Old German cracks reopen over Ukraine | ukraine news

The legacy of World War II and the resulting “culture of anti-militarism” clearly played a significant role in German voters’ doubts about military involvement. Nevertheless, a majority approved of the decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and overall support for both military assistance and sanctions has increased in recent months. Slowly, the German public seems to be coming to terms with the new realities of European security.

But while many Germans accept the need for a powerful response to Russian aggression, some remain deeply opposed. Especially in the former German Democratic Republic, or DDR. The divide between East and West Germany in foreign and defense policy is striking. In the East, 40% think that military support for Ukraine goes too far, against 28% in the West. Some 46% of East Germans are critical of the close cooperation with the United States over Ukraine, compared to 23% of West Germans. These figures, which have remained constant since the full-scale invasion, demonstrate a clear divide, both in the direction of foreign and defense policy and in the choice of partners for Berlin.

This phenomenon is partly explained by the economic and political legacies of the partition of Germany, which are very much alive more than 30 years after reunification. On average, East Germans earn 14% less than their western compatriots, and most major corporations and advanced manufacturing plants are still based in the west. The East’s economic and development problems stoke resentment, a sense of abandonment, and a sense that it is underrepresented in government (Westerns, meanwhile, note the $350 billion-plus they’ve paid in “solidarity” taxes to rebuild the East.)

East Germans are more likely to turn to extremist parties. According to a recent poll, 12.3% support Die Linke, the successor to the ruling DDR party, compared to 2.4% in the west. Similarly, 22% support the far-right AfD party, compared to 10.2% in the west.

Nearly 40 years of propaganda have also marked the vision of the world of the citizens of the East. According to German military historian Sönke Neitzel, a considerable part of the East German population “still sees the United States as the real enemy”. As a result, they are less likely to trust the Western-dominated “mainstream” media.

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Instead, they turn to sources like Russia Today and Sputnik, which spread Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories. While these sites have been banned since March 2022, individuals and groups, including those connected to the AfD, continue to share their articles on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Telegram. According to a survey in October, 59% of respondents in East Germany fully or partially believe that NATO pushed Russia to invade Ukraine, a key message from the Kremlin, compared to 35% in the west. This divide has widened since a similar poll in April.

As a result, the East German public has a more negative assessment of the United States on the one hand and more sympathy for Russia on the other. These long-term sentiments combine with short-term influences, such as the pacifism and non-interventionism of Die Linke, the anti-internationalist sentiments and warmth towards Russia within the AfD, and the heightened fear of an economic downturn. Together they have caused a reluctance to support Ukraine militarily, to maintain or intensify sanctions against Russia, or to endorse a more active German foreign and defense policy.

As the debate over the supply of fighter jets continues, how do these doubts about a strong foreign policy affect German support for Ukraine?

A skeptical public that asks governments to explain their policies and avoid sudden decisions can be a virtue. Although more pronounced in the East, concerns exist throughout Germany, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his international allies will have to take them seriously, especially as citizens are increasingly doubtful about the functioning of German democracy.

But the government is not solely at the mercy of public opinion. As the increase in public support following the Leopard ruling showed, demonstrations of leadership can help sway public opinion.

And specifically on East German concerns, the government will have to mitigate fears of an economic downturn or military escalation with transparent decision-making – rather than abrupt announcements – as was the case with the Leopard decision. He must also continue to work to bring East Germany into the national mainstream and fight misinformation from enemies of liberal democracy. Countering Russian disinformation and improving information literacy must also become a government priority.

Finally, Germany must revise its discourse on engagement in Central and Eastern Europe by specifying that supporting Ukraine does not only concern the governments of kyiv and Moscow. Germany has close ties – and historic debt – with the whole of Eastern Europe. By helping Ukraine, Germany is defending all its Eastern allies against an imperialist and revisionist power.

More than ill-conceived pacifism, vigorous solidarity can show the world that Germany has learned from the darkest chapters of its history.

Thomas Nawrath is an intern in the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and pursuing a Masters in Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin. Previously, he worked as a consultant for digital political communications and campaigns in Berlin.

Sasha Stone is a Senior Program Officer in the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the role of foreign policy in Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the role of foreign policy in Europe and North America.

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