Aaron Gasch Burnett

Germany’s progressives have a Putin problem

Germany's progressives have a Putin problem
Text settings

Eighty-nine years ago this week, the German Social Democrats in the Reichstag cast the only votes opposing Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial power grab, the Enabling Act. Today’s SPD members often cite that moment as the proudest in their party’s 146-year history. With a memory like that, there is something awkward about the current SPD Chancellor’s position. Olaf Scholz is now having to come to terms with decades of SPD appeasement towards the dictator in Moscow.

Before Putin’s invasion, Russian doves could be found across the German political spectrum, but Scholz's now-ruling SPD has an especially long and developed history of Kremlin cosiness. The party has been at the centre of German foreign policy decisions for over two decades, governing as a junior partner for 12 of the 16 years of Merkel’s CDU chancellorship. Three out of her five foreign ministers were Social Democrats.

Overnight, Scholz has become the most hawkish SPD politician in living memory. He abruptly cancelled the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline after Putin recognised the Donbas breakaway republics.

A week later, Scholz announced an immediate €100 billion cash injection for the Bundeswehr – Germany’s seriously underfunded armed forces – and his intention to raise defence spending to meet Nato's target of 2 per cent of GDP. No longer would Germany be a free-rider on American security guarantees, but rather one of the world's biggest military spenders. Years of established German foreign policy was abandoned, especially difficult for Scholz’s own SPD, which has a significant pacifist wing and influential pro-Russian elements.

That may be why he apparently didn’t tell anyone other than his finance minister before the announcement. Scholz may well have decided that he – and Ukraine – didn’t have time for an internal party debate to play out. Instead, he threw his centre-left government into the deep end and expected them to swim.

Scholz became Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister in 2018. He had a reputation for being a sensible moderate focused on stability above all else. In 2019, he lost the SPD leadership vote to Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken – two left-wingers popular with the party's base, who initially threatened to pull the SPD out of Merkel’s government. One of the first things the new leadership duo did was pick a fight with the CDU on increasing defence spending.

‘This party is a party of de-militarisation and de-escalation,’ Walter-Borjans told the party conference in 2019. ‘Disarmament yes, upgrade no.’ But while Walter-Borjans and Esken may have won the party base, Scholz had won the wider public.

Although German party leaders are normally put forward as candidates for the chancellorship at elections, they can and do sometimes pick someone else. As Walter-Borjans and Esken floundered in public opinion polls, Scholz retained his position as the most popular SPD politician. By August 2020, Walter-Borjans and Esken realised it was Scholz who stood the best chance. They nominated him – a man they defeated in an internal leadership contest less than a year earlier – to contest the 2021 election as the party’s top candidate.

Even as she prepared to leave office, Merkel remained the country’s most popular politician – with a 66 per cent approval rating after 16 years in power. Naturally, Scholz positioned himself as her heir: someone who would continue her brand of steady leadership and understated competence. He posed emulating her famous hand gesture and released an ad saying ‘he can be Chancellor’. But instead of using the correct masculine form of ‘Chancellor’, Kanzler, the advert used the feminine, Kanzlerin.

It worked.

It may also explain why Scholz felt he could keep the most significant change in post-war German foreign policy almost entirely to himself. His popularity with the wider public meant he could bypass the SPD’s left-wing faction.

Scholz’s announcement also ignored his party’s influential pro-Russian voices. Although the SPD is not solely responsible for Germany’s historical dovishness on Russia, high-ranking members have been softly fond of the Kremlin for several decades.

Gerhard Schröder, who led Germany for seven years, has been a close personal friend of Putin since even before Merkel defeated him at the 2005 election. Only a month after Putin began annexing Crimea in 2014, Schröder was photographed hugging Putin at the former Chancellor's 70th birthday celebrations in St. Petersburg. Schröder threw the party after flying into town for a board vote on Nord Stream 2 – the same pipeline deal he signed in office.

Manuela Schwesig – the SPD premier of the region containing the German end of the pipeline – is rumoured to be a Schröder ally. Until last month’s invasion, she was a strong supporter of Nord Stream 2. In September 2020, she said the US was trying to force Germany to cancel the pipeline so it would buy American ‘fracking gas’. When Alexei Navalny was poisoned, she told Der Spiegel: 'this crime must not be used to put Nord Stream 2 into question.'

In February 2021, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who was foreign minister under Merkel, appeared to suggest that Germany somehow owed it to Russia to finish Nord Stream 2 – as penance for the second world war. ‘I believe that burning bridges is not a sign of strength,' he said at the time. 'More than 20 million people of the former Soviet Union fell victim to the war […] We can’t lose sight of the bigger picture.'

Past SPD pamphlets to party members have contained special deals on trips to Moscow, with some group trips advertised with ‘Understand Russia. Visit Moscow.’ A German journalist who covered one such trip in 2016 recently posted about some of the shocking things he heard on the tour bus. They included a former federal minister claiming the US was working with German NGOs to destabilise Russia, a party member who described the 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv as ‘a coup’, and regular choruses of 'yeah, I like Putin.' The author noted he was not on a trip with the far-right and openly pro-Putin AfD, but on a trip with Germany’s main progressive party – the largest in the country by overall membership. History will not be kind to these ‘progressive’ figures, who continued to advocate for closer ties with the Kremlin no matter what Putin did.

So how did a party that heroically stood up to the Nazis in 1933 become one that now has to reconcile with its past friendliness to the 21st century’s most wicked dictator? The answer lies in Berlin.

After the former West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt won the 1969 federal election for the SPD, he announced that his government would begin implementing Neue Ostpolitik (‘new eastern policy’). Authored by Brandt’s close adviser Egon Bahr, the policy was a break with previous conservative governments who had tried to ostracise East Germany and the Soviet Union. Brandt and Bahr would instead try diplomatic engagement with both. Ostpolitik meant West Germany recognising European borders and the People’s Republic of Poland, as well as establishing diplomatic relations between East and West Germany for the first time. Brandt and Bahr hoped that if the two Germanys were trading, it would be the communist regime’s hold on power that would buckle through increased contact with the West.

Many German SPD members maintain that Ostpolitik was critical in bringing down the Berlin Wall. Significant parts of the modern SPD have said it was one of their most successful policies ever (at least until recently). The party thus brought the Ostpolitik model to modern German-Russian relations, and it is currently reaping the consequences. More than a few SPD politicians over the years have given media interviews talking about the spirit of Brandt's Ostpolitik – even after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Bahr himself defended using the model with modern Russia until his own death in 2015.

But Putin’s invasion has forced the SPD to reflect on its approach. The Ostpolitik model is increasingly seen as a 20th-century relic, and senior figures are trying to move the party in line with other European countries.

‘’Change through trade’ was the order of the day […] This concept has failed,’ SPD co-chair Lars Klingbeil said at an event on what would have been Bahr’s 100th birthday on 18 March.' In retrospect, of course, we have to ask ourselves whether we should have assessed the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, or the Russian contract killings in London and Berlin differently,' he added. 'Whether we misjudged the signs of the times.'

Scholz’s answer to that self-critical question, at least so far, is ‘yes’. The Russia policy his party spent decades championing has left Germany dependent on Moscow’s energy as Berlin tries to help Ukraine’s fight for freedom. Scholz is tasked with fixing what is perhaps his party’s biggest and most shameful mistake – and quickly.