Merkel, Putin and the Lessons of History

March 25, 2014 Topic: History Region: Germany

Merkel, Putin and the Lessons of History

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

At times it seems that Merkel is right. The government-controlled TV channels in Russia air the most vociferous anti-Western propaganda. Popular Russian TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, interpreted the Ukrainian Revolution as a plot by Sweden, Lithuania, and Poland to revenge Russia for their defeat in the battle of Poltava in 1709. Most recently, Kisilyov threatened the world by stating that Russia is “the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash”. He said this standing in front of a large image of a mushroom cloud.

In a country where the public flow of information is strictly controlled, such rhetoric would not have been tolerated without the highest approval. In an emotional address to the Russian parliament on March 18, president Putin blamed the West for orchestrating wars, revolutions, and political chaos. The Arab spring, according to the Russian president, turned into the Arab winter, because people were forced into traditions which they were not used to. The Ukrainian Revolution, he said, was also sponsored by the West and directed against Ukraine, Russia, and Eurasian integration. “In the case of Ukraine, our Western partners crossed the line,” said Putin.

The idea of Eurasian integration which is so dear to Putin is based on Eurasianism – a school of thought which argues Russia is exceptional in its ability to connect East and West in a unique imperial manner. Eurasianists also believe that Russia’s political system is destined to be based on the principles of collectivity and the centralized state, as opposed to individualism and representative government. As Sergei Uvarov, the minister of culture under Nicolas I, famously said, the founding pillars of the Russian state are orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality – a thesis very similar to Putin’s.

Putin’s speech on March 18 during which he announced that Crimea had come home was filled with nostalgia about the Soviet Union. He said that it was unfortunate that the USSR fell apart. Since then, there had been no political stability in the world. He also expressed compassion for the Russians living in the new independent states: “Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up abroad. In a matter of hours, they became a minority in former Soviet republics”. Bashing the West, Putin asked rhetorically why what was “allowed for the Albanians in Kosovo is not allowed for the Ukrainians, Russians, and Crimean Tatars in Crimea.” Putin concluded that the reason was that, for centuries, the West had been exercising a policy of containment towards Russia – during Czarist and communist times and with regard to contemporary Russia. Putin still views the world and Russian history through a Cold War prism.

The frightening reality of the Ukrainian conflict is that competing and often mutually exclusive interpretations of the past predetermine politics and even military action. Just consider Putin’s view of World War II. It infuriates Putin tremendously that West Ukrainians reiterate that the war was started by Nazi Germany in alliance with the Soviet Union. The Kremlin vehemently denies this interpretation. Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe during the Second World War are presented by Putin’s spokespeople as an unfortunate historical necessity. Putin does not use the word ‘occupation’ with regard to the former parts of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Putin’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, goes further, calling the conquest of the Baltic states and West Ukraine “the incorporation of their territories into the Soviet Union”. The German-Soviet military parade in Brest-Litovsk that marked the division of Poland on September 22, 1939, is presented by the same man as “the withdrawal of German troops under the supervision of Soviet authorities”.

The misuse of historical arguments in politics can be highly dangerous. The Germans know this better than most; after all they were forced to undergo a process of de-Nazification and re-education after the Second World War. While President Putin, in the tradition of many dictators, takes a personal part in the preparation of a standardized textbook on his country’s national history, Merkel knows that both the Nazis and the East German communists rose to power by using and abusing history. Neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels personally served as revolutionaries; yet they defined a new conception of world history – historical materialism – which in turn laid the foundation for the creation of communist regimes. A series of works by the linguist and archaeologist, Gustaf Kossina, who died just before Adolf Hitler came to power, laid the theoretical grounds for the annexation of Poland and Czechoslovakia: Kossina argued that these lands were occupied by Germanic people since deep antiquity. The message that Putin delivered in his speech on March 18 was not much different from Kossina’s. While reconfirming that he has no plans to annex Eastern and Southern Ukraine, he said that Bolsheviks drew new borders without any consideration of ‘traditional ethnic boundaries’ – a policy that has caused so many problems and wars in history. It is likewise frightening, however, that some leaders of the Ukrainian revolution in Kiev position themselves as ultranationalists and anti-Semites.

After the end of the Cold War, Harvard professor Sam Huntington argued that the source of conflict in the modern world would be primarily cultural or civilizational. As the Ukrainian conflict shows, Huntington did not have it quite right. Ideology continues to be a crucial source of conflict with competing interpretations of history playing a crucial role.

One of the tasks Chancellor Merkel and the other Western leaders have is to overcome this mental imprisonment of viewing the world in terms of old historical parallels. Merkel’s inclination to think in terms of engagement, negotiations and the reestablishment of constructive relations with Russia will be helpful. But how can the current crisis be overcome? Perhaps it is time for a quid pro quo policy between Russia and the West.

The Western world, after all, does not have much of a choice but to grudgingly and reluctantly accept the annexation of Crimea by Putin – despite its illegality. Perhaps the West also ought to promise not to make Ukraine a member of NATO. In return Putin should agree to formally recognize the independence of Kosovo, become constructively engaged in terminating the civil war in Syria and in resolving the Iranian nuclear-capacity crisis, sign an undertaking to fully respect Ukraine’s borders and not to support any pro-Russian separatist tendencies in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the region. On such a basis the reestablishment of constructive relations with Russia might be possible. In addition the U.S. and the EU, together with the IMF, should do their best to improve Ukraine’s economy. Poland, which since 1990 has become a strong economic power, might serve as a model here. An economically flourishing Ukraine, after all, would decisively diminish any overly pro-Russian tendencies in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Angela Merkel might be the right person to convince the Russian president to enter into such a quid pro quo deal. One thing is clear: there is no point in leaving Russia isolated for any length of time and to embark on yet another prolonged period of tension with such a big and important country. "Change through rapprochement" appears to be a good recipe for finding a way out of the current crisis. This is not appeasement, but constructive engagement to resolve the crisis. International isolation, punishment and humiliation of Russia, by contrast, is unlikely to improve matters. Let us learn the right lessons from history this time round.

Klaus Larres is the Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor in History & International Affairs at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS in Washington, DC.

Peter Eltsov, a Washington based political analyst, has conducted research in Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East. He taught and conducted research at Harvard, Free University in Berlin, the Library of Congress and Wellesley College.