by Stephan Richter and J.D. Bindenagel*
Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently surprised audiences internationally. In an interview, he stated that the energy sector was basically the last “bridge” between Russia and Europe. Then, he decided to invoke remembrance of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
While arguing that the Nazi invasion does not justify any current malign behavior by Russia, he urged a wider view of German-Russian relations.
Invoking history, to what end?
Given that Mr. Steinmeier is also a former German Foreign Minister, that was certainly no slip of the tongue.
Mr. Steinmeier is a long-time close associate and friend of Gerhard Schroder (SPD), having served as his Chief of Staff in the Federal Chancellery between 1999 and 2005. Given that the former German Chancellor has turned into a pipeline promotor, the background of Steinmeier’s defense of the construction of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline is pretty obvious.
A calculated move
Steinmeier’s historical reasoning is problematic in two ways. First, in a domestic context, he stepped out of his assigned role as Germany’s President and instead sought to placate SPD party members.
Second, in an international context, Steinmeier’s reasoning was flawed because he invoked the memory of war crimes in a very selective fashion amidst a foreign policy dispute, which puts Germany at odds with many other nations in Europe as well as with the U.S. government.
Killing off debate — or just pleasing Russia?
Either way, it seems as if Steinmeier’s main goal was to kill off further debate about the pipeline’s completion inside Germany.
An experienced foreign policy hand as Steinmeier — as well as his top advisors — must know that raising such a loaded argument to legitimize economic and foreign policy decisions has immediate repercussions in other countries. Putin’s Russia was presumably pleased.
Steinmeier’s remarks triggered legitimate outrage elsewhere — such as in Poland and Ukraine.
The Ukrainian ambassador to Germany understandably criticized what seemed like a German kowtow gesture to Russia, while not even mentioning the severe human losses in Ukraine back then. Ukraine, a Soviet Republic at the time, was much more a victim of the Nazi invasion. By November 1941, 100% of its territory was occupied.
The there were the Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany on the soil of today’s East-Central Europe — Poland, Czechoslovakia, parts of Yugoslavia, Belarus, Ukraine — as well as several West European countries like Norway, Benelux and Vichy France. The Hitler regime also brutally deported as many as eight million people to supply it with forced and slave labor.
The other side of history
It cannot possibly escape any German diplomat’s or former German Foreign Minister’s attention that it is precisely the — now thankfully independent — East European countries that adamantly oppose the North Stream 2 pipeline.
Of course, the fallout from the Third Reich doesn’t just end there. From the perspective of the Eastern European countries, the German attack on the Soviet Union had a terrible long-lasting effect on them.
The German attack on the Soviet Union provided either the power-politics springboard or, even worse, the pseudo-legitimization for the Soviet Union’s brazen move to occupying the entire region.
That decision subjected the people and nations of Eastern Europe to 45 years of oppressive Communist rule — and stultified the development of these nations by decades.
A lesson from diplomacy overlooked by Steinmeier
In principle, it’s simple: The art of diplomacy is all about the correct kind of framing. And, as especially all German diplomats ought to be fully aware, proper remembrance is the key to any reconciliation.
As banal as they sound, Mr. Steinmeier’s all too facile — and, under any circumstances, highly one-sided — reference to the crimes committed by Germany in WW II appear to overlook that key point.
At a minimum, the German President should have considered the legitimate interests of all the victimized nations — and not just those of today’s Russia.
German diplomats actually know how to do better
Coincidentally, this lesson about the proper framing of remembrance is one which the West and a united Germany applied very well during the 1999 U.S.-German negotiations on forced and slave labor in World War II.
The issue at the time was to recognize individuals who were forced laborers for Third Reich industries.
The key to a successful resolution was the willingness of German industry and the German government to identify survivors, recognize their suffering at the hands of the Nazi government and seek reconciliation.
Including Mr. Steinmeier!
Recognition and payments were ultimately made to 1,660,000 survivors. The remembrance — not the relatively small payments — successfully formed a basis for reconciliation between Germany and the countries that were brutalized in WW II.
Now guess who the German Chancellery’s Chief of Staff was at the time who wisely arranged much of this? His name was Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Short-sighted and entirely one-sided, if not self-serving invocations of German history should not be part of German diplomacy.
If anything, German history should not be an obstacle — but an inducement to a better, more European-minded and circumspectly arranged future.
*Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors& analysts, Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist and former U.S. Ambassador& is currently Senior Professor, founding Henry Kissinger Chair at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategy& Integration Studies, Bonn University
**first published in: www.theglobalist.com