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Are the Germans Really Russophilian Nationalists?

Just another neoconservative attempt to smear Germans and Russians with the taint of authoritarianism.
Putin Merkel

Having spent considerable energy over the last 40 years examining the anti-German and, more recently, anti-Russian fixations of neoconservatives, I am now rather selective about which examples I allow myself to investigate.

That said, I can’t resist an easy target. Germanophobia and Russophobia both figure prominently in a recently published commentary by Richard Herzinger in The American Interest. In “Germany’s Russia Lobby,” Herzinger explains that “From Nietzsche to Mann to Merkel, German culture has long had a soft spot for Russia.”

Herzinger’s rant against the Germans and Russians segues into his attacks on Angela Merkel for deciding to buy natural gas from Putin’s Russia. It seems that “Russia acts in German consciousness as a kind of imagined, subliminal ever present ‘option.’” Given Germany’s undemocratic past, which continues to shape its relationship with the rest of the world, this country is drawn to “Russian autocracy.” Trump has intensified this tendency because of his “bewildering admiration and affection for Putin.” This, we are told, encourages German anti-democrats to push even closer to the Russians. Because of these developments, “Germany’s nationalist demons, which most had thought vanquished, could surface once again and become virulent.”

Although Herzinger finds no evidence that Merkel or her likely successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will renounce “her commitment to the Transatlantic alliance and its common values (read subservience to the Washington foreign policy establishment),” he fears that “the Putin lobby will almost certainly increase” in conjunction with the “Putin-explainers” who “depict Putin’s authoritarian rule as an authentic expression of Russian uniqueness.” Herzinger insists that “none of this is new” and from the nineteenth century on, anti-Western, anti-democratic German thinkers “developed a mythical image of, and fascination with, Russia that vacillated between fear and admiration.”

Herzinger cherry-picks statements by German authors that are intended to suggest that they have a morbid attraction to Russian politics and culture. But were the sympathetic observations that Nietzsche made about Russia any more common than his effusions of admiration for the French? And Nietzsche, by the way, was no German nationalist; typically he contrasted other supposedly more creative nations with German Spiessbürger (philistines). One could also come up with a list of anti-Russian quotations by German intellectuals and politicians, particularly during the two World Wars when Germans and Russians were slaughtering each other. Herzinger cites the interwar German nationalists Ernst Niekisch and Moeller van den Bruck as Russophiles. But other German conservatives in the 1920s—for example the philosopher of history Oswald Spengler—were profoundly wary of Soviet Russia. Can Herzinger, by the way, provide us with a single quotation from the horse’s mouth that would suggest that Merkel is a “German nationalist”? What in the career of this politician who flooded her country with young male migrants, supposedly from Syria, would indicate that she’s a German patriot?  

Herzinger states that after the First World War, German nationalists and German leftists favored close ties with Soviet Russia. There was an obvious reason for this. Both the German Republic and the Soviet Union had been stripped of considerable territory by the victors at the end of the War and had been treated as adversaries at the subsequent negotiations at Versailles. The two pariah powers understandably believed that they had been driven together in a “community of fate (Schicksalsgemeinschaft)” and in 1923 concluded a defensive agreement. Herzinger correctly observes that during the Cold War there were some Germans who felt “cultural disdain” for the U.S. “In Russia, many Germans think, one finds the opposite: a cultural nation that values the ideals of poets, artists, and intellectuals.”

Allow me to qualify. What was left of the old German nationalist Right after 1945 distrusted the United States, which they regarded as Germanophobic. They also spoke positively of a bipolarity in which the Soviets and Americans would check each other in Europe. But German intellectuals like Carl Schmitt absolutely loathed the Soviet Union, which they viewed as the bearer of a hated Communist ideology. In any case there’s nothing peculiarly German about Europeans resenting the Americans. During the war against Iraq, the neocons went after the French for their inveterate anti-Americanism. Of course, once that hate spree was over, our warmongers went back to their preferred European whipping boys.

A center piece for Herzinger’s case that German antidemocrats can’t resist autocratic Russians is the tract “Observations of a Nonpolitical Man,” completed by the celebrated German novelist Thomas Mann in 1918. According to Herzinger, this work was produced as a “cultural-historical schema of sorts, with German and Russians on the one side and Western democracies on the other.” In fact, this work was being drafted while Germans and Russians were shooting each other on the battlefield, and its praise of Russian spirituality, especially among the peasants, does not seem to have been characteristically German.

In 1913, the Czech patriot Thomas Masaryk, who was on the Allied side in World War I, made observations similar to Mann’s about godly Russian peasants in Russia and Europe. There is also an overlap between Mann’s depiction of the Russians and the one that we find in writings before the War by the later Hungarian Communist Georg Lukacs. Like Mann, both Masaryk and Lukacs wrote their hymns to the Russian people in German. One wonders what any of this tells us about Merkel’s decision to buy natural gas from the Russians.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.



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