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1 June 2022

Shadows of the First World War loom over Germany’s ambiguous response to Russia

Olaf Scholz’s unwillingness to say “Ukraine must win” in public shows his fear of stumbling inadvertently into a conflict.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Had Olaf Scholz misspoken or had he been misheard? When Der Spiegel reported that Germany’s chancellor had declared “I am not Kaiser Wilhelm” at a private government meeting in April, it seemed an improbable quote. Not only was it later confirmed, however, but Scholz has gone on to repeat it, including in discussions with journalists during a recent trip to Africa. His point: unlike Wilhelm II in 1914 he will not let Germany slide into a major European war.

In early April I puzzled in these pages over why Germany – with its intensive culture of commemorating the Second World War – was not applying the lessons of appeasement to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Since then, Scholz’s government has stepped up in certain areas (agreeing to send Ukraine heavy weapons and backing an oil embargo) but it is still providing less leadership, support and impetus than Germany’s size and professed values ought to dictate. Its weapons deliveries are slow and patchy, the country continues to pay for Russian energy in roubles and Scholz appears unwilling to utter the phrase “Ukraine must win” in public.

Odd though it seems, his Kaiser Wilhelm comment sheds some light on this. It is clear that parts of the German elite see not the Second but the First World War as the more relevant parallel to the present moment. To grasp the three main lessons they draw from the 1914-1918 conflict is to better understand the country’s actions – and inaction.

The first is the danger of stumbling inadvertently into conflict. Germany’s current debates are studded with references to The Sleepwalkers, the 2012 book by the historian Christopher Clark, which charts how Europe’s pre-1914 alliance system dragged the continent’s powers into what had started as a mere regional conflict. Scholz clearly alludes to its argument in his disavowal of Wilhelm II. Headlines proclaim “The New Sleepwalkers” and “The Return of the Sleepwalkers”. Writing in Der Freitag, the commentator Christoph Schwennicke warns that heavy-weapons exports to Kyiv could become “the Sarajevo incident of a Third World War”. It has fallen to Clark himself to point out the flaws in the comparison. “It turned out that [Putin] was planning a war all along,” he told the broadcaster Deutsche Welle on 22 May. “So that’s not like 1914, because in 1914 there is no single actor who just decides to invade another territory.”

The second “lesson” is the danger of a Europe destabilised by prolonged conflict. Some German observers thus fear that arming Ukraine could lead to a yet more catastrophic attritional war in which neither Kyiv nor Moscow is capable of forcing the other to the negotiating table. “Soldiers holding out in muddy trenches and trying to destroy each other’s positions with the help of mortars,” ran a recent commentary for the Bavarian broadcaster BR. “This is fatally reminiscent of the bloodbath of the First World War.”

The third supposed parallel concerns the severe terms imposed on the defeated. “Humiliated men and humiliated nations are dangerous,” argues the feminist Alice Schwarzer: “Germany felt itself extremely humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles after 1919. We know the consequences.” Others raising this point include Stefan Aust, the former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, who has insisted only a compromise giving Putin an off-ramp can supply a lasting peace. Various writers cite Max Weber’s 1919 distinction between a “Gesinnungsethik” (a purist ethics of conviction) and a “Verantwortungsethik” (an ethics of pragmatic responsibility) to criticise what the leftist historian Gerhard Hanloser calls “Gesinnungs-ethical warmongers” promoting greater support for Ukraine.

Why is it that these historical lessons seem to eclipse those of the 1930s for so many influential Germans? One explanation is the federal republic’s postwar tradition of treating Nazi crimes as an incomparable evil untethered from the “ordinary” flow of history. The Second World War is also complicated by a sense among some Germans of Russia as both victim and liberator in that conflict (a perspective that overlooks Ukraine’s horrific oppression at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin). The First World War by contrast plays a less complex role in the country’s remembrance culture, so is more easily appropriated for debates today. The collapse of the seemingly peaceful global order in 1914 feels resonant in a Germany that has thrived in the second, post-1989 era of globalisation which now seems to be buckling.

Such factors are not only influential on the old-school pacifist left, but also among the corporatist bastions of Germany’s export industries and their political allies, and among older Germans who grew up in the shadow of Nazism’s evils. But these arguments have much less sway among younger Germans, centrist Atlanticists,- and many Greens shaped by their party’s transformative battles over the country’s intervention against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. Debates about whether Germany is doing enough to help Ukraine broadly follow these contours. Explicitly or implicitly, they amount to discussions about whether the Second World War or First World War makes a more salient parallel.

Those allies of Germany who rightly demand that it do more, including the UK, the US and states across Europe, would do well to understand this. If they want more principled Gesinnungsethik from Scholz, they could start by persuading him that he is at greater risk of going down in history as a new Neville Chamberlain than a new Kaiser Bill.

[See also: Serhii Plokhy: “The Ukrainian army that no one ever knew existed is winning”]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special