Understanding Germany’s Attitude Toward Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

Germany has recently endured considerable criticism for not providing Ukraine with Leopard II tanks or even to allow third parties like Poland to provide Poland’s Leopard II tanks to Ukraine to push back against Russian invaders. Poland is one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters and has expressed a strong to desire to provide their German built Leopard II tanks to Ukraine, but by agreement Poland must have Germany’s approval before making the transfer. Germany has refused repeatedly to allow the transfer. Many military strategists consider the Leopard II to be ideally suited to help the Ukrainians in their counteroffensive to push the entrenched Russian forces out of the sovereign territory of Ukraine, such as the Donbas and Crimea.

Many are perplexed by the seeming unwillingness of Germany to furnish to Ukraine certain weapons, particularly those Leopard II tanks, that would help Ukraine conduct offensive military actions against Russia. Germany has provided Ukraine with much humanitarian aid and “defensive” weapons, but not the kind of weapons that would allow the Ukrainians to actually push Russian forces from their territory. If we look back at the speech given in the German capital of Berlin by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and Member of the German Bundestag on February 27, 2022 we may find a few hints.

First, we should review some of the more unsavory aspects of the relationship between Germany and Russia, and the Russian dominated Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, during the last hundred plus years. I want to emphasize that I am myself partly of German heritage and what follows is not, I feel, an anti-German diatribe. All four of my mothers grandparents immigrated from German to the United States right after the American Civil War and my own maternal grandparents spoke German in their native Illinois, although they would not allow their children to. My father’s family history is more complicated, but he too had more than a few German ancestors that immigrated to North America, the last being in the early 1800’s.

During World War I, Germany was at war with Tsarist Russia and Russia was an ally of France and England. Russia’s participation in the war to end all wars was at least partly responsible for the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917. Germany worked to destabilize Russia after the implosion of Tzarist Russia by sending Vladimir Lenin, the undisputed intellectual and political leader of the Russian Communist Party, on a secret train car from Switzerland to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg right after the first Russian Revolution in February of 1917.

Many erroneously think that the Communists under Lenin overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. This is simply not the case. Lenin wasn’t even in the country, let alone St. Petersburg or Moscow. Neither were other noted Russian communists like Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky present for the first revolution or the catalyst for the Tzar’s implosion. The Tzar imploded under the weight of his own incompetence and the stress of an increasingly unpopular war. Germany sought to capitalize on that implosion for Germany’s own benefit by sending Lenin back to Russia in hopes he’d further destabilize the country. Lenin and the Russian Communist Party did just that.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I Germany sought a way to circumvent their obligations under the punitive Versailles Treaty imposed by the victorious allies by making entreaties to Lenin and the new Communist leaders in Russia. Germany was successful in their subterfuge. During the interwar period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II Germany and the Soviet Union secretly conspired to build up each of their militaries. Germany supplied expertise in all things military to the USSR and the USSR supplied raw materials and a location far beyond the prying eyes of the French, the English and their other allies to do training and research. In this way Germany and the USSR could both prepare to once again draw Europe into needless bloodshed. This secret collusion did not even cease when Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 despite his professed anti-Semitism and anti-Communism.

Importantly, during the infamous Holodomor the Soviet’s brutal treatment of Ukrainian peasants leading up to the winter of 1932/1933 did not cause the pre-Hitler German government to completely end their military collaboration with the Soviets. Nor did the deaths of literally millions of these Ukrainian peasants by starvation caused by the Soviets prove too much for Hitler’s Nazi Party Germany to continue with their collaboration. The death by starvation of millions of Ukrainian civilians did not dissuade Germany and the USSR from working together.

The cooperation between the Germans and the Russians reached its peak in 1939 when the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Vlaches Molotov, and Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, signed the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Under this pact and related agreements, Germany agreed to supply the Soviet Union with manufactured goods, including armaments, and the Soviets agreed to supply raw materials, including oil, to Nazi Germany in preparation for another conflagration in Europe. Part and parcel of the Pact was that Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union secretly agreed to invade and dismember Poland and divide between themselves the rest of Eastern Europe which lied between their nations. This is precisely what Germany and the Soviet Union did in September of 1939.

This collaboration between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union persisted not only through their mutual destruction of Poland but also through Germany’s invasion and conquering of much of Western Europe, including France, and the Battle of Britain. The collaboration between Germany and the Russians only ended, to Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin’s astonishment, with Germany’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Then and only then did the Soviet Union join forces with the allies fighting their former collaborator, Nazi Germany.

We tend to talk about the Germans attacking the Russians in World War II but because of geography the Germans primarily fought in and through the Soviet Republics of Belorussia and Ukraine. These two Soviet Republics and their peoples took the brunt of the Nazi war machine blazing a path of destruction through the western regions of the Soviet Union to attack Moscow and other primarily Russian cities. While the Soviet leaders in Moscow made a stand in Stalingrad, the capitals of Minsk in Belorussia and Kyiv in Ukraine fell in short order.  

To return to the present, in Olaf Scholz’s address at the outbreak of Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine he said all the right things. He opened his remarks by stating that  the “twenty-fourth of February 2022 marks a watershed in the history of our continent” and that “the Russian President Putin has started a war of aggression in cold blood.” Scholz labeled Putin’s actions “inhumane” and “a violation of international law” that “nothing and nobody that can justify.” Scholz said Putin showed an “utter lack of scruples.” “The appalling injustice, the pain of the Ukrainian people – they affect us all very deeply.” Scholz says all of this and more against Putin but then within his speech he gives us a number of hints as to the strength of Germany’s support for Ukraine in defending themselves from Putin and Russia’s invasion. At this very early date Germany’s leader declares that “in the long term security in Europe cannot be achieved in opposition to Russia.” In other words, Germany will support Ukraine but not in opposition to Russia.

In his speech, when Scholz is discussing the relationship between Germans and Russians during World War II it seems very clear that he sees Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union as one of Germany’s more noteworthy crimes during the war. Scholz states, “It is important to me to specify this. Because reconciliation between Germans and Russians after the Second World War is – and remains – an important chapter of our shared history.” Germany seems very solicitous of the feelings of the Russian people but peculiarly dismissive of the feelings of the people Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union colluded to deprive of their freedoms with the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact.

One is left to wonder if it is important to Olaf Scholz and the rest of the German government to be reconciled with the Polish people. In his whole speech the one nation which other than Ukraine is put most at risk by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland, is not mentioned at all. Why wouldn’t Scholz mention by name their fellow NATO partner? And what of the Estonians, the Latvians, and the Lithuanians? Certainly Germany stabbed in the back the Soviet Union when they turned on their erstwhile ally, but what of all the millions of people squeezed mercilessly between the two behemoths during World War II?

The same dynamic that caused both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to form the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is largely still present. Germany is still a nation with perhaps the most sophisticated and productive economy in the world. Germany is also still a nation very much lacking in natural resources, especially the oil needed to fuel their economy. Russia is still a nation with a vast wealth of natural resources that is at times inexplicably incapable of putting those resources to productive use. Both are understandably attracted to making deals with each other because of their relative strengths and weaknesses. Both are at best dismissive of the thoughts and dreams of the peoples unfortunate enough to be stuck between them.

In his speech on February 27 of last year, Olaf Scholz says the following about Ukraine and the Ukrainians:

In Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and Mariupol, people are not just defending their homeland. They are fighting for freedom and their democracy. For values that we share with them. As democrats, as Europeans, we stand by their side – on the right side of history! With his attack on Ukraine on Thursday, President Putin has created a new reality. This new reality requires an unequivocal response. We have given one.

Perhaps the words of Olaf Scholz and the German government have been unequivocal and on the right side of history. On the other hand, the inaction of the German government in not supplying or even allowing others to supply the Ukrainians the German built weapons that would enable them to right the wrong they have suffered is more than a little equivocal. If Germany sees itself on the right side of history, who does Germany sees as ultimately victorious in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? What outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the German leadership really looking forward to?

After almost a year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t Putin and the Russians proven themselves to be even more cruel and incomprehensible than eleven months ago? After Bucha and Mariupol, after countless missile attacks upon Ukrainian civilian targets, including apartment buildings, maternity wards, and hospitals, can we say that Scholz overexaggerated on February 27, 2022 Russia’s inhumanity towards the Ukrainians? If anything, aren’t Putin and his cohorts’ actions and rhetoric growing more extreme and violent?

Time for Germany and the rest of the free world to live up to our shared ideals or recognize we have abandoned them.