility for the horrors of World War II, the concentration camps, and Holocaust. And, strangely, it was US-led Western domination of the Federal Republic that became a major factor in the post-War Germans’ acquisition of a new sense of self-respect as an economically successful and culturally influential nation in the post-war era. Today, it is not decades of de facto US control of Germany, but the legacy of a pathological distrust of Western ideas and institutions during the Weimar Republic that lets many Germans to have an ambivalent relationship to their own national history – an outlook that many Russian’s who encounter semi-patriotic Germans find surprising, if not disturbing. US occupation, instead, neither prevented the flourishing of business, science and culture during the Bonn and Berlin Republics, nor did it cause the loss of German traditions like having the tastiest sausages, staging the largest beer festival, or producing the best automobile cars of the world.

Pro-German Russians should acknowledge that a principal reason why Germany is today so attractive for them is that it had, among other determinants, the fortune of being provided for decades with a US umbrella. It is not Germany’s full integration into NATO or its close friendship with America, but its anti-Western heritage that is causing the, for many Russians incomprehensible, hesitancy of many Germans to express unqualified pride in their national history. If the distinctiveness of Germany’s culture has diminished today, this is not a result of “American brain-washing,” as some Russian anti-Americanists would have it. Rather, it is a natural and even laudable outcome of a feeling of responsibility for the death and suffering of tens of millions of Europeans – among them millions of ethnic Russians! – in 1939-1945. It was under the following American tutelage of the Bonn Republic, that a new, better Germany was reborn, and that the German’s have been put in a position to become both, proud of their contemporary achievements and aware of their past crimes.

The story of post-war Germany, one would think, should entail an important lesson for Russia: be careful in determining what real patriotism implies. To be sure, neither the West as a whole, nor the United States, in particular, are flawless. Their policies and practices should not be blindly copied, and have to be frankly criticized, where appropriate. On the other hand, the Bonn Republic’s experience shows that even full integration into Western structures and military occupation by the US army of a formerly rabidly anti-Western country does not lead to a disintegration of that country’s national culture, but can instead provide the conditions for a deep national resurrection.

Today, Russia is neither set to fully integrate into the West, nor threatened by US occupation. Yet, her position in the international arena is becoming endangered by the progressive spread, in Russian society, of bizarre conspiracy theories, irrational anti-Americanism, and fantastic explanations of world politics – interpretations that, in a number of ways, follow patterns of German political writing, speeches and journalism in 1918-1933. Moreover, some political commentators, like above-mentioned Alexander Dugin, are brazen enough to publicly quote German publicists like Carl Schmitt and Hermann Wirth whose biographies have been tainted by their temporary cooperation with the Third Reich and who are discredited in post-war Germany.

One hopes that the Russian elites’ demonstrative sympathy for contemporary Germany will lead them to eventually acknowledge all relevant sources of the German resurgence after World War II, including the important roles played by Germany’s full acceptance of Western democracy and its permanent alliance with the US. While there are pro-Russian feelings among various sections of today’s German political, economic and intellectual elites, the Federal Republic has become unavailable for a new anti-Western axis. German-Russian relations are and will remain a function of Russia’s relations with the West, as a whole, and the US, in particular. It would be a sad joke of history, if current close relations between Russia and Germany would become a victim to Russia’s political and intellectual leaders’ repetition of the German elite’s mistakes of the 1920s-1930s.

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Arnold Shcherban - 6/12/2007

It's is difficult to disagree with Mr Tahir's two last comments.
As a generalization remark I would like to add that it seems that the Mr Umland's article purports
to show that certain ideological and socio-cultural perceptions of Germans in Weimar Republic's times is the main reason behind Germany's subsequent fall into the Nazi abyss. In fact the main reason was economic and geopolitical: after WWI England and France deprived Germany of world economic and natural resources by monopolizing, expanding and strengthening their imperial possesions, not mentioning killing contributions. It was actually imperialistic struglle for economic and political control of the world.
Practically the same, but by the means more accomodated for contemporary world order was done and continued to be done to the former Soviet Union - now Russia - (and not only to Russia) by the US and NATO. The country was devastated (not coincidental that up to now it cannot reach the economic level of 1989!) by the so-called capitalist reforms, baked by the Western economic advisors and their Russian followers, the reforms that Russian currently perceive as the US-Western conspiracy to turn Russia into an economic satellite of the Western imperialism.
It is here where one should look for the major reasons behind the new and huge wave of Russian anti-americanism and, correspondingly, the increasing support for Russia's anti-western stance, not in the ideological and social peculiarities of Russian national character.

Fahrettin Tahir - 5/31/2007

I was not trying to absolve anyone.

After 1945, leading Nazis were prosecuted in Germany and the second line joined to build up West Germany. In Iraq the entire Baath party was kicked out of power with the result that the small US forces could not put together a new state. Presuming the Americans of 2003 were not less intelligent than their grandfathers, they were not trying to build up Iraq.

Andreas Umland - 5/31/2007

To considerable degree, I agree with this important comment. Unfortunately, Western arrogance and imprudence after World War I does not absolve the Germans from their responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust.

I am not sure though that Iraq is an adequate point of reference concerning the context under scrutiny here.

Fahrettin Tahir - 5/28/2007

If the Russians today resemble Germany of the 1920ies, it is because Russia defeated in the cold war was treated similiarly to Germany after WWI. Germany as well as the other loosers were treated extremely cruelly in the following treaties, and fought back, as soon as they could. The West after the end of the cold war moved in to rob Russia's assets, taking the previous satellites onto the NATO-alliance against Russia and trying to steal Russia's raw materials, as they indeed succesfully steal the Arabs' oil. Putin came to power at a point when US courts had started to decide that they and not the Russian government would decide about the future of Russian resources.

Post WWII Germany is a historic exception, was built up with US aid to avoid the country going communist and to mobilize Germany's and Japan's industrial resources for the cold war. What happens nowadays to an US occupied country can be seen in Iraq.