Germany’s special historical responsibility is repeatedly reaffirmed, but at the same time interpreted in a new way – specifically now in the context of the war in Ukraine. Among those who call for German leadership, many like former German President Gauck are reinterpreting history at the European level in terms of the totalitarianism thesis.
When formulating foreign policy positions, the historical contexts and the development of the last 30 years, i.e., the understanding of politics as a process of one’s own actions and reactions, while taking into account the interests of all parties involved, are almost always ignored. But not so in Germany. As the leading economic power in the EU, the idea is that Germany should also assume a leading political role that is no longer characterised by a policy of military restraint.
However, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war in violation of international law, Germany is becoming one of the largest suppliers of weapons to Ukraine.
The reorientation of German foreign policy
In 2021, such as previous governments, the coalition agreement of the German government described Russia as an important international actor and points out the importance of substantial and stable relations. In this sense, the willingness to engage in dialogue with an authoritarian state is driven by values and tied to the principles of international law, human rights, the European peace order and the interests and "in particular, the concerns of our Central and Eastern European partner states". Their different "perceptions of threat" by Russia should be taken into account within the framework of national and alliance defence. It is therefore necessary to maintain a credible deterrent effect while at the same time engaging in dialogue. The coalition agreement calls for "an immediate end to the attempts to destabilise Ukraine, the violence in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea which violates international law".
Three months later, on 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Three days afterwards, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) spoke of a historic turning point and derived five options for action for Germany:
1) support Ukraine, including with weapons;
2) end the war with the help of sanctions, even very broad sanctions;
3) ensure that the war does not expand – but if it does, Germany will stand by its duty and support other NATO Member States;
4) increasing military spending to over 2 per cent of GDP per year (now 70 billion euros) and a special fund of 100 billion euros for the modernisation of the Bundeswehr; and
5) a radical change in energy policy.
In all of this, Scholz can draw on the words addressed by Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenskiy to the Bundestag, who spoke of Germany’s historic responsibility towards Ukraine and called for Germany to support it by supplying weapons.
However, there is also another reading of European historical responsibility: "We need a disarmament policy offensive and want to take a leading role in strengthening international disarmament initiatives and non-proliferation, including the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament," reads the coalition agreement of SPD, Greens, and FPD.
On the historical responsibility of Germany
History is part of an individual and collective awareness and creates identity. It serves to affirm one’s own norms and values, to legitimise rule and claims to leadership, and to develop perspectives for the future.
All this also applies to the history of WWII which began on 1 September 1939 with the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht. Soon the invasions of Denmark and Norway followed, the Benelux countries, France, the Balkans and countries in North Africa. The war against the Soviet Union, which started on 22 June 1941, and which Germany waged as a war of extermination violating all principles of humanity and international law: in the former USSR, up to 27 million people lost their lives, more than 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages disappeared completely. Of the 3.35 million Soviet prisoners of war, almost 60 percent had perished in Nazi concentration camps by January 1942 (Hellbeck 2021). It remains the task of democrats in Germany and Europe to keep reminding of these crimes that German fascism committed.
This historical responsibility led the government of the Federal Republic of Germany – as a part of the EU and the transatlantic partnership – to pursue a policy of military restraint for many years. With Germany’s changing economic and political role after the year 1990 and after the financial and economic crisis of the years 2008-2010, from which Germany emerged stronger than its European partners, the then Federal President Joachim Gauck called for an end to Germany’s policy of military restraint at the 2013 Munich Security Conference. As the dominant power in the EU in economic affairs, Germany has long since abandoned such restraint in this realm and promoted the Europeanisation of German austerity policy through newly created European instruments such as the Growth and Stability Pact and debt caps. This leading role should now also be displayed politically and, alongside France, militarily.
Consequently, the coalition agreement of the Federal Government of SPD, the Greens and FDP: “We understand the global responsibility Germany is carrying as the fourth largest economy in the world. We are assuming this responsibility and will strengthen existing partnerships and launch new ones as part of our foreign, security and development policy and will defend our values in the areas of freedom, democracy and human rights.” (SPD/Die Grünen/FDP 2021, 104). Ergo, global economic power establishes global responsibility.
‘We are the strongest economy in the European Union. We are one of the strongest economies in NATO together with the Americans. That also means that we assume a special responsibility.’ This was stated by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) in an interview one day after the Ukrainian President’s speech (Baerbock 2022).
Apart from this development, a process of reinterpretation of history took place at the European level.
European historical revisionism
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, the declaration of the European Parliament of 8 May 2005 commemorated the victims of the Nazi dictatorship, in particular the Holocaust, and remembered with gratitude those "who contributed to the liberation from National Socialism, a system based on inhumanity and tyranny, for which the 8 May 1945 is a symbol of remembrance" (EP 2006).
Only a few months later, against the backdrop of the continued existence of "totalitarian communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe", which were "characterised by massive human rights violations without exception", Resolution 1481 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called for "the need for international condemnation of the crimes of totalitarian communist systems" (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, 2006). These varied "according to culture, country and historical period and included individual and collective assassinations and executions, exterminations in concentration camps, starvation, deportation, torture, slave labour and other forms of physical terror, persecution on ethical or religious grounds, violations of freedom of conscience, thought and expression, freedom of the press and lack of pluralism" (PACE 2006).
In view of this list of crimes (which does not differentiate at all), any condemnation of crimes committed "in the name of the theory of class struggle and the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat" seems justified. It would appear to be equally justified to put "the perpetrators of these crimes" on trial before the international community, as it was the case "with the terrible crimes of National Socialism" (PACE 2006, para. 5).
Therefore, Resolution 1481 also refers to an earlier resolution by the same Parliamentary Assembly (27 June 1996) on measures to eliminate the legacy of former totalitarian communist systems which had already been adopted ten years earlier. The measures recommended in this resolution to overcome communist rule include, at the institutional level, the elimination of "the militarisation of civil institutions, bureaucratisation, monopolisation and overregulation" and, at societal level, overcoming "collectivism and conformism which aim to achieve blind obedience and other totalitarian patterns of thought". It is about creating pluralistic democracies based on the rule of law through the restructuring of legal systems, respect for human rights and economic pluralism, demonopolisation and privatisation in order to create a market economy and a pluralistic society (PACE 1996). Property which was confiscated by totalitarian systems (including church property) should "generally be returned in full to its former owners". If this proved impossible, compensation should be paid. However, most controversial were the lustration laws, i.e. laws to lustrate bureaucracy from those who had worked for secret services in Soviet regimes, with the corresponding "Guidelines" which should "ensure that lustration laws and similar administrative measures comply with the requirements of a state based on the rule of law" (ibid.). In fact, the 1996 resolution and especially the guidelines initially contained therein – as Ulrich Junghanns, then a CDU member of parliament, also said before the German Bundestag – went well beyond the defence of European principles and therefore Junghanns called for the directive in question to be removed from the report in accordance with the member rights and obligations of the Council of Europe (ibid.).
Nevertheless, the struggle against totalitarian regimes at European and national level continued. In 2008, Václav Havel, the then President of the Czech Republic and a civil rights activist, and Joachim Gauck, the former Stasi Records Commissioner and later Federal President of Germany, under the patronage of the then Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs of the Czech Republic, Alexandr Vondra, the Prague Conference on "European Conscience and Communism". The final declaration of this conference – very much in the logic of the declarations by the Council of Europe of 1996 and 2006 – calls for an all-European understanding to be reached "that both the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes each need to be judged by their own terrible merits to be destructive in their policies of systematically applying extreme forms of terror, suppressing all civic and human liberties, starting aggressive wars and, as an inseparable part of their ideologies, exterminating and deporting whole nations and groups of population; and that as such they should be considered to be the main disasters” (2008 Prague Declaration).
The crimes in the name of communism should “be assessed as crimes against humanity” “in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal". Legal provisions should be introduced that would enable courts of law to judge and sentence perpetrators of Communist crimes and to compensate victims of Communism. The declaration calls for “the recognition of Communism as an integral and horrific part of Europe’s common history" as well as "the acceptance of pan-European responsibility for crimes committed by Communism". This is why the Prague Declaration demands that 23 August, the day of signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, be established as a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes. On 23 September 2008 the majority of EP members voted in favour of this proposal and established this day of remembrance. Amongst others, the Prague Declaration was endorsed by the then French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Margaret Thatcher and the former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. It was, however, harshly criticised by, among others, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which accused the authors of the Prague Declaration of the relativisation of the holocaust. Also, the Lithuanian professor of philosophy, Leonidas Donskis, who as a liberal MEP saw the Prague Declaration as a trivialisation of the Holocaust, justified this with the fact that the goal of National Socialism had been the full extermination of all Jews in the world. The Holocaust was a singular event "not only because of its speed, its horrific practice and its industrialised methods of extermination, but also in its determination to achieve the Final Solution until not a single Jew remained alive" (Donskis 2008).
Despite this criticism, in 2010 more than 40 MEPs from different political parties in the European Parliament founded an informal group, the “Reconciliation of European Histories Group“ (REHG). Amongst the tasks of this group was “converging the views of all the Europe [sic!] about the history of the 20th century” and after the Iron Curtain was gone, to turn towards “our true history” in Europe “to develop a common approach regarding crimes of totalitarian regimes, inter alia totalitarian communist regime of the USSR, to ensure continuity of the process of evaluation of totalitarian crimes and equal treatment and non-discrimination of victims of all totalitarian regimes” (Janssen 2013). “The EU has limited powers to deal with these issues “from above”. However, it can facilitate this process as much as possible by promoting discussions and by providing opportunities for mutual exchange” (ibid.). This is exactly what has been implemented in the following years. In December 2010, the EU Commission adopted measures for the remembrance of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe. In October 2011, academic institutions founded the platform “European Memory and Conscience” (Janssen 2018). The platform joins institutions and organisations from EU countries which work on the topic of totalitarian regimes in the areas of research, documentation and awareness-building. There were calls for the establishment of a “supranational court for international crimes committed by Communists”. In due course, in the Warsaw Declaration of 23 August 2011 communist crimes were condemned and on 23 August 2018, the joint declaration of government representatives of the member states was next.
In 2019, 80 years after the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht, the European Parliament adopted a resolution with the approval of conservatives, liberals, social democrats and greens describing this war of extermination as a "direct consequence" of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, “whereby two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest divided Europe into two zones of influence” (EP 2019a). 80 years after the invasion of the Soviet Union and about ten years after the Prague Declaration “fascism vanishes behind anti-communism” (Kriese 2019). The efforts of today’s leadership of Russia “to distort historical fact and to whitewash the crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime” are regarded as “a dangerous component of the information war that is being waged against democratic Europe” which “seeks to divide" our continent (EP 2019a). The Russian society is called on “to come to terms with their tragic past” (ibid.).
Apart from the intolerable distortion of history in this EP resolution on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe, this resolution is marked by "a bitter dispute between Polish and Russian contemporary historical politics", and at the same time it is rooted in the "persistent Western European ignorance of Eastern European historical debates and practised historical politics" (Kriese 2019). However, one further aspect is noteworthy which can be found in the motion for a resolution regarding the EP resolution of 17 September 2019, even if it was not adopted by the EP. This motion stated that only the EU and NATO accession of the Central and Eastern European countries permitted those countries to return “to the European family of free democratic countries” (EP 2019b). The European peace and integration project would only be completed “if all European countries which chose the way of European reforms, such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, become full-fledged members of the EU” (ibid.). This could constitute “the most powerful instrument, by force of precedent”, in order to “foster positive transformation in Russia, which would, for its part, allow Russia to finally overcome the tragic consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” (ibid.). These phrases were not adopted by the EP majority.
What are the consequences?
No, historical politics have never been neutral. The constant distortion of history, totalitarianism as an “architectonic parable” (Kriese 2019) can be found in theory and practise also in the “House of European History” in Brussels and passed on to millions of visitors as European history. But it is not only about history.
It is about today’s dealing with historical facts, about history with its contradictory developments or its selectively simplified perception and use as a political narrative to legitimise today’s actions – expanding or limiting the range of political actions.
The totalitarianism thesis accepts the relativisation of the Holocaust. It is based on deeply rooted anti-communism that is linked to new imperial images of Russia and China.
In a situation that is dangerous for the whole of Europe and for the whole world, as it has been since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, such an approach makes the start of peace talks even more difficult.
Martin Schirdewan is correct in saying: “It is right to deal with history. However, it is wrong, as some also try to do here in the House [the European Parliament], to instrumentalise history using the theory of totalitarianism“ (Schirdewan 2021).
Of course, the radical left also has to come to terms with its own history – and it is doing so. Ultimately, the basic consensus of the Party of the European Left, the break with Stalinism as a system, was also the result of such a confrontation.
At the same time, the left practices far too little independent history politics at a European level, although it can point to diverse potentials, including antifa work in many European countries. But what also needs to be a stronger focus of left research is the linking of historical knowledge to the analysis of current geostrategic developments and fundamental global tendencies. Being able to interpret the signs of the times with knowledge of history is a prerequisite for developing left strategies, interventions, and resistance.
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