After the Zeitenwende: Jürgen Habermas and Germany’s new identity crisis


The 92-year-old philosopher has warned Germans not to allow anger at Russia and admiration for Ukraine to displace their country’s hard-won focus on dialogue and peace.

By Adam Tooze

  • Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended world politics and nowhere more so than in Germany. Addressing an emergency session of the Bundestag on 27 February, German chancellor Olaf Scholz declared a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history. Russia’s attack on Ukraine meant Europe and Germany had entered a new age. But what direction is history turning in?

Scholz promised to raise Germany’s defence spending and in March placed a large order for America’s exorbitant F-35 fighter jets. Since then, sanctions on Russia have been tightened and Germany has even agreed to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine. But Berlin has baulked at an all-out boycott of Russian oil and gas, and what it has to offer Kyiv militarily is limited even compared to other European nations, let alone the United States. Always there is a suspicion of delay, reluctance and fear. In Germany and elsewhere this has been read as nothing less than a crisis of political identity. More than anywhere else in the West, the entire German intellectual class, and every TV talk show and newspaper has been mobilised to debate and criticise Germany’s performance. The situation has been aggravated after Volodymyr Zelensky’s attack on Germany’s long-running détente with Russia in a speech to the Bundestag in March and a stream of remarkably forthright comments from Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin. You can tell matters are becoming really serious because Jürgen Habermas, the 92-year old doyen of German philosophy and political commentary, has entered the ring, for once on the side of the government.

Russia’s aggression poses such fundamental questions for Germany because the nation in its current form owes its existence to the peaceful end of the Cold War that enabled reunification. The success of 1989-90 was prepared by almost two decades of Ostpolitik, in which trade and détente with the Soviet Union worked to draw back the Iron Curtain. Maintaining good relations with Moscow has always meant making a pact with the devil, first with the repressive Soviet regime in the 1970s and 1980s and then with Vladimir Putin since the 2000s. After Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in 2020, Berlin has repeatedly shrugged and carried on. But Putin’s assault on Ukraine and Ukraine’s remarkable resistance have made that approach impossible.

The question is particularly explosive because in the late 1960s it was Chancellor Scholz’s party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), then led by the charismatic Willy Brandt, that launched Ostpolitik. Détente runs deep in the SPD, as personified by Gerhard Schröder, ex-chancellor and unrepentant chairman of the board at Russian state oil firm Rosneft. But the attachment is not confined to the social democrats. Voices on the German right have long favoured a modus vivendi with Russia, whether under the Tsar, the Soviets or now under Putin. For them, Bismarck is the model in balancing between East and West. In 2013, the foreign policy manifesto of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) drew inspiration directly from the Iron Chancellor in arguing for a self-confident national foreign policy, but one that recognised Russia’s importance for German history, back to the age of Frederick the Great, and which respected Russia’s interests in the successor states to the Soviet Union. This tendency is reinforced by an undercurrent of anti-Americanism that is particularly pronounced on the far left in Die Linke. And, as has become embarrassingly clear in recent months, there is a general disregard on many sides in Berlin for the national rights of “smaller” east European states – notably Poland and Ukraine – that have the misfortune to find themselves wedged between Germany and Russia. Meanwhile, German industrial firms such as Siemens look back on 150 years of doing profitable business in Russia, relations which they are unwilling to have disrupted by a bagatelle like the annexation of Crimea.

But as German as all this may be, these factors were at work around the world after the end of the Cold War. Oil is far bigger business than the Russian gas on which Germany depends, and it was British, American and French oil majors that made the large investments in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. In diplomacy, the Gaullist tradition in France also looks to balance between Washington and Moscow. In Italy sympathy for Russia runs deep. And then there is Londongrad.

SOURCE – NEW STATESMAN

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