In a thought provoking Podcast (in German, except from 1.31.00) in the series ‘Freiheit Deluxe’ by Jagicza Marinić, a prize-winning author, novelist, playwright, essayist, and journalist from Germany, the US historian Timothy Snyder criticises the narrative of the German government’s Russia politics. He asks the question if one can blame Germany for the escalation of the Russian war against Ukraine.
Why has Germany not seen the Ukraine Russia war coming?
German Foreign Minister Steinmeier lamented the outbreak of the Ukraine Russia war:
“I have been wrong in this (about Russia, author’s translation), like many others too.”
Timothy Snyder disagrees with his statement that everyone could have made this mistake and declares that the Germans should have seen Fascism develop in Russia and thus been able to predict this war. Snyder asks why they have not done so and concludes that this has something to do with the way Germany processed the Holocaust.
German messaging on the Holocaust
When talking about Holocaust collaboration and crimes, German messaging seems to have concentrated mostly on German perpetrators. When mentioning non-German collaborators, it was mostly those in German-occupied countries, ie countries colonialised by Germany, like Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. Germany did or dies not mention Russian fascist crimes. If the whole point in Germany is to have a discussion about your own past, people shouldn’t have been so oblivious to the fact that the Soviet Union was not having a discussion about its own past.
Russia started WWII
The second factor Germans ignore is the participation of Russia in the developments leading to WWII. In fact, in Snyder’s view, Russia started the world war together with Nazi Germany. In a secret protocol of the Hitler-Stalin Treaty of August 1939, Russia and the Third Reich agreed a partition of Poland. This was a precondition for Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. The fact that Russia had always been an imperial power was not taken into consideration whenever German heads of government held talks about German-Russian future cooperation.
WWII was a colonial war and about hydrocarbons
Snyder reminds us that WWII was a colonial war, just like the current Ukraine Russia war.
“The whole history of colonialism … involves denying that another people is real. It involves denying that another state is real,” says Snyder. “That is, of course, the premise of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine…”
Snyder opines that, from the beginning, the objective of WWII was possession of fossil raw materials. To be able to continue the war on the Western Front, between 1939 and 1941, the German Reich was buying Russian oil and gas. But from 1941 onwards (once the German-Russian broke down) to support German peasants in Ukraine, Germany attempted to win Azerbaijani oil and minerals from the Russians by warfare. The war with Russia of 1941 was mainly about the territory of Ukraine and oil sources in Azerbaijan.
Ukraine was a colonial project
One could say that the extermination of the Jews in the East was a result of this territorial imperialistic policy and the war for resources. It was the war for resources which got the Germans onto the territories where Jews lived. The Ukraine was at the time a kind of colonial project for resource extraction by either a German regime or a Russian one. It remained a kind of colonial project until very recently. It was not mentioned as part of the German Eastern policy as it was still seen as a project of colonialisation rather than as a sovereign nation.
Dependency on gas and Nordstream II
The historical connection in German Eastern policy-making between WWII and hydrocarbons was equally left out of the count. When Germany decided against atomic energy, nobody looked at the connections to the history of hydrocarbons in the East, even though this step was the beginning of the dependency on gas and the agreement to Nord Stream II.
Snyder explains that nobody apart from Germany seems to understand why Germany continued with Nord Stream II after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Germany declared its support for Ukraine, but at the same time agreed to the pipeline to be built around Ukraine.
Trade in resources does not bring about change
Could it be that the purchase of gas was considered a kind of compensation for the fact that Germany once made war on Russia? This decision ignores the fact that change cannot be engineered by trade in resources. It does not promote civilisational development or the revitalisation of a country’s economy. The gains almost certainly land in the coffers of a few at the top. And at this moment, the Putin regime is based on and supported by the trade in hydrocarbons.
Germans fund fascism
At this point in the podcast, Jagoda Marinić asks Snyder to explain his Tweet of 20th April 2022, where he says: “For thirty years, Germans lectured Ukrainians about fascism. When fascism actually arrived, Germans funded it, and Ukrainians died fighting it.”
Far right in a country with a Jewish PM
Snyder then brings up the media talk about Ukrainian extreme right, when it has only got 3% in the last elections and has not been part of the government. Its influence is far beneath that of the far right in Germany or its neighbouring countries, including France. However, in German media discussion, there was a lot of talk about the small group of the Ukrainian far right. But in the same debates, there was no mention of how a member of a traditionally suppressed minority (the Jews) could gain 73% of votes to become President of Ukraine. A Jewish President would be an impossibility in Germany or the US.
Despite Russian fascism being much more blatantly part of the moral and political world, as it’s given a voice in Russian TV on a daily basis, Germany has not taken any notice of it prior to the war. This is in spite of the fact that Putin is the biggest supporter of Russian fascism.
Listen to Ukrainians
It is time to listen to Ukrainians who have been talking about Russian fascism for quite a while now. It is the reason they put up such a strong defence. Snyder stresses that we must take note of what those that are being attacked have to say. And secondly, we must remember the issue of national sovereignty. Then we appreciate that Ukrainians would/will fight whether or not they receive any more weapons from Germany or elsewhere.
Ukraine must win the war
They understand that this war is a war in which Putin aims to extinguish the nation of Ukraine. We must understand that the only way to stop this war, and the risk of Russia moving on to suppress Moldova, the Baltics and Poland, is for Ukraine to win the war. To the question of whether Germany should supply weapons to the Ukrainians, Snyder says,
“But if you want to get this war over with in May or June, you have to come up with reasons why you don’t want to arm the Ukrainians.”
The podcast carries on about several vital themes, like the risk of a nuclear war, the ideological background of Russian fascism and what freedom means for Putin. These points deserve a separate article for an in depth analysis.
Germany to review its Russia and Eastern politics
I want to finish with Snyder‘s request to German politics and science to do more detailed research into the role of hydrocarbons in WWII, to review its policies towards the East and its views on Nord Stream II. He is optimistic in his expectations of Germany. Germans are used to processing past events to learn from them. Snyder wishes the US followed Germany’s example of talking about and dealing with its past. He mentions Native Americans as one of the issues the US should process.
Message to all of us: heed the sign
Jumping to the end of Snyder’s talk, he concludes with an important message to all of us from his viewpoint as a historian:
“I think, you know, it’s a sign. I mean, the war is a terrible, terrible thing. But that the Ukrainians are taking risks for things gives the rest of us a chance to realise that democracy is something that one ought to take risks for. We probably never will have to take risks of the kind that my Ukrainian colleagues are currently taking. But, you know, it’s enlightening, it’s refreshing. It’s important to see that democracy is something that you should do what you can and should take risks for. So I see that we’ve been given a kind of opening to think about our democracies and that we should use that opening as best we can.”
I think this advice comes at a time when we in the UK are becoming more aware that democracy with our current government is not a given. When it is at risk, it needs to be protected and constantly nurtured.
Note about WWII by one of our authors who is a former UK naval officer, Mike Phillips:
I believe a factor in the causes of World War II was the excessively punitive restrictions placed on the loser. The same applied after World War II with Germany and Japan. After 75 years both countries have changed and restrictions must be removed. Scholz has committed Germany to increase its military spending to more than 2% of its GDP. Both Germany and Japan have been forgiven for the atrocities of the past. It will take the same length of time for Russia to be treated likewise. First, they must stop trying to restore their colonial past. If we can work with them on the international space station, why not on Earth?