Part of the West? 'German Leftists Have Still Not Understood Putin'

Many in Germany would like to see their country strive for equidistance between the West and Russia. In an interview, German historian Heinrich August Winkler harshly criticizes that stance and explains how some Germans have romanticized Putin.
Soldiers at a base in Germany: "Many Germans still have sympathy for the idea that Germany can exist as something like a large Switzerland in the middle of Europe."

Soldiers at a base in Germany: "Many Germans still have sympathy for the idea that Germany can exist as something like a large Switzerland in the middle of Europe."

Foto: DPA

SPIEGEL: Professor Winkler, Germany's tight link to the West has been a solid pillar of the country's foreign policy for decades. Is that still the case?

Winkler: There is at least cause for doubt. A strong minority is questioning vital elements of our Western orientation , namely our memberships in NATO and the European Union. I find that unsettling.

SPIEGEL: In your books, you have written that, following several detours and mistakes, Germany is finally firmly embedded in the West. Are you going to have to revise your theory?

Winkler: I wouldn't go that far. Among Germany's democratic parties, there is an overwhelming consensus when it comes to the Western bond. It is a historic achievement. Konrad Adenauer (the country's first post-war chancellor) initiated Germany's bond with the West, but it was bitterly contested at the beginning, particularly by the Social Democrats. It was only with the famous 1960 speech by SPD lawmaker Herbert Wehner in German parliament that the Social Democrats threw their support behind West Germany's treaties with the West. In 1986, Jürgen Habermas argued that Germany's unconditional opening to the political culture of the West was the greatest intellectual achievement of our postwar history. It signaled the birth, posthumously, of a pro-Adenauer left. Today, that consensus is being attacked by the fringes on both the left and right of our political spectrum. When it comes to Germany's orientation to the West, the maxim "Les extremes se touchent" applies -- the extremes touch.

SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

About Heinrich August Winkler
Foto: H.-C. Plambeck

Heinrich August Winkler, 75, is professor emeritus at Berlin's Humbolt University with a focus on modern German history. His two-volume work "Germany: The Long Road West" documents the country's bumpy path toward democracy and the rule of law.

Winkler: German leftists have still not understood the degree to which Russian President Vladimir Putting has drifted to the right domestically. Now, insightful observers are saying that Putin is trying to create something like a reactionary Internationale. The turn toward homophobia and to clerics is completely ignored by leftists in Germany. Their sympathy for Putin  comes largely from their antipathy for America. And this anti-Americanism is what binds them with the far-right. When, for example, Alexander Gauland of the Alternative for Germany says essentially that Russia's grab for Russian land  is a completely understandable policy, then I can only say: That is racial nationalism in its purist form.

SPIEGEL: But we aren't just talking about the political fringes here. A recent survey found that 45 percent of Germans wanted to see their country firmly anchored in the West. But 49 percent would prefer to see the country take up an intermediary position .

Winkler: Indeed, a large share of the population has this irritating desire for equidistance. Such survey results, I believe, can partially be explained by political failures. In recent years, the largest parties have shied away from making clear statements about where they stand. That was a huge mistake. I very much welcomed the fact that German President Joachim Gauck spoke clearly at the Munich Security Conference and demanded that Germany become more engaged internationally.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps Germans have simply lost the belief in recent years that we are dependent on NATO. The Warsaw Pact, after all, dissolved on its own.

Winkler: That would be a very limited view of the situation. Imagine if Eastern and Southeastern European countries had not been accepted into the trans-Atlantic alliance. It is likely that a zone of instability and anti-democratic resentments would have resulted, just like in the interwar period.

SPIEGEL: By that logic, Ukraine should have been offered NATO membership as well.

Winkler: No. In Ukraine, there has never been a consensus behind NATO membership. Even Yulia Tymoshenko was noncommittal when she was still prime minister. Georgia under President Mikhail Saakashvili pursued a rather aggressive stance, which stood in the way of its NATO membership. Given both states' unique relationships with Russia, concerns were justified that NATO membership would trigger Russia's reasonable fears of encirclement.

SPIEGEL: Essentially, you are saying that countries like Ukraine belong to the Russian sphere of influence and are thus less sovereign than others.

Winkler: In many regards, the West is dependent on Russia as a partner. Showing consideration for Russian sensitivities when it comes to old, historical bonds is a reasonable, well-founded approach.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that Germany would be prepared to go to war for the Baltics?

Winkler: That is the crucial question when it comes to Germany's conception of itself. In Article 5 of the NATO treaty, it says that an attack on one NATO member-state is the same as an attack on the entire alliance. That is the essence of collective defense. Should Article 5 lose validity, then NATO is dead. But that would pose an existential risk to our own security.

SPIEGEL: Is it not one of the ironies of history that Germany's arrival in the West came concurrently with the country's rejection of military means? How can you get a highly individualized society to accept armed conflict?

Winkler: Germany is not the only country that one could call post-heroic. But there is an additional aspect for Germany when it comes to this generally Western stance -- one which Putin would call decadent. For almost four-and-a-half decades after World War II, we didn't have full sovereignty. During this period, we existed in a niche of global politics. This experience of limited sovereignty continues to have an effect. Many Germans still have sympathy for the idea that Germany can exist as something like a large Switzerland in the middle of Europe.

SPIEGEL: Do you seriously believe that the chancellor could say in a speech: Dear citizens, you have to be prepared to die for Riga?

Winkler: Germany cannot allow any doubt that it would treat an attack on a member state as a case for collective defense. And that also applies to Riga and Warsaw.

SPIEGEL: Many Germans are also opposed to taking tough measures against Russia because of the vast suffering Germany visited on the Soviet Union during World War II. Do you have understanding for that viewpoint?

Winkler: No. I wouldn't hesitate to say that such a position is the result of a pathological learning process. The Nazi crimes cannot lead us to react less sensitively to human rights violations than others do. If we were to insist, because of the Holocaust, on a kind of German exceptionalism in this regard, that would in fact represent a German detour.

SPIEGEL: Do you think NATO should increase its military presence on the alliance's eastern border to deter Putin?

Winkler: Currently, a credible military presence is needed to make it clear that Article 5 of the trans-Atlantic alliance also applies to its newer members. I don't see Putin as one who takes unnecessary risks. Certainly he is a politician who takes chances, but thus far he has realistically appraised the risks associated with his actions. Putin knew that annexing the Crimea posed little danger. Now, it is important to make clear to him that expansionist policies, particularly coupled with an attack on a NATO member state, would have very serious consequences. But he knows that by now.

SPIEGEL: Is there not a danger that Putin will try to wear down the West with myriad pinpricks?

Winkler: Putin is doubtlessly trying to drive a wedge into the Western alliance. When it comes to the Russian minorities in the Baltics, Putin will surely know that his chances there are slim to none. They are quite comfortable in those countries. But at the moment, there are at least three EU member-states where it is questionable whether they still belong among Western democracies: Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

SPIEGEL: Did NATO and the EU expand too far?

Winkler: When it comes to the EU, you have to treat the expansion rounds of 2004 and 2007 separately. The 2004 expansion round, which saw eight Central and Eastern European countries join -- from the Czech Republic to Poland and Latvia -- it represented the reunification of the Occident, which had been split by the Yalta agreement. They were all countries that belonged to the old, historic West. But with the 2007 expansion round, when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, the Copenhagen accession criteria were interpreted incredibly generously. As such, their memberships came too early.

SPIEGEL: Does the rejection of Western values in Germany also come as a result of America having lost its role model status?

Winkler: I don't see a broad rejection of Western values. We have a conflict with the Americans when it comes to the NSA, there is no question. When George W. Bush released the so-called Bush Doctrine in 2002, which later provided the justification for the invasion of Iraq, there was significant and well-founded criticism in Germany. We argue with the Americans about many things, from the death penalty to the relationship between security and freedom. We have to be honest about these differences. And yet, whenever we quarrel with the Americans, it amounts to controversies over different interpretations of values we share. You can't say that about Russia. Putin fundamentally questions Western values.

SPIEGEL: Has the West made mistakes in its treatment of Russia?

Winkler: In a broad sense, no. In the 1990s, the West actively approached Russia and took Mikhail Gorbachev's avowal seriously when he said that Western values apply universally, meaning to Russia as well. Had Russia followed this course, even its membership in the trans-Atlantic alliance would be imaginable. But the backlash began already under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and has dramatically accelerated under Putin.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, there is a global struggle between authoritarian states and democratic states. How do you think it will end?

Winkler: I think that the ideas of inalienable human rights, rule of law and representational democracy possess an almost subversive power. Take a look at Charta 08 in China. That is a document which, for me, is on a par with the Virginia Declaration of Rights from 1776 or the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen by the French National Assembly in 1789. I am convinced more than ever that the West, despite all of its weaknesses and contradictions, has a bright future.

SPIEGEL: Yet Charta 08 is a document of the intellectual elite. And of the upheavals in the Arab world, only the changes in Tunisia remain. Where does your optimism come from?

Winkler: When the newly formed middle class in China begins to perceive its interests and discovers the value of the rule of law, the existing power structure will lose its foundation. It is a process that no government can put a stop to in the long term. That also applies to some Arab countries, with some limitations. But we have to be patient. In the 1980s, nobody expected that the freedom movement in Poland would lead to the collapse of entire Eastern Bloc. That's why it would be a huge mistake were we to believe that authoritarian systems were indestructible.

SPIEGEL: Poland is, as you yourself said, historically a part of the West. But could it not be that there are places in the world that value stability and social security above human rights? Putin's rise can easily be explained when one looks at the chaos that reigned in Russia under Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Winkler: The latter point is true. But there is no contradiction between the Western project and the value of social justice. During the Cold War, the West was extremely careful not to allow the gap between the rich and poor to widen too far, first and foremost to counter communist depictions of the squalid masses in the West. But the same remains true today: If the West does nothing about the growing social inequities, it endangers its internal legitimacy.

SPIEGEL: Does the West need an adversary for its own survival? Otherwise, the market economy transforms into predatory capitalism and individualism become naked egoism.

Winkler: No. But you can certainly ask the question as to whether Putin has in fact done a great service in clearly showing the EU and NATO their raison d'être. It is reminiscent of sardonic demands decades ago that Stalin be given the peace prize of Aachen.

SPIEGEL: Professor Winkler, we thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.