Utilizing methods both overt (dissemination of “fake news” through propaganda instruments like RT and Sputnik) and covert (hacks and leaks), Russia is aiming to influence national elections across the Continent. Nowhere is this campaign more consequential than in Germany, Europe’s largest and richest power.
The pool of public opinion that might be nudged in a pro-Russian direction is much wider and deeper in Germany than anywhere else in Western Europe. Germans’ attitudes toward their eastern neighbor are complex — owing, among other factors, to geopolitical proximity, extensive business relationships, a fraught wartime history and a pacifist ideology that interprets criticism of Moscow as bellicosity.
In Germany, the Kremlin panders to metanarratives subscribed to by an ideologically diverse set of constituencies, ranging from post-communists innately distrustful of American global hegemony to right-wing nationalists fearful of demographic change. It also plays on Germany’s unique history and fears, with which Russian President Vladimir Putin — stationed in Dresden as a KGB agent during the twilight years of the Cold War — is well acquainted.
Throughout the American presidential campaign and still today, the media has obsessed over a handful of Trump associates with shady ties to Russia. In Germany, not only are there far more such individuals scattered across the country; they tend to occupy places of prominence and influence. Thanks to its Cold War history as patron of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, Russia can rely upon a vast network of former intelligence officers and ideological sympathizers throughout German politics, media, the business community and even government.
Indeed, so vocal are pro-Kremlin voices in the German public debate that they are laden with the epithets Russlandversteher (literally “Russia understander,” or more colloquially, “sympathizer”) and Putinversteher, the most prominent of whom is former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a personal friend of Putin who, within weeks of leaving office in 2005, was rewarded with a plum job on the board of Gazprom, the Russian state energy company. Schröder may be a controversial figure in Germany, but he retains influence within his party, where his views on Russia remain influential.
Moscow’s cynical instrumentalization of World War II memory, a potent feature in its disinformation war against the West, has been orchestrated largely with a German audience in mind. In the same way that the Russians have exploited the term “Nazi” for their political purposes — an epithet applicable to any critic of Kremlin foreign policy — so do they and their German sympathizers betray a Soviet-style abuse of language in their selective understanding of “peace,” the dictates of which apply only to the West.
Similarly apocalyptic rhetoric, evocative of the 1980s anti-nuclear movement (itself heavily influenced by the KGB and East German secret police) inculcates the idea that confronting Russia is dangerous.
Russia keenly exploits the fear permeating German society — through appeals to the country’s historic war guilt, its innate pacifism and its growing distrust of the U.S. Whenever it can, the Kremlin portrays Putin as peacemaker and Russia as the stabilizing force in a world made volatile by a reckless and “uncouth” America.
Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency is a boon to the Kremlin and its German sympathizers. Since the end of World War II, when Chancellor Konrad Adenauer endeavored to bind the postwar Federal Republic to the West, the transatlantic alliance has been the foundation of German foreign policy. But while anti-Americanism has always been potent in Germany, it was concentrated on the communist and fascist fringes.
Now, with an unpredictable hothead in the White House, one who so casually dismisses the basic liberal values upon which the transatlantic alliance is based (and whom Der Spiegel recently caricatured as a jihadist severing the head of Lady Liberty), Germans advocating strategic neutrality will gain credibility, and public opinion may gradually become more susceptible to Russian overtures.
After all, against a wild man like Donald Trump, they will say, is Vladimir Putin really all that bad?