2018.04.27 Russiaphobia in Germany

[The following is a translation from German by Google and me of this page from NachDenkSeiten.de. The interview was conducted by Marcus Klöckner.]

Anyone talking with Antje Vollmer quickly realizes that she is no alarmist, but an experienced politician. Vollmer, who has a doctorate in theology, was Vice President of the German Bundestag from 1994 to 2005 and repeatedly a Green member of Parliament. But what has been happening lately worries her greatly. The cornerstones of detente, set in place by politicians of the old Federal Republic to avoid a war with Russia, have been destroyed by the post-reunification elites. She wants an open discussion of the value of the policy of detente as practiced by Willy Brandt and others, as opposed to the new German hard-line policy towards Russia.

The following interview was preceded by two public appeals by Vollmer and other well-known personalities from the realm of politics, business, and culture. In December 2014 the message, with more than 60 signatories, was: "War again in Europe? Not in our name!" But the appeal had little effect.

Then, on April 12 of this year, Vollmer made another public appeal, together with Gunter Verheugen (SPD), Edmund Stoiber(CSU), Horst Teltschik (CDU) and Helmut Schäfer (FDP), warning of the imminent danger of "a third and final world war." But except for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, no other media outlet published the statement.

Are we facing a Third World War, Ms. Vollmer?

"We are facing an extremely tense situation between the West and Russia. In this situation, minor events or misinterpretations of events can lead to further escalation, which -- and this is the great danger -- can no longer be controlled by anyone. I believe that a false threat analysis can be just as dangerous as a real threat."

Can you explain that?

"We see both sides building up a picture of the 'enemy.' This is driven, sometimes hysterically, by the media. And in fact the armed forces are being constantly built up, both militarily and verbally. With this mixture, the effect of even minor events or confrontations can no longer be calculated, especially since most of the structures for discussion are no longer being used."

You are an experienced politician. How do you think we got to this critical situation with Russia? There must have been some signs along the way. It did not happen overnight.

"I think there was a fundamental change in German foreign policy at the turn of the millenium, or in 2005 at the latest."

What do you mean?

"The revolutions of 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain made the West feel victorious and encouraged some to dream of further regime changes worldwide. The role of detente, and of the considerable contributions of the Soviet Union to the miracle that these changes occurred largely non-violently in Europe, were gradually forgotten."

For the second time now, you and other well-known people have made a public call for better relations with Russia.

"Yes, in 2014 it was due to the Ukraine crisis. Over 60 prominent people signed that statement. I cannot remember anything similar. A former president, a former chancellor, various cabinet ministers and state governors -- all from the most diverse political parties -- and also well-known people representing the arts, culture, churches, trade unions, and agricultural organizations. We were warning then, urgently, that the threat of war in Europe was real, and not just a phenomenon from the past."

What was the reaction?

"It was not taken seriously. The media invented the label "Russian sympathizers" ["Russland-Versteher"] for us. The major TV networks ARD and ZDF did not report it at all. We went first to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, but they obviously missed the whole point since they refused to print it or even report it as a news story."

So from your point of view, this appeal, in addition to its specific message, had another, broader meaning? What was that?

"It was a public warning from representatives and citizens of the old Federal Republic not to recklessly change the basic direction of German foreign policy, which once ran across party lines from Willy Brandt [SPD] to Helmut Kohl [CDU] and Hans-Dietrich Genscher [FDP]. We saw that the cornerstones of this foreign policy, which was designed to provide a stable security architecture in the center of Europe and to deescalate potential conflicts between East and West, was being destroyed.

"Our appeal was therefore for the old Federal Republic to rise up against the post-reunification elite and its new foreign-policy agenda -- a foreign policy that gives lip service to human rights and values but uses aggressive methods like sanctions and regime-change, and double standards concerning violations of international law, etc. So we were hoping for an open debate on the question of whether and why the basic direction of German foreign policy has changed and whether that is good for the country."

A discussion that has yet to take place?

"Absolutely. We have to ask ourselves what it means for Germany, and for the European Union, for our European future, if the post-reunification elites continue to pursue this new foreign policy. After more than twenty years, we have to ask what the results of this neo-conservative policy have been. What are the benefits? What has it achieved?"

It would seem that these "reunfication elites" are pretty well established.

"They are. They have the leadership in politics, in the media, and also in almost all the think tanks."

Still, they seem to avoid open discussion in the media.

"They are rarely questioned. It's easy to refuse to debate. They almost never have to account for the consequences of their policies in the real world."

What about your second appeal. How did that go?

"Of course we learned from the first time. We knew there would be no media interest in a policy debate. So we thought that if we could not provoke a discussion we could at least publish an article. After all, the big print media still have op-ed pages. In the heated atmosphere of the Skripal affair, we wanted to reach at least the newly elected federal government."

You tried the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and its international editor, Stefan Kornelius.

"We did, and his answer was, shall we say, strange."

What did he say?

"He said he couldn't publish the article because it had five authors. That was too many."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published it -- behind a paywall -- a few days later. Especially with Mr. Teltschik, the former head of the Munich Security Conference, you had someone here who is extremely well connected. Actually, one might expect that if five personalities like Stoiber (CSU), Verheugen (SPD), Teltschik (CDU), Schaefer (FDP) and you (Greens) want to open the door to discussion, it should work. How do you explain that you just cannot manage to get the debate going, despite these two attempts?

"There is a strong and unified monocultural pressure on the part of political leaders, especially in Germany. Incidentally, Angela Merkel is a master when it comes to forming a united front. She sees this as her job in the EU, where she assumes the role of team leader. She has a gene for forming oversized coalitions. Behind that is a great fear that unless everyone falls in line, the whole thing will fall apart.

"So there is enormous internal pressure that makes dissent very difficult, and there must be a villain to line up against -- sometimes Putin or Orban, sometimes Tsipras or Puigdemont. This is how the power game is played: internal pressure to conform, for fear of being excluded. The media do everything they can to increase this pressure for EU unity. The anti-Putin and anti-Russian propaganda, for example, is extreme and even irrational, going far beyond what could be called necessary and legitimate criticism."

Where does this Russia-bashing come from?

"It has a lot to do with ignorance. Hardly anyone is seriously interested in Russia. Some media seem to see today's Russia as the direct continuation of the Soviet Union, even as the continuation of Stalinism. Stereotypes and prejudices are no longer given any second thought. There is no open curiosity about today's Russia. It's enough to know about Memorial, p*ssy Riot and Khodorkovsky.

"The media ignore the fact that there has always been a pro-Western faction in the Kremlin. And it is frightening that this ignorance about Russia is found not only in the media but also in the Foreign Office, where real Russia experts have become very rare compared to previous years."

To put it sarcastically, one could say that journalism and politics, which should have a real interest in understanding other countries and people and be prepared to portray Russia from different perspectives, are actually contributing to this portrait of Russia as the bogeyman.

"That may very well be. Knowledge makes life more difficult. However, there is a big difference between how the people perceive and want to relate to Russia, and how the political and media do so."

What do you mean?

"For example, recently there was a disaster in Siberia, a department store fire with many dead, especially children. The Berlin population put flowers and teddy bears in large quantities in front of the Russian Embassy and lit candles. I have not seen photos of this anywhere in the media. When the media reported the disaster, they focused on the sloppiness and the "typical" Russian disorganization. They said that Putin only met with the mourners privately and did not face any public criticism.

"This was the same day, a very painful day for the Russians, that the big politicians expelled the Russian diplomats fas punishment for the Skripal Affair. That evening there was a memorial concert at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, but not single active member of the German parliament attended the event. Matthias Platzeck and I were there. No one else.

Were any journalists there?

"No, I did not see anyone, not at the fence and not inside."

The examples you mention bring us back to the question of how this extreme situation could come about.

"I think the roots lie in the euphoria of the post-reunification era. Politicians and journalists abandoned their professions and became activists themselves -- for example, when they denounced the environmental sins of the Russians at the Sochi Olympics, almost calling for a boycott, or when they stood in Maidan Square and thought: 'It's happening again, and this time we're reporting live!'" [As if this were like the fall of the Berlin wall.]

In an interview with Hessischer Rundfunk you said that the reporting on the case of Skripal resembled warmongering propaganda. These are tough words.

"When journalists become activists they use the power of their medium to influence the public. Karl Kraus explored this idea in his book The Last Days of Mankind, which shows how the slowly increasing aggressiveness in the media in 1914 prepared the population for war.

"We must therefore urgently ask how we can get back to a quality journalism, which can present a (supposedly) good cause while maintaining a certain distance and without identifying with it completely. Otherwise no fair judgment is possible. We need journalists again who are able to question their own emotions and slow themselves down in their role as activists."

What about the big political talk shows on TV? What do you notice?

"They reflect the general situation. There are hardly any guests left who try to explain or understand the Russian side knowledgeably. The label 'Russia-sympathizer' has long become a reason not to listen. The people who assume this role, who understand Russia and are willing to speak out publicly, you can count on one hand.

"In addition, people who take on this unpopular role must be real dissidents. They are pretty much alone. Matthias Platzeck is alone in the SPD, Gabriele Krone-Schmalz is defamed by other journalists, General Harald Kujat has little support from the military. The CEOs fear sanctions. That is, whoever is committed to moderation in dealing with Russia, whoever dares to publicly criticize 'our' side, must be prepared for the cold shoulder."

In your appeal, you wrote that the memories of the world war are fading. Are journalists and politicians missing the understanding of what a great war would mean for everyone?

"War experiences are traumas that should not be described as 'advantages.' But it is true that both German post-war republics and thus also the politicians of that time were traumatized, or at least shaped, by the experience of war in East and West.

"The functionaries of the old Federal Republic were very aware that there is no ocean between us and Russia. That is why they always insisted on a balanced policy between the West and the potential opponent in the East. So we were rooted in the West, but were aware that we had a special role in seeking an understanding with the East. And this awareness was above party politics: Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt had it, and also Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Kohl."

How do you see the attitude of the new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, towards Russia?

"Maas is definitely one of the new elites of the Federal Republic, who think and act differently than their predecessors. It is particularly sad to see that the new SPD Foreign Minister considers the detente policy of his own party as obsolete. If I read Maas and his colleague Michael Roth correctly, they say clearly that detente policy is no longer appropriate for our time.

"Maas says he did not go into politics because of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr's policy of detente, or because of the peace movement. He has told journalists that he would take a much harder course towards Russia than his predecessors Steinmeier and Gabriel. So Heiko Maas has clearly rejected the Social Democrats policy of detente.

But this reorientation is apparently supported by the SPD.

"That astounds me. I am wondering constantly when there will be a rebellion among the Social Democrats against this break with the best of their own tradition. The new Foreign Minister wants to be close to the Bild newspaper and to the 'Atlanticists' in all the international editorial offices. This too is new. In the past, the toughest anti-communist propaganda always came from the Bild and the Springer press. Today, articles against Russia, which is no longer communist but authoritarian, are found regularly in Die Zeit, the Spiegel, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the FAZ, and even in the taz."

With this orientation of politics and media, we as a society should have quite a problem when it comes to multi-faceted analysis.

"This problem is real. What gives me hope, however, is that despite this unified anti-Russian political-media front, the population thinks differently. Polls show that 70 to 90 percent of the people want to reach an understanding with Russia."

What does that show us?

"It means the policy of detente is much more popular among the population than it is with politicians and journalists."

What can we do about this?

"I urge the SPD to defend its earlier policy of detente against people like Maas and Roth. Journalists, the media, and civil society must pursue, in their own interest, the debate on this change in German foreign policy. Those responsible for the change must be forced to show us the positive outcomes of their policies. What has the policy of regime change achieved? Have we come closer to peace in Europe and the world? Are Europeans more unified, more secure, or more democratic today than we were in the 1990s?"

This is an appeal especially to politics and the media. But let's get back to the people again. What should we do in this situation? What should we pay attention to, especially with regard to the imbalances in reporting?

"The internet is rebelling. You can read on the Internet the kinds of things that should be said by journalists in the traditional media. For example, there is resistance in the internet to the propaganda and one-sided reporting that we saw in the Skripal case. Some try to say this comes from right-wing populists or Russian hackers, but it is much more than that.

"What's really missing is the power on the streets. To give one example, when the US, British and French attacked Syria a few days ago, the Greens were having their congress in Berlin to redefine their position and usher in the so-called 'fourth phase' of their party development. Earlier Greens would have taken to the streets immediately, shouting 'Stop the bombing! Obey international law!' But this congress just continued their meeting."

Are the Greens really so bad?

"If you are a pacifist and an advocate of a modern detente policy, you are now an alien from a distant star in the Greens. The great good fortune and precious lesson of 1989 was that detente and the civil rights movement finally came together with an effective result. This has led to successful and non-violent change in the world. By contrast, I do not know of a single positive example of economic sanctions, which have been touted lately as 'non-violent,' leading to non-violent results. But sanctions always harm the population, ruin whole economies and drive nations even farther apart."