The Current “Bouleversement” in the German Public’s Political Perceptions: Smoke and Mirrors or Real Change?

4 May 2022

There can be no doubt that February 24, 2022 will enter into the annals of caesura-creating dates alongside such perennials as September 1, 1939, December 7, 1941, November 9, 1989 or September 11, 2001. First and foremost, Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine, which commenced on that day, has caused incredible human misery, the likes of which Europe has not witnessed since the end of the Second World War, surpassing perhaps even the cost in human lives exacted by the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. But beyond the hideous carnage caused by Russia’s aggression, February 24th shattered a European perception of reality that was deeply anchored in the notion that wars were beyond European relations and politics. Pace Clausewitz! “Politics by other means” was simply no longer thought to be an option. War was unthinkable in Europe and remained confined to distant peripheries: the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin American, possibly involving the bellicose Americans. But it certainly had no bearing on the peaceful but prosperous bliss that Europe had earned and rightfully enjoyed after all its wars throughout the centuries, none more brutal than the two world wars of the last century. Europe had done wars, thank you very much! It was beyond that. If Europe was perhaps not completely post-national, it most assuredly was post-war.

Nowhere was this view more uncontested and hegemonic than in Germany. Whereas the other two major powers of Western Europe—Britain and France—maintained remnants of colonial posturing and grandiosity in the form of their nuclear forces and, in France’s case, repeated interventions in its former African colonies; and whereas both have continued to see themselves in global politics as much more powerful and important than they actually are (by dint of culture, language and veto power on the United Nation’s Security Council); none of this existed in any shape or form in Germany. Stunde Null (Zero hour) may not have created a definitive break with all things Nazi; but it sure as heck cowed German power to the point where the Federal Republic’s powerlessness became a power all its own. Indeed, Germany’s new power exemplified “the economic giant and political dwarf” syndrome: Germany became the pacifist trader, the embodiment of “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade). Germans shed their previous claim to be “Helden” (heroes) and fully embraced their new role as “Händler” (traders)—the derisive and contemptuous name they had formerly reserved for Jews and Brits. This credo became an uncontested element of the Federal Republic’s very being. Nobody questioned it; nobody opposed it. It became the country’s official credo, its very essence! After all, the country allowed itself only two public boasts of its prowess: the global and European successes of its vaunted Mannschaft, the national soccer team; and its repeated designation as “Exportweltmeister”, the world export champion!

This was an ethos that the German business community extolled and revered. Moral issues like human rights were not to derail the gravy train. No regime was heinous enough to have German business abandon its lucrative ways. It’s also patently obvious that ALL German governments—regardless of parties—not only played along with this arrangement by tolerating it but fostered it politically as best they could. As did German labor! After all, the major tenet of MODELL DEUTSCHLAND was a moderate and “reasonable” labor movement that, for job security and other perks, worked hand in hand with a moderate and “reasonable” capital (no Thatcherism or Reaganism  in Germany; no union busting by German capital) in boosting the country’s export prowess from which both social partners, as they are called in Germany, benefitted most handsomely.

The third partner in Modell Deutschland—the German state—fostered this corporatist arrangement by creating the best possible conditions for capital and labor on the domestic front by providing an exemplary “social market economy” and by smoothing the way via diplomacy in its support of the German export machine. This explains Germany’s reluctance to rock any economic boat because of politics, be it the Russian or the Chinese or the Iranian or the Israeli or the American!

After all, it was the Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt who chided President Jimmy Carter when the latter asked him to have Germany desist from selling the Brazilian junta a nuclear reactor. Schmidt informed Carter that morality was the realm for priests and theologians but not politicians and leaders of nations. Under the protection of the American nuclear umbrella and guided by the iron-clad post-Nazi command of remaining meek in politics, Germany became arguably one of the world’s most ardent “realist” players in the world of commerce and trade.

But clearly the Nazi legacy also had a highly moral dimension as well, which came to the fore in Germany’s foreign relations, most particularly towards its Eastern neighbors, among whom the recent tragedy has unfolded.

When Willy Brandt fell to his knees on December 7, 1970 at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, he symbolized the discourse of contrition that was also to become a major part of the Federal Republic’s image and identity, particularly towards Jews and Israel, but also towards the nations to Germany’s east, including the then Soviet Union. Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” (Eastern policy) represented a wonderful synthesis of Germany’s two ethical tenets. First, there was the economic tenet in the form of opening up major markets in an emerging Eastern Europe by making sure that Germany was going to be a solid primus inter pares vis-à-vis all its Western competitors in this part of the world. And second, there was the moral tenet in that Germany contritely committed to atoning for its particularly heinous behavior during World War II, which made its war in the East so much more criminal than it was in the West. Ostpolitik entailed a wonderful win-win situation that so underlined postwar Germany’s most essential longing: doing good by being good! Wielding power but remaining innocuous!

Putin crushed this convenient synthesis. After all, how can one be good—and do good—with a brutal butcher?  In order to punish this evil, one has to disengage on both tenets. On the moral one, it’s easy! Lots of demonstrations, lots of calls for sending Putin to The Hague, lots of invoking parallels to the Nazis! End of story!

But on the economic one the deal is a lot harder particularly since the sacrosanctity of economic success at all costs has led Germany to be dependent on Russian oil and gas as few other countries are.

What is to be done as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin, so presciently asked? Suddenly, the 70-plus years of war-can-no-longer-happen-in-Europe—the premise upon which Modell Deutschland rested—collapsed. Economic giants are no longer invincible and political dwarfs downright dangerous in their helplessness. New axes have to be conceived, new behavioral norms established.

And it is in this context of a total “bouleversement” in Germany’s public discourse that we observe the oddity of former peaceniks and antiwar agitators and pacifists rallying to the side of their new hero Volodymir Zelensky in their enthusiastic support of the freedom-loving Ukrainians’ battle against the evil Russians. But to these folks, Germany’s economic axis never played any role. They were never “realists” in the economy, nor in politics. Instead, in their idealism and moralism, they were “liberals” who wanted to have their country be a guiding light in a politics of values, not power. Thus, it is not at all surprising to me that the strongest mobilization against Russian aggression in the current German debate hails from the Greens and their allies.

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, the co-leader of the Green party, represents a fine example of this position. Let us not forget that values of freedom and personal choice and anti-statism and anti-authoritarianism were every bit as formative dimensions of the Greens’ political and cultural milieu as were ecology, feminism, peace and grass-roots democracy—the four “standing legs” that comprised the basis of the Greens’ very identity. Of course, many Greens emerged from the numerous Marxist, even Leninist, “groupuscules” that emerged in the wake of the New Left’s demise in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the influences of anarchism and liberalism challenged the Marxist tinges to the point that they made the Greens of that ilk sociologically and culturally much more similar to certain followers of their coalition partner FDP than to those of their other coalition partner SPD.

Above all, the Greens have remained a profoundly western party and movement, emblematic of the Bonn Republic’s western orientation, not of the Berlin Republic’s geographically and culturally much more ecumenical and all-German identity. Different story with many Social Democrats! Always hostile to American counterculture—a mainstay of the Greens’ very identity emanating from the student politics of the late 1960s—as well as other constituent elements of what has come to be known by the moniker “the West”, the Social Democrats embraced aspects of Ostpolitik that were decidedly non-Western. Central here was the fact that these were countries ruled in the name of peasants and workers. To be sure, the Social Democrats detested the Communists’ dictatorial rule in the name of these classes—after all, the enmity between Social Democrats and Communists received no better manifestation than in the catastrophic battles between these two in the Weimar Republic—but they still liked regimes that, at least nominally, governed in the name of the working class and were thus part of the “old” Left, a familiar world of which social democracy was also a constituent member. In notable contrast to the Greens, Social Democrats had few affinities for American counterculture and the values spawned by the New Left. This milieu established important spiritual links to the ruling regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to the point that German social democrats and organized labor were openly hostile to Solidarnosc and its adherents, whom these German “old” leftists perceived as openly reactionary by dint of the Polish activists’ Catholicism and their religiosity. Germany’s economic strength has benefitted organized labor and Social Democracy mightily, and dislike of western counterculture coincided with an affinity for, if not admiration of, “real existing socialism” in these people’s republics, to the point where German social democracy became a quiet ally of these regimes.

I would like to add to this an important historical dimension that matters greatly for an understanding of the contemporary German debate and Germany’s perception in Europe that, in turn, influences the German reaction: from the middle of the 18th century onwards, arguably until today, the only real player to Germany’s east (Hohenzollern Prussia’s and Habsburg Austria’s at the time, of course) that has mattered is Russia. Others exist, to be sure, but they are secondary players, often ballast, often a nuisance with whom the big boys of Russia and Germany have to put up. Just look at the Poles’ reaction to Germany in all of this as well as the Ukrainians’—until February 24th! Germany was viewed as a fat-cat coward whom Russia has by the throat with Germany making no attempt to free itself from this choke hold but in fact rewarding Russia for it by sending Ukrainians a few thousand helmets most of which turned out to be defective and useless.

Olaf Scholz referred to the shock of February 24th as a “Zeitenwende” implying that the Russian invasion of Ukraine created a caesura the quality of which was unique in Germany’s postwar history and that the ensuing years would initiate a change in German politics the likes of which would have been unthinkable before this brazen act of war. I would like to believe this to be the case but I seriously doubt it! The term “Wende” has been used frequently in German politics. I recount three epochs in which this was the case: the advent of the Social-Liberal coalition in 1969 which was often referred to as a Wende; then the conservative rebound under Helmut Kohl in 1982/83 ending precisely the aforementioned previous social-liberal era of 13 years; and then, of course, the “real” Wende initiated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing unification of Germany on October 3, 1990.  Germans like to use the term “Wende” just like they do “Krise”.

But I remain very skeptical whether the current “bouleversement” in Germany’s public debate will yield a real change in its policies and demeanor towards Russia and the world. It seems to me that the stakes of the status quo are so high that no meaningful change will occur.


Andrei S. Markovits is Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of Political Science, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and Professor of Sociology at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His most recent work is his memoir entitled The Passport as Home: Comfort in Rootlessness published by the Central European University Press in 2021. His website can be found at

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