Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

Germany has confronted its past. Now it must confront the present.

By Marci Shore

08 Aug 2022 · 9 min read

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent the Russian army to reenact World War II in a grotesque, postmodern key. His “special operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine is an unprovoked attack on a sovereign democratic state and a campaign of mass slaughter. The Ukrainian military has been defending Ukraine much more skillfully than the Russian military has been attacking it. (Ukrainians know why they are fighting.) Nevertheless, the Kremlin has an enormous advantage in terms of its arsenal, the size of its economy, and comfortable indifference to lives lost. That Putin recognizes no moral constraints gives him a free hand. The fate of Ukraine—and arguably the rest of the world—hinges on the arms other countries provide. Germany has been hesitating, delaying the shipment of heavy weaponry.

This hesitation, potentially fatal, has a background worth grasping. Ukrainians have criticized former German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing Germans to become dependent on Russian oil and for believing that Putin could be subdued through economic ties. This policy, called Wandel durch Handel (or “change through trade”), has its roots in 1969, when then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt initiated Ostpolitik. In August 1970, Brandt signed the Treaty of Moscow with the Soviet Union, pledging to respect postwar borders and disavowing the use of force. Later that year, Brandt visited Warsaw, where he dropped to his knees before the monument honoring the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. This startling gesture of a repentance beyond words, so unorthodox for a head of state, became iconic.

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