Both Germany and Russia Are Reinventing Their Pasts


The writer is associate professor of history at Indiana University South Bend in the United States.

Recently, two European nations have emerged from a long period of national humiliation and, in a way, subservient position toward the USA: Germany and Russia. In both instances, there is a new sense of stability in the minds of the countries’ elite, and this required a new vision of the past. In this construction of the past, the subtle anti-Americanism is present. It manifests itself in the assumption that regardless of all mistakes of the past, neither Germany nor Russia is an exception. The USA also did a lot of ugly stuff. The subtle anti-Americanism is also seen in the assertion that both Germany and Russian authoritarian traditions are valuable political and economic institutions. Still, there is a substantial difference. Germany’s pride in the country’s historical legacy is justified by its rise to become one of the greatest economic powers in the modern world.At the same time Russia’s appeal to its totalitarian/authoritarian past became a sort of cover up for the country’s weakness regardless of all signs of recovery.

Recently, Germans have exhibited interest in and appreciation for their national history, the Prussian era for example, which had been avoided or seen with critical eyes. This new vision of the past is not just due to Germany’s re-emergence as a strong, unified European power––the economic engine of European Union––but to lingering anti-Americanism spread broadly among Europeans regardless of Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkosy’s pro-American pronouncements.

It would be wrong to assume that during the Cold War the Germans had seen all of their modern/recent history as entirely negative. Still, the stress was on finding the source of Germany’s recent ills in the nation’s historical roots. Prussia, which consolidated itself in the 18th century, was the beginning of things to come. Its authoritarian tradition implicitly led to Prussian aggressions; and, later, when Prussia had unified Germany, its authoritarian tradition became characteristic of all of Germany, logically leading to the Kaiser starting W.W.I and, later, passing the torch to Hitler. In all of these pictures, Germany was efficient only in destruction and brutality. The end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany led to an increasing attempt to avoid a clear-cut “bad guy/good guy” picture of the post-WW II era.

This new image of the recent past does not mean that Nazi atrocities were whitewashed. Yet, it is assumed that it was not just the Germans who behaved ugly. The Red Army raped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of German women. But pointing an accusative finger at the totalitarian Stalinist USSR was hardly a novelty; it was broadly employed during the Cold War. The novelty is that the West, Americans included, were hardly innocent. Indeed, the Allies incinerated German civilians from the air, killing more than a hundred thousand civilians in Dresden alone. And the Western powers and Stalin’s regime mistreated German civilians, engaging in or tolerating ethnic cleansing, in which countless numbers of Germans were driven from their lands where they had lived for centuries. Their only crime was just to be ethnic Germans.

Moreover, the Nazi system had become more and more detached from German historical fabric. It became a disease that could afflict anyone, irrespective of historical tradition. This sort of view burst forth in the beginning of the Americans’ war in the Middle East; increasing numbers of Germans see in the USA’s behavior essentially Nazi models of war: false excuses, disrespect for international boundaries, aggressive strikes, and, of course, mistreatment of civilians. And while Americans were subtly pushed in the direction of Hitler and Stalin, Prussia, in the minds of historians and the general public, is moving in the opposite direction.

In this new vision, in contrast to the Nazis, the Prussian army was well-trained and disciplined and treated civilians and prisoners with respect. Still, the revival of interest in and appreciation of Prussian history is not just related to the revival of geopolitical antagonism and differences in foreign policy modes between Germany, as part of the European Union, and the USA. It is not just a conflict between “Mars” and “Venus”—if one would remember the famous expression of Robert Kagan, the American publicist and political scientist who compared Europe as a weak “Venus” different from the tough American “Mars”––but has another dimension. The point is that the Prussian mode, and, of course, the German mode in general, in the future is related to the high role of the state in economic development. Americans look at this model with displeasure or condescension, regarding it as just a tool for upgrading the military machine. It is here that the Germans, and, in fact, the entire EU, started to look at the American model with its emphasis on the fierceness of competition, the weakness of its safety net, and the general weakness of the state’s involvement in social/economic life, with greater skepticism. On one hand, America continues to suffer from a lack of job security and lack of medical insurance; and, at the same time, the USA hardly has become the workshop of the world. Its industry is less and less able to withstand foreign competition, its national debt is mounting, and the dollar continues to lose value compared to all major currencies. Germany, in fact, the major countries of the EU, looks much better.

This German economic assertiveness in the present is telescoped in the past where the centralized Prussian monarchy is seen as considerably improving the life of average Germans, including introducing compulsory primary education. Thus, the recent popularity of Prussian history is not just a result of a spurt of public curiosity but reflects a deep reassertion by Germany and, in fact, by all of “Old Europe," of its global importance and its geopolitical and economic differences from the USA, all recent rapprochement with Washington notwithstanding.

Similarly, Russia looks as if it is emerging from the post-Soviet decline that was marked by Yeltsin’s tenure; and this has implications for the Russians’ perception of their own history. There is no attempt to whitewash the Soviet atrocities. Putin made special note of 1937—the height of Stalin’s terror—as one of the most tragic periods of Russian history. Putin also visited—together with Russia’s Patriarch—the place where a thousand Soviets were killed. Still—and here he once again was quite similar to the Germans—Putin made it clear that Russia is not an exception and that other countries—of course, reference to the USA, was quite clear—could hardly be seen as an example of humanism. While Germany points to the incineration of German cities during the war—especially the bombing of Dresden—Putin points to Vietnam and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons. And similar to the Germans, Putin, and, of course, a score of Russian intellectuals has rediscovered the importance of autocratic regimes as the way of ensuring stability and economic progress. And from that perspective, there is a cautious restoration of Stalin. This new Stalin—the man who had nothing to do with terror and supported private property—a very religious, Orthodox man—looks more similar to Alexander III than the real Stalin.

While Russia’s and Germany’s construction of their past and the attempt to legitimize the countries’ autocratic power look similar, they are actually quite different phenomena. And the differences are related not so much in ideological construction in itself but as difference between two societies and the nature of their recoveries. Germany could well legitimize its praise of the autocratic tradition as the framework that transformed Germany in the late 19th century as a major economic power; in the process, Germany continued to be the major economic machine of the European Union. It could proudly juxtapose its success—manifested, first of all, in the rising value of the Euro—with the USA’s problems.

The situation is quite different with Russia. It is true that the ruble is rising, and the Russians’ salaries in dollars as well. Russia has also accumulated a huge foreign currency reserve. Still, its success is based on oil and gas. The industrial base on which the Soviet regime had risen, and which made it possible for Soviet Russia to ensure its leaders’ place in the global order and win WWII, is absent in the present-day Russian recovery. Its industrial production—planes, cars, machinery, etc.––is mostly on not just a pre-perestroika level but on a pre-WWII level. It is true that in Germany as in any other capitalist country there is a difference between the life of the rich and the poor. Still, it pales in comparison with the chasm between the life of the rich and the poor in Russia. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the nouveau riche in a Moscow nightclub could spend a thousand dollars for an entrance ticket and a whopping twenty-thousand dollars for entrance to a private cabin of sort in these special clubs. At the same time, a good segment of the Russian population, including the youth, live in poverty, with no prospects for the future, and who manifest their frustration in ethnic violence in Kondopoga and Stavropol and by joining neo-Nazi groups. And for this reason, if Germany’s appeal to the Prussian authoritarian glory is full justified, the Russian appeal to the glory of neo-Stalinism could be seen as a sort of ideological Potemkin village. In fact, paradoxically enough, Russia is closer not to Germany but to the USA, which also is experiencing the erosion of industrial jobs and an increasing gap between rich and poor.

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Philip B. Plowe - 12/26/2008

I don't like the way you casually insert that the Kaiser was responsible for starting World War I. Austria, Russia and France were just as responsible for the opening of hostilities as Germany was.

lane m kimmel - 2/25/2008

If one really looks at or into Prussian history you find that this propagandized picture of Prussia as simply a nation of jackboots is 100% false. You don't speak a word about her education system, her welfare movements, the fact that the SPD was the largest ELECTED political party in 1914, France and Russia were both spending more on defence before WW1, and so on. Germans are looking to the Kaiser period because it was the point when they were both Powerful and Honorable. Your arguments represent a Prussia that never existed except in Russian or Post-WW1 propaganda leaflets.

Fahrettin Tahir - 2/23/2008

During the Irish potato famine the Turkish Sultan sent two ships with wheat to help the Irish. The English sent the ships back. Germans and Russians are not the only people who whiteash their history.

William Mandel - 2/19/2008

What neo-Stalinism? What glory?
Starting with a year of residence in Moscow in 1931-2, including enrollment and attendance at Moscow University (biochemistry), I was in that country twenty times in the course of sixty years prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I witnessed enormous progress in every sphere but the mode of government, yet progress organized entirely by that government.