Germany Has Learned the Wrong Lessons From History. On Russia and Ukraine, Germans remain wedded to historical and geopolitical delusions.
—From Nachtgedanken by Heinrich Heine, 1844
In his poem Nachtgedanken (“Night Thoughts”), written in 1844, the Jewish German writer Heinrich Heine yearned for unity and modernity in his fragmented, feudal-ruled homeland. “If I think of Germany at night, it robs me of my sleep,” he wrote in the first two lines of one of the country’s best-known poems.
I feel similarly about Germany right now.
First as a language student and then as a young foreign correspondent, I spent some of my formative years in what was then West Germany. For the first time in my life, I lived, loved, and dreamed in a foreign language. It was the frontline of the Cold War, and I still remember how the smells of tobacco, food, and car exhaust changed as you crossed the Berlin Wall. The division of Germany exemplified the Soviet empire’s post-war grip on Europe just like German reunification epitomized its end.
Yet Germany dismays as much as it delights. I was bemused by “Gorbymania”—West Germans’ infatuation with the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. I was outraged by what followed. Newly reunited Germany swooned over Russia and largely ignored the countries in between. Rather than prioritizing the security and welfare of countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—which the 1939 alliance between Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin turned into killing fields—German politicians of all stripes pursued a greedy, sanctimonious, and irresponsible policy. Germany dragged its feet on admitting the new eastern democracies to the European Union and—particularly—NATO. Meanwhile, it pursued highly lucrative bilateral deals with Moscow, notably the two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines across the Baltic Sea.
Attempts to counter this got nowhere, as I experienced firsthand. Whenever I tried in my journalism, lecturing, and consulting to alert Germans to the danger presented by nascent, and then fully revived, Russian imperialism, they laughed at me. I still recall the sardonic, patronizing response I received in the German Chancellery around 2010, when I tried to warn my interlocutors about the danger of Russian hybrid warfare tactics—the cocktail of disinformation, economic coercion, subversion, espionage, and threats of force that Russia uses against its neighbors. “You are not seriously saying that Russia would conduct these operations against the Federal Republic of Germany?” my hosts asked, incredulously.
“Duh, yes,” I replied. (Memory may have paraphrased my exact response). Berlin’s complacent approach allowed Russian spies, crooks, and thugs to run wild, stealing secrets, assassinating critics, and building bastions of influence in Germany. News that an officer in the Bundesnachrichtendienst—the German foreign intelligence service—was arrested last week for spying for Russia will come as little surprise. “If you want the Kremlin to take something seriously, give it to the Germans and tell them it’s a secret,” an exasperated intelligence officer from a NATO country told me in the 1980s. If anything, Russian (and now Chinese) penetration of the German security services has worsened since then.
*Berlin announced the arrest of one of its intelligence officers on suspicion of spying for the Kremlin. The suspect, identified only as Carsten L. due to Germany’s stringent privacy laws, was taken into custody on suspicion of treason, specifically leaking classified information to Russian intelligence. Berlin is being tight-lipped about this embarrassing case, but we know that investigators have searched the home and workplace of Carsten L., a career intelligence officer, as well as those of another, yet unnamed, person. Carsten L. works for the German Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND), which is Berlin’s main foreign intelligence agency.
BND President Bruno Kahl issued this statement: “After the BND became aware of a possible case of treason within its own ranks in the course of its intelligence work, the BND immediately launched extensive internal investigations … When these substantiated the suspicion, the Federal Attorney General was immediately called in.” Kahl added that the BND is pursuing several leads in this case but would not be releasing any further details: “Restraint and discretion are very important in this particular case … With Russia, we are dealing with an actor on the opposite side whose unscrupulousness and willingness to use violence we must reckon with. Every detail of this operation that becomes public means an advantage for this adversary in its intention to harm Germany.”
Carsten L. is the first BND officer to be arrested on espionage charges since 2014, when Markus R. was taken into custody for selling secrets to American intelligence, specifically the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as offering to sell BND secrets to Russian intelligence. Markus L. was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to eight years in prison.
This new arrest is poorly timed for Berlin, given that Germany is widely seen as a weak link in NATO regarding Russia and its aggression against Ukraine. The “lost years” of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, from 2005 to 2021, which witnessed German appeasement of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin while rendering Germany dependent on Russian energy, are now seen in Berlin for the geostrategic catastrophe which they were. Merkel, once hailed as “the Leader of the Free World,” must now be viewed as, at best, a dupe of the Kremlin. Berlin’s recent promises that it will beef up its perennially low defense spending have not been kept, while Germany’s contributions to Ukraine’s defenses this year have also included more promises than weapons deliveries.
The historical, geographical, and geopolitical blind spots are linked. Allergic to nationalism because of its abuse by Hitler’s Nazi regime, Germans flinched at the role that patriotic sentiment played in the uprisings of 1988-91 that toppled communism. East Europeans were “nationalist,” Germans muttered disapprovingly (though Russian nationalism, a far greater and more toxic force, was conveniently ignored). Credit for the ending of the Cold War, Germans told themselves, was really due to their own Ostpolitik—or “Eastern policy”—of the 1970s and ‘80s, which focused on rapprochement and confidence-building with the Soviet bloc. Moreover, the Soviet Union had given the nod to German unification and pulled its military out of the former East Germany. Gratitude, not skepticism, was the appropriate response.
Military spending, never popular, went out of fashion, halving to barely 1 percent of GDP by 2005. In the modern world, German policy wonks piously intoned, problems should be solved by dialogue, not anachronistic confrontation. The way to avoid conflict was to boost trade and investment. Russia would never attack its customers. We see now how that worked out. Germany is scrambling to disengage itself from Russian energy supplies and increasingly worries about its dependence on China.
Throughout these years, a pervasive climate of anti-Americanism in Germany stoked moral equivalence and whataboutism. Yes, the Putin regime has its flaws—but what about the United States, with its failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its overmighty security state (many Germans regard Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information and sought asylum in Russia, as a hero), and alarming, rebarbative figures such as Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump?
Germans wallow in guilt about their country’s Nazi-era crimes, but are barely aware that World War II brought far more death and destruction to Ukraine than to the territories that now comprise the Russian Federation. Their self-satisfied ignorance about history stops them from applying lessons of the past to other crimes and dangers. Pointing out the indubitable similarities between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Third Reich, for example, was long condemned as an attempt to relativize the Holocaust. In the late 1980s, the furious Historikerstreit—or “historians’ dispute”—about this issue took arcane historiographical questions into the political mainstream in a way barely conceivable in any other European country. Even today, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime easily ticks the boxes of the definition of fascism, most Germans remain stuck in the uniqueness of their own history. Russia’s past suffering at German hands protects it from censure. Ukraine’s invisibility in the German historical memory precludes outrage at its fate.
Scholz publicly hankers for a return to Europe’s “pre-war peace order,” suggesting that the lessons of 2022 have yet to sink in.
Illusions died hard. Just before Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine in February, the government of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attracted mockery for offering 5,000 helmets as “military aid” to beleaguered Ukraine.
Days later, reality dawned. Scholz announced a Zeitenwende—or “change of era”—featuring a 100 billion euro increase in his country’s defense budget. Rhetorical support for Ukraine stretched across the political spectrum, with only the hard left and radical right dissenting. German civil society stepped up to host hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. By past standards, the change was indeed astonishing.
But words and deeds are falling short of the promises. Already, Germany is walking back its commitments to speedily raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, a target that will now be reached only in 2025. The barnacled procurement system is simply unable to absorb more money efficiently, officials explain.
Worse, Scholz publicly hankers for a return to Europe’s “pre-war peace order.” That suggests that the lessons of 2022 have yet to sink in in Berlin. The past decades were not a security nirvana, but a dangerous strategic time-out, in which Europe’s most important economy ignored looming threats from Russia and China. The trust deficit between Germany and many of its European partners remains huge. At a conference in Berlin, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks summed up allies’ worries: “We’re willing to die for freedom. Are you?”
Germans may enjoy their sleep. But their country still leaves others sleepless.
Edward Lucas is a nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Liberal Democratic candidate for the British Parliament, a former senior editor at The Economist, and the author, most recently, of Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet. Twitter: @edwardlucas