In my 30 years of experience with debates, I have never seen anything like what is now happening in Germany in the dispute over Russia and Crimea. There have been issues that have deeply divided the nation, such as nuclear energy. And there have been those that have prompted millions to take to the streets over the years, such as the military buildup of NATO. Four years ago, there was even a discussion that saw – like now – a sharp confrontation between published and public opinions: the controversy surrounding Thilo Sarrazin’s comments on the impact of Muslim immigrants on German society. But in hindsight, measured against the current debate on Russia, the Sarrazin dustup seems easy to explain and understand.
Unless surveys are misleading, two-thirds of German citizens, voters and readers stand opposed to four-fifths of the political class – in other words, to the government, to the overwhelming majority of members of parliament and to most newspapers and broadcasters. But what does "stand" mean? Many are downright up in arms. And from what one can gauge from letters to the editor, the share of critics seems significantly higher now than what was triggered by Sarrazin’s inflammatory book back then.
Still, what bothers me most about that is not the ratios, but the arguments. This is ultimately not about being for or against a minimum wage or nuclear power; this is about the conflict between an aggressive autocrat and Western democracies.
In fact, the legitimacy of international law is being questioned in an offensive manner
Many readers expect us to be balanced in our coverage and commentary. That would also be completely normal in this case if the only issue under debate were the reasonableness of sanctions or the mistakes of the EU – in that case, everything would still be fine either way in terms of democracy and human rights. But, in reality, the legitimacy of international law is being questioned in an offensive manner, while the legitimacy of Putin’s nationalist-imperialist ideology is being seriously considered. People are adopting the talk of "Russian soil" as if something like that were still a valid argument. (God forbid, but if one started talking about "German soil" again, all hell would – hopefully – break loose here.)
All of this leaves me aghast. But dismay does no good. Only understanding does. After all, the majority of Germans cannot be desensitized to democracy within the span of just a few weeks. Most of those who currently have some sympathy for Russia’s imperial policies, the many people who are voicing support for an annexation of Crimea, would in real life shy away from even temporarily annexing a parking spot reserved for the handicapped.
So, what’s going on here? How in the world is Putin successfully driving a wedge into Germany?
It doesn’t do any good to accuse the majority of sheepishness or base economic selfishness, even if that seems to be the driving motive of some business leaders. Supposing that Russia might be some kind of utopia of conservatism to some here (strong man, deep beliefs, marginalizing gays in society, etc.) also doesn’t really get you much farther because those are certainly policies geared toward a minority.
The issue goes deeper, much deeper.
History plays a role, but not the history of the last or next-to-last centuries (after all, older people can’t account for the two-thirds majority alone). This is about the history of the last 13 years. In this period, there seem to have been experiences of powerlessness and presumptuousness that were so fundamental that they could even allow someone like Vladimir Putin to seem like a figure worthy of serious consideration.