Merkel, Putin and the Lessons of History

Germany doesn't see Putin as Hitler. It sees Russia through the eyes of Willy Brandt.

On March 18, the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Federation. So far Russian President Putin has shrugged off global protests about his flagrant violation of international law. He has decided to simply ignore the warnings of leaders such as President Obama and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Greeted by thousands of people on Red Square in Moscow, Putin said “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to ... their home shores, to their home port, to Russia”.

Many foreign-policy experts in the United States and elsewhere are pronouncing that negotiations and engagement with the other side don’t work and are useless. Putin needs to be stopped immediately and punished. The imposition of severe sanctions on Russia and individual senior office-holders in the Kremlin, it is argued, is the least the US and the EU should do to force Putin and his clique to see reason and respect international laws and norms. Putin has to give in, is the mantra heard everywhere in Washington, DC, but much less so in Angela Merkel’s Germany.

In the U.S. it is not only foreign policy hawk John McCain but Secretary of State John Kerry and even the President himself who resort to this sort of demonstration of manliness and verbal muscle. French President Hollande, hugely unpopular in his own country, and the British in the form of Foreign Secretary Hague and beleaguered Prime Minister Cameron are not far behind. While Moscow points to the Western-supported separation of Kosovo from the Serb Republic in early 2008, which continues to be deeply resented in Russia, to explain the legitimacy of its takeover of Crimea. But many in the Western world feel reminded of an entirely different historical parallel.

Hitler's occupation and annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland with its many ethnic Germans in October 1938 appears to have certain similarities with the Russian annexation of Crimea. By early 1938, German propaganda had been claiming that the Czechs were committing atrocities against the 3 million Sudeten Germans (about 23.5 percent of the population). Nazi Germany threatened to protect them by military means. Hitler told the British Prime Minister that beyond Sudetenland he had "no further territorial ambitions in Europe." The attempted appeasement of Hitler by means of British and French agreement to the handover of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany encouraged Hitler’s belief that he could also get away with the invasion of Poland the year after. That invasion, of course, instead unleashed the Second World War.

Yet, comparing Putin to Hitler in this way is as misguided as talking about a new Cold War. Among the major EU countries, it is only in Germany that a somewhat more measured and more carefully balanced response to Putin's unacceptable behavior is heard. Chancellor Angela Merkel, recently elected to her third term in office, has begun to condemn Putin's annexation of Crimea in somewhat more outspoken terms during the last week or so. Still, she and her experienced foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a leading member of Merkel's Social-Democratic coalition partner, are among those who urge engagement and negotiations and are reluctant to agree on imposing too many EU sanctions on Russia.

The German political establishment is hesitant about the idea of punishing Putin publicly and expecting him to humiliatingly call it quits and resort to the status-quo ante in Crimea. This much more measured approach has confirmed Merkel as probably the most thoughtful head of government in the entire EU. The leading position she obtained during the Euro crisis (largely due to her skillful political approach and Germany's successful economic performance) is being confirmed during the current crisis.

There are three main reasons for Merkel's more sober and, on the whole, more constructive approach to dealing with Putin. These reasons have very little to do with Germany's dependency on Russian natural resources (35 percent of all of Germany's gas and oil imports come from Russia) and the long-standing existence of deep Russian and German trade relations. 31 percent of all EU exports to Russia are from Germany, and there are over six thousand German companies registered in Russia. Although these factors may have helped to develop an alternative approach to dealing with Putin, the main reasons for the German 'Sonderweg' toward Putin's Kremlin go much deeper. The reasons mostly can be found in both Merkel's personally cautious and culturally sensitive political approach and Germany's since 1949 traditionally un-militaristic civilian power approach to international relations.