Why do east Germans sympathize with Russia?
As I’m sure most of you know, yesterday was a German national holiday. Thirty two years ago the communist East and capitalist West formally became one. One nation divided by the ideologies of the Cold War was finally brought back together.
But in recent years questions have arisen over just how comfortably these two parts of a supposed whole really fit together.
Sometimes it seems as if, rather than growing together (the motto of this year’s festivities), the two sides are steadily growing apart.
This first became apparent during the refugee crisis, when east Germans took to the streets in large numbers to demonstrate against what they saw as the “Islamisation of the West.”
The pandemic made things worse. Easterners, particularly in Saxony and Thuringia, bristled at the lockdowns and mask mandates which were broadly supported in western Germany.
But the most recent controversy bringing east Germans onto the street is the most divisive yet. While fear of immigration and hatred of lockdowns also had some currency in the west, east Germans' unabashed sympathy for Putin's Russia has left west Germans wondering whether their eastern brethren have totally lost the plot.
Visit a protest over the cost of living in east Germany today and you will almost certainly see Russian flags waving next to German ones; you will read signs demanding an immediate peace with Moscow; demonstrators will tell you that the US is to blame for the war and that German public television has been turned into Ukrainian propaganda channels.
Cars with Ukrainian license plates in the east have been damaged or had a ‘Z’ scarred into them.
This is a peculiar reaction for the people of a country whose own democratic opposition was suppressed by Russian tanks during the Soviet era.
East Germans are alone among the peoples of the former Warsaw Pact in having a blindspot for the Kremlin. The people of Poland, the Czech Republic or Estonia have no illusions about Russian intentions.
So what explains east German sentiment?
What has the reaction been?
The sympathy that so many east Germans have for Russia is better understood as an antipathy towards the U.S.-led West, argues Frank Richter, a former democracy activist in the GDR.
“The flimsy justifications for the Iraq war were the final straw for many east Germans, who ceased to believe the Western narrative of freedom, equality, democracy and solidarity," Richter wrote this week in Der Spiegel. "Many see U.S. foreign policy primarily as the pursuit of global dominance.”
The hard years after reunification also led many east Germans to see themselves as “eternal victims,” adds Richter. This has resulted in a “childish reflex” to see Putin as another victim of the West.
There are practical reasons for East Germans to sympathize with Russia too, argues Michael Kaste in Die Welt.
“The explosion in consumer prices is hitting their comparatively small incomes hard," he writes. "And the east German economy's dependence on Russian oil and gas has also been particularly high."
But economic ties don’t even begin to explain why so many Ossis have a soft spot for Russia, retorts east German public broadcaster MDR. Cultural links are the real reason. During communist times Russian language classes were obligatory and school pupils were versed in Russian literature. "That's what defines the east German relationship with Russia - that many of us got to know the Russians as pen pals, or through student exchanges and travel,” SPD politician Manuela Schwesig told the broadcaster.
The Russia issue given the Alternative for Germany (AfD) yet another theme to latch onto as they seek to establish themselves as the authentic voice of the east.
In Saxony, polling shows that the AfD - who demand an immediate end to sanctions - are stably the most popular party in the state. In each of the other four states of the east the AfD have sizable support, even while their popularity in the west is on the wane.
But the jarring images of east Germans carrying Russian flags and demanding German neutrality can be misleading, claims broadcaster MDR:
“The majority of east Germans are anything but Putin-sympathizers. Due to their long-shared history with Russia, they simply have a greater understanding for their former ‘big brother.’ They want to understand Russia instead of being quick to condemn it.”