Germany’s Culture of Remembrance and its Ukraine Blindspot
When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Germany needs to look beyond the abyss of its own history and act as the world is, not as it once was.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but the whiplash of mea culpa that German officialdom, and especially the Social Democrats (SPD), is suffering as the result of Russia attacking Ukraine is not about seeing clearly after the fact. That would suggest the dangers of dealing with Russia weren’t obvious in real time, when of course they always were. Germany just chose to deal with them differently than many of its allies.
Setting aside the possibility that German policymakers are opting to appear gullible now rather than opportunistic then, the only probable explanation for the profound and sudden remorse for the long road to hell they built with nothing but the best of intentions is a genuine and deep belief in Wandel durch Handel (change through trade). Keeping business and politics “decoupled,” as was former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position after Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, was not just about serving banal, national and commercial interests, but it seems many thought it was actually a good—or at worst, benign—idea.
Such naivete is at least partly rooted in the very “historical responsibility” we’ve been hearing so much about since the war started. Ukrainian officials have blasted German ones for paying lip service to the refrain “nie wieder” (never again.) Their frustration is borne out of an understandable, but incorrect read of German Erinnerungskultur (remembrance culture).
To help clarify to whom and for what Germany is historically responsible, and how, let’s turn to Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The two-term German president and a former SPD foreign minister has been praised as the model statesman in his current role and more recently slammed as quintessential Putinversteher (“Putin empathizer”) in his former one.
Long before he was uninvited by the Ukrainians, he was welcomed by the Poles. In 2019, he showed up proverbially “barefoot” in Warsaw for the 80th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of Poland, which kicked off World War II in Europe. In an address to other dignitaries, he laid out his country’s concept of remembrance culture.
“For us Germans, our responsibility also means this: Never again may nationalism resurge! Never again may Germans cry ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!’ Never again should nations rise over other nations—people over other people, races over other races. Never again should reason be lost. Never again should hatred and egoism be unleashed among the peoples of our world.”
It sounds powerful, and it’s even better in the original German. Steinmeier gets high marks for oratory. Yet look more closely: The lack of a clear subject and ample use of passive voice may leave you wondering who exactly is responsible for realizing many of these ideals.
Whose reason is not to be lost? Who is actually tasked with keeping hatred and egoism on a leash? Steinmeier doesn’t really specify. Germans ought to keep a lid on their own Übermensch aspirations, yes, but there’s nothing here about their responsibility to check others’ murderous intentions.
There doesn’t need to be. For the German guided by Erinnerungskultur, a clear subject who can exercise agency is superfluous. When peace is not just the preferred option, but assumed to be the only one, the willful act to choose peace is moot. The need to defend it can seem irrelevant.
War is destruction, foremost of the self, and is therefore both morally repugnant and inherently self-defeating. The latter is reason enough not to pursue it. The logic of Erinnerungskultur is taken as universally self-evident, which helps spawn the naivete we’ve seen. Assuming everyone is on the same page about waging war leaves Germany vulnerable to manipulation by, and ill-equipped to respond to, those who might indeed see the benefit of “rising over other nations.”
When that nation is Russia, Erinnerungskultur is all the more an Achilles’ heel. Far from being a way to process and move on from a traumatic past, it is instead a constant reminder of it. Like any unresolved trauma, Germany keeps reliving its aggression against the Soviet Union. That means Moscow, which means today’s Russia. Other parts of the USSR where Germany committed crimes, such as Ukraine, do not enter the rear-view mirror.
“The idea of responsibility for the Holocaust must also take seriously the history of the German occupation of Ukraine,” the historian Timothy Snyder told a gathering of German Green MPs in 2017, in remarks he could easily give today. “Russian foreign policy regards the German sense of responsibility as a resource to be manipulated,” Snyder said. “It is so easy to confuse the Soviet Union with Russia. It happens all the time, but it is not innocent.”
In my 13 years in Germany, I can’t really recall hearing Ukraine get a specific mention in the endless procession of ritualized remembrance that has become baked into German politics. Russia does. Poland, and Eastern Europe as a blob, do. The Roma and Sinti, more recently, do. The Jews of course do, often vis-à-vis Israel—a country that didn’t exist at the time, and that some Jews, particularly on the left, are increasingly uncomfortable associating with.
Germany cannot confront today’s Russia when it’s beholden to a particular understanding of a past one. For a long time, Germany didn’t have to worry about doing so. American security guarantees and the so-called peace dividend since the Cold War meant Germany could bathe in the shallow waters of moralizing with very little fear of getting pushed into the deep end of action.
Now it’s sink or swim, and Germany is treading furiously to keep its head above water. Whether he knew it or not, staying afloat in uncomfortable currents is what Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ Zeitenwende on ramping up defense capabilities is about.
Germany has rarely been quick to adapt, but there are some signs of course correction in the political minefield of collective memory. Ukrainian flags flying over the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Tiergarten on Sunday, May 8, as dignitaries gathered to mark the end of World War II in Europe, was a striking visual at a place typically associated with Russia. Two thousand Soviet soldiers are buried there, a portion of those killed in the Battle of Berlin.
In his address to the nation that evening, Scholz explicitly recognized Ukraine’s contribution to the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. “Once, Russians and Ukrainians fought together, making ultimate sacrifices to bring down Germany’s murderous National Socialist regime. During that period, Germany committed crimes against both nations, Russia and Ukraine."
Steinmeier, too, seems to be updating his sense of responsibility, or at least getting more actively involved in it. “Nationalism, hatred and imperial madness cannot be Europe’s future. We have to prevent this,” he told a convention of the German Trade Union Confederation on Sunday.
Responsibility for the Present
It’s a start. But it will take more to move Erinnerungskultur beyond serving as a mere mechanism for German officialdom to steep itself in past guilt and shame, with little guidance for the present, and much less the future. Like a flu vaccine mismatched for that season’s strain, Erinnerungskultur inoculates against a threat that is about 80 years out of date. Being so narrowly focused on the literal Holocaust has created blind spots to lesser and metaphorical ones.
That means other politically-motivated crimes can only fall short of the threshold required to act, because it has been set so far beyond the pale of abhorrent human behavior that the moral tripwire can never be crossed. It is a sneaky way to ensure “never again”—if not in spirit, then at least by the letter.
Much to the disappointment of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his man in Berlin, Ambassador Andriy Melnyk, Germany’s remembrance culture is not meant for them, now, for events happening now; it is for Germans now, for whom the “past is not over.”
“[The war’s] impact is a legacy that lasts generations. This legacy is a painful one. We Germans accept it and pass it on,” Steinmeier said in Warsaw. To what end? His remarks leave that question largely unanswered.
“Historical responsibility” is responsibility to the past, and therein lies the disconnect. Steinmeier could go to Poland for his own brand of Kniefall, when former Chancellor Willy Brandt famously knelt in Warsaw in atonement for German crimes. He could beg for forgiveness and express gratitude for Poland’s “spirit of reconciliation [that] gave us Germans the gift of a new beginning” but still ignore warnings from Poland, and other Nazi victims-turned-European partners, that Nord Stream 2 was bad for Europe.
In determining just how much of an epochal shift Scholz’ Zeitenwende really is, a key indicator will not be if he gets his €100 billion for military upgrades, checks NATO’s 2-percent box, or sends tanks to Ukraine. It will be if Germany can pull itself out of the abyss of its own history enough to think beyond itself and act as the world is, not as it once was.
“Decouple,” you might say, as Merkel and others repeatedly insisted on doing with Russia. Or, in the words of Steinmeier in Poland: “You should measure us by the responsibility we take on. Europe is our responsibility!”
William Noah Glucroft is a Berlin-based reporter, regularly appearing on Deutsche Welle and writing, inter alia, for The Washington Post.