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The SPD has long had a Russia problem. Scholz’s U-turn does nothing to change that.
The German Social Democratic Party ought to be one of the most humane forces in world politics. The “social” refers to socialism, but not communism. Throughout the 20th century, the SPD was committed to a policy that may have been dull but had the advantage of actually benefiting the German working class: reforming rather than overthrowing capitalism. Or that is the story it tells.
The “democratic” refers to the party’s opposition to totalitarianism. Persecuted by the Nazis, and despised by the communists for embracing the “bourgeois corruption of the workers,” in Lenin’s words, the SPD was resolute in its defense of freedom against its dictatorial enemies. And it wants you to admire that flattering self-portrait as well.
In one of the most moving moments of the Cold War, Willy Brandt, the SPD chancellor of what was then West Germany, went to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970. German troops had sent hundreds of thousands of Jews from Warsaw to extermination camps. From within the ghetto walls, inmates fought back in a doomed uprising of heart-stirring heroism. Brandt laid a wreath at the memorial to the dead of the 1943 uprising and wordlessly fell to his knees. “At the abyss of German history and under the burden of the murdered, I did what people do when language fails,” he explained afterwards.
Today’s abyss is in Ukraine, and today’s Warsaw is Mariupol. The defenders hold on against incessant artillery assault from Russian forces that dare not fight them face to face. The mayor says the Russians have killed 20,000 civilians, as they are killing them across Ukraine. Wherever Russia advances mass graves are dug, women are raped and—in a tactic from the Stalin era—soldiers deport Ukrainians at gunpoint to Russia. Because Ukrainians are eastern Slavs who do not accept the rule of the Russian empire, Putinist ideology holds that they must be “destroyed to the maximum.”
On February 27, three days after the start of the invasion, Olaf Scholz, who took charge as Germany’s social democratic chancellor in December 2021, appeared ready to rise to the crisis and forget Germany’s war guilt. He announced a Zeitenwende (“turning point”) in Germany’s strategic position. A country as dependent on Russian raw materials as Chinese export markets would finally listen to its allies and cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was to bring Germany yet more Russian gas. It would increase military spending and not allow Putin to “turn back the clock to the 19th century.”
Democrats across Europe were delighted. Germany, Europe’s greatest economic power, was finally taking its responsibilities seriously rather than free riding on the taxes of other NATO members—most notably American taxpayers. The euphoria did not last. The most notable resistance the SPD has shown is resistance to the measures necessary to oppose the war criminals of our times.
For two months, Scholz refused to supply Ukraine with tanks and heavy weapons. “All of our deliveries fit into what our closest allies and friends have set in motion on their side,” he claimed, even though the US, UK, the Netherlands, France, and just about every other major European country has poured in heavy weapons. They at least understood that the only way to end the war was to give Ukraine the tools it needed to fight off Putin.
You could take the failure to supply Kyiv as a sign of Germany’s love of peace were it not for the fact that Germany is the world’s fifth largest arms exporter. Germany embraces the style rather than the substance of pacifism. Its ruling class is happy to make money from wars as long as they are far away. Or as Scholz told Der Spiegel, he was determined “to avoid escalation towards NATO” at all costs. As if other NATO countries were not calibrating the risks and concluding that the dangers of giving Russia free rein exceeded the dangers of escalation.
The gap between lofty rhetoric and debased deals has been with Germany’s social democrats for decades. Brandt was chancellor from 1969 to 1974. After rising from his knees in Warsaw, Brandt went down on them again before the Soviet Union. He cut a deal with the communists to allow a gas pipeline into West Germany, and began a fatal addiction.
The retreat from principle turned into a rout when the SPD regained the chancellery of a now united Germany under the slick leadership of Gerhard Schröder. Because he came from the left rather than the right, Schröder has received only a small portion of the obloquy dumped on Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán. But more than any of them, he has been Putin’s most reliable Western asset.
Within less than a month of leaving office in 2005, Putin signed him up to entangle Germany in Russian energy interests. In a recent interview with The New York Times he did not regret tying his country to Russia, saying he was just the front man for a sell-out the entire German establishment endorsed. “They all went along with it for the last 30 years. But suddenly everyone knows better.”
For once in his life, Schröder was being honest. Angela Merkel and her conservative Christian Democratic Union were as soft on Putin as they were on Orbán’s proto-dictatorship in Hungary. A large part of the German intelligentsia went along with them. The honorable exception was the Green party whose former leader, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, was greeted with chants of “warmonger” for urging Scholz to send weapons to Ukraine.
Commenting recently on the shadow of Nazi war guilt, the fear of inflation and the eco-paranoia that drove Angela Merkel to make her country even more reliant on Putin by closing its nuclear power stations, the British historian of Germany, James Hawes, talked of a nation frightened of itself. Politicians fear that “if they do not insist on being the hardest-saving, most carefully-consuming, most ecologically-responsible, most pacifistically-inclined, least nationally patriotic people in Europe, they will suddenly flip into Nazis.”
He might have added that opposition to the crimes of the past can bring profits in the present. Far from being consistently anti-fascist, the worst people in Germany imitate Schröder in resembling the cosseted, complacent bourgeois of satire. They mouth virtuous sentiments as they stuff their pockets.
Scholz refuses to stop funding Russia by blocking oil and gas sales. The SPD and its coalition partners say an embargo would push Germany into recession, and a principled stand must wait until they find alternative energy sources. They have a case. If their economies were so exposed, I doubt that the UK and US would be as keen on boycotting Russian energy.
Nevertheless, war is a time of brutality, and Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky was telling no more than the brutal truth when he said Germany was paying Putin $1 billion a day in “blood money” to fund the destruction of his country. To no avail. Germany would rather protect its economy than protect Ukrainian lives, a cynicism which would be easier to bear if it were not accompanied by so much moralizing. And, indeed, by so much corruption.
Now, long after it had trashed Germany’s reputation in the West, SPD has belatedly bowed to the pressure from the Greens and Germany’s allies and agreed to supply Kyiv with anti-aircraft tanks. The price in Ukrainian blood had become so high even its leaders could not ignore it.
By grudgingly giving too little far too late, the SPD has ensured it will pay a price of its own. After the great crash of 2008, critics said that the Western center left of Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair had so accommodated itself to the status quo it was no longer interested in reforming capitalism. They coined the ugly word “Pasokification” to describe its fate, after the Greek social democrat party Pasok was all but wiped out as its supporters turned to populist forces on the far left and right.
The SPD did not prove the thesis wrong by sweeping to power last year. It won just 25 percent of the vote. It governs in partnership not only with the Greens but with the free-market FDP, which has an effective veto on leftish proposals. The notion it can radically reform capitalism is fanciful. The myth that the SPD stood firm against militarism and dictatorship has taken an even worse beating.
A social democratic party that has lost all connection to socialism, and will not give wholehearted support to Ukrainians as they defend democracy on Germany’s behalf, has nothing left to say. It staggers on as a vacuous enterprise without a purpose and, I suspect, without much of a future either.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for The Guardian and The Observer in London.