German-Russian relations: Ambiguous feelings in the East


Status: 03/06/2022 15:44

East Germany has always had a special relationship with Russia. But Putin’s war also changed a lot there. On the changing relationship between East Germany and Russia.

An analysis by Tim Herden, MDR

Every child in GDR history lessons learned about the alleged act of a Soviet soldier who gave his life for a little German girl in the battles of Berlin in 1945. This episode is symbolically cast in bronze in Treptower Park in Berlin: The memorial shows a soldier with a child in his arms, he breaks a swastika with his feet.

Visitors walk by the Soviet war memorial with the sculpture ‘The Liberator’ in Treptow Park.

Image: picture alliance / dpa / dpa-Zentral

Before 1989, it was mandatory for East Berlin schoolchildren to show up at the memorial to commemorate the fallen Soviet soldiers on 8 May. Today, on the day of liberation, thousands of Germans, primarily from the districts of East Berlin, voluntarily make a pilgrimage to the memorial with their fellow Russians and lay flowers or wreaths. This change is a symbol of the changing conditions of the East Germans, formerly with the Soviet Union and today with Russia.

Russia’s relations with the GDR era

Two days before the outbreak of war in Ukraine was in an MDR survey A majority of 35,000 citizens in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia are convinced that Putin is not a threat to peace and that Russia is not to blame for the escalation with Ukraine.

It was above all the over 50s who shared this view. Her relations with the Soviet Union during the GDR era were rather marked by unrest. Although one always talked about the “friends” back then, they were still occupiers. They lived hidden behind the walls of their barracks and were visible in the streets as pillars of tanks and cannons. There was almost no contact.

German-Soviet friendship

The highly praised German-Soviet friendship did not exist. There were friendships through financial contacts or study trips. Although Russian was a compulsory subject from 5th grade, the language remained foreign to many.

But through numerous films and books about the millions of human lives that the Soviet army lost in World War II, something got stuck in some people: compassion for the country and the people of the East.

Gratitude to Gorbachev continues to have an effect

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev appeared out of nowhere. He tore up the tarpaulins of the fabric of lies about the successful construction of socialism not only in his country but also in the GDR. GDR citizens also took over his demands for glasnost (honesty) and perestroika (modernization and restructuring).

SED responded with surprising action. She banned Soviet magazines and movies. Suddenly, “learning from the Soviet Union to learn to win” no longer applied. Then the unexpected happened: Gorbachev left his soldiers and tanks in the barracks despite the peaceful revolution in the GDR and the fall of the Wall. He gave the citizens of the GDR freedom and then German unity. The occupying forces left Germany without a shot. To this day, many in East Germany Gorbachev are grateful for this. However, this also meant a leap in faith in Russia and even Putin.

Economic relations with Russia

With the monetary union and the introduction of the D-Mark on 1 July 1990, the close economic ties between the GDR and the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the decline of some economic sectors in the east: shipbuilding in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or wagon construction in Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony as affected as parts of the consumer goods and machinery industries that had lived off trade with the Soviet Union.

The GDR supplied ships, trains and machinery in exchange for natural gas and oil. It was over now. It was not until the turn of the century that many companies, especially in central Germany, were able to reactivate old contacts and establish new trade links.

The sanctions following the annexation of Crimea therefore hit the East German economy particularly hard. In Saxony alone, trade volume fell by 70 percent. That is why the state governments were critical, if not against, these measures against Russia. There was no resistance to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline in East Germany.

Understanding Putin’s critique of NATO’s expansion to the east

At the same time, there was a growing feeling among the East Germans that the West had not treated Russia fairly after the end of the Cold War and had not taken sufficient account of its security interests. Many therefore shared Putin’s criticism of NATO’s enlargement to the east. In addition to gratitude for German unity, the desire to live in peace with Russia and the experience of the Cold War play a major role. Politically, this position was particularly well received by the AfD.

Her positive attitude towards Putin, travel to Crimea and party leader Tino Chrupalla to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met with approval among East German supporters.

The Left Party, which is traditionally more inclined to Russia, is struggling with internal party debates over how to deal with Putin’s appearance and actions. In this party, there is a generational conflict between the older comrades and young party members. It reflects the mood of East German society in recent times.

Change of mood due to the war in Ukraine

The majority of younger East Germans see Putin as a dictator who is increasingly trying to defend his power internally with oppression and externally with military power. Nevertheless, like many East Germans, they did not expect a war, especially against a brother nation.

It’s incredible, especially for many older people. To them, the multiethnic state of the Soviet Union still exists in their minds, even though it collapsed more than 30 years ago. So the mood changed for them too. When the MDR was reconciled in central Germany the day after the war began, three-quarters now see Putin as the war-maker.

Many in East Germany, however, could have mixed feelings and share the views of Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer. “We should not push the conflict further, including in word choice, and we should now act moderately when it comes to instruments vis-à-vis Russia,” he explained. MDR. We must live with Russia. It’s our neighbor. We will only live in peace if we also live in peace with Russia. ”

Nevertheless, the war in Ukraine opens a new chapter in East Germany’s checkered relations with Russia.

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