The position of Germany, the leading EU country and still its largest importer of Russian gas, remains one of the most decisive in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine. Since the outbreak of the war, the entire German political spectrum has turned into a scene of fierce debate on how to provide support to Ukraine. The arguments in this debate not only centre on the current situation but also the weight of Germany’s historical past. Few people doubt the need to accept refugees and provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Yet, the military budget increase and armament supply raise fears for many since these measures run counter to the anti-militarist principles shared by several generations of Germans following World War II. These issues are excruciating for the Left, with its long tradition of pacifism, criticism of NATO, and its unequivocal opposition to any “humanitarian intervention” involving the German military. Russian imperialist aggression has challenged virtually all previously developed attitudes of the German Left movement and has not yet led to a severe reassessment of these assumptions. Moreover, for part of the German Left, this conventional “anti-imperialism” (i.e., identifying imperialism exclusively with Western countries) has meant nothing more than a refusal to recognise the imperialist character of the war waged by the Kremlin and an attempt to portray it merely as a response to NATO expansion. Such a view, however, exposes an unwillingness to reconsider existing assumptions and a reluctance to listen to the leftists in Eastern European countries – primarily those in Ukraine – and to Russian anti-war groups. At the same time, we must admit that a minority of the German Left has maintained a consistent position of solidarity with Ukraine. Below we publish an overview article by the well-known German socialist journalist Angela Klein, while disagreeing with some of her conclusions. It seems to us, however, that a detailed description of the discussions among the German Left about the war in Ukraine will provide a better understanding of the challenges to the Left’s international movement and its solidarity networks.
Posle editorial collective
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the mood in Germany that had for decades been centred around finding a balance with Russia, or even pacifism, changed from one day to the next and gave way to a bellicose attitude that we last experienced in the 1950s and 1960s. To begin with, it was mixed with genuine indignation among the population about the Russian invasion and, in view of Germany’s geopolitical position, was combined with the fear that the war could also affect Germany, get out of control and possibly even lead to a nuclear war. This is how the popular sentiment oscillated between these two poles: spontaneous antagonism towards the aggressor, on the one hand, and a fear of further escalation, on the other.
But while many people agreed with the slogan “We are on Ukraine’s side”, which manifested a widespread desire to stop the war as quickly as possible, there were also those on the opposite side: those who saw the situation as a historically unique opportunity to finally shed the “loser” image and rid themselves of eternal historical guilt. This moment would allegedly allow the country to make world politics not only economically but also militarily without shame. This partially explains the occasional hostility towards everything Russian, which had nothing to do with the shared admiration for Ukrainian people fighting the Russian soldiers and opposing the Russian tanks.
The government did not react uniformly at first. As chancellor coming from the Social Democrats (SPD), Olaf Scholz made the most reserved impression compared to the other parts of the governing coalition, the Greens and the Liberals. The Greens virtually overflowed with inflammatory slogans, as if they themselves wanted to go to war against Russia. Incidentally, long before the Russian attack, the autumn 2021 coalition agreement already contained passages on the possibility of a more aggressive course in foreign and security policy, when, for example, a “multilateral — of course value-based — cooperation and strategic solidarity with our democratic partners in system competition with authoritarian states” was announced. Still, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could lead to a paradigmatic change after 50 years of détente.
During Scholz’s inaugural visit to Washington Joe Biden beat him to the punch, declaring that Germany now must stand unwaveringly by Ukraine’s side and will, necessarily, supply it with weapons. Regardless of Germany’s initial plans and considerations, Biden’s statement could be read as a message reminding the public that the US is the leading power in the world. If Germany or France aimed for Europe to be an independent subject in world politics, Biden seemed to decide it all – whether they had a similar vision on the war in Ukraine or not. This made the situation quite problematic for Scholz, who, after all, sees himself as Angela Merkel’s successor.
Against this backdrop, left-wing partisanship for Ukraine in Germany must be careful not to join Putin’s side in opposing good old German militarism. Driven by hostility to the latter, the German Communist Party (DKP) went as far as to declare its sympathies to its Russian “comrades” and denied Russia’s responsibility for the war. In doing so, however, the DKP has remained quite alone: it was the only communist party in Europe to make such an announcement. The indignation over the invasion was too unanimous, even among those who would have never believed Russia was capable of such an attack, because they still see the country as a successor of the Soviet state. This sympathetic position was quite marginal – it did not even make it into the Left Party (Die Linke), despite its strong membership among the East German population (which, for different reasons than in West Germany, also has an ambivalent relationship with Russia).
The 100 billion package for the Bundeswehr’s rearmament received the broadest rejection. Whether this package benefits Ukraine or not, it seems to reveal the eagerness of those rulers who are happy to seize the historical opportunity to free themselves from the clamp of disarmament that set in after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is probably the broadest political denominator, which brings together various opponents of the German government’s current “war” policy. All trade unions are also sceptical of this attitude, albeit in words only.
On the other hand, as far as the war itself is concerned, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) is essentially on the side of the federal government, insofar as it recognised the need for military peacekeeping in its 2 March declaration. At the same time, the confederation emphasised the “search for diplomatic solutions to end the war and open up the perspective of a new pan-European architecture of peace and security“. This is why the DGB, being “critical” of the permanent increase in the arms budget to meet NATO’s two percent defence spending target, expressly supports sanctions against Russia as an aggressor.
After the outbreak of the war, a broad alliance immediately called for large demonstrations in various German cities under the slogan: “Stop the War! Peace for Ukraine and All of Europe!” According to the organisers, 250,000 people across the country answered the call. Among the demonstrations’ organisers were various peace organisations, the DGB and the public sector trade union Ver.di, the globalisation-critical network Attac, Christian organisations, environmental associations and the Seebrücke and Pulse of Europe networks. However, those in power read the “Stop the War!” slogan as a statement against their “war” policy. On the eve of the Easter marches, a decades-old tradition of the peace movement, the Green Foreign Minister in particular warned that the movement should not let itself be harnessed “to Russia’s cart“.
This controversial interpretation can be partly explained rather abstractly in that the anti-war movement condemns “war itself” together with German militarism and does not name any responsible party. The German peace movement, represented by the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft-Vereinigte Kriegsdienstgegner, fundamentally condemns the use of weapons to resolve conflict. At the same time, it supports every form of civil resistance, including sabotage and other forms of violence against property. There is no unity in its ranks on the question of sanctions. For instance, the Bundesausschuss Friedensratschlag, another prominent anti-war group, argues much more politically. It places itself within the détente tradition and calls for a “European security architecture”, albeit in an uncritical way that does not take into account the class character of the states that are to implement it. Under capitalist conditions this approach is, perhaps, the only foreign policy alternative to German militarism. It is also true, however, that there is much to criticise about a détente policy at this historical moment.
The Peace Council leadership comes partly from the DKP and partly from the left wing of social democracy. Here, the reading of the Ukraine war suggests accepting the West’s political responsibility, as well as condemning Russia’s unprecedented aggression. This position can be accused of campism and does not apply to other leftist forces, such as Die Linke.
At its party congress in June this year, Die Linke passed a motion on Ukraine with a large majority, containing the following five points:
1) Immediate withdrawal of Russian troops; 2) Sanctions hitting the Russian arms industry and Putin’s allies, namely confiscation of the Russian oligarchs’ foreign property; 3) No rearmament: putting the 100 billion for the Bundeswehr into climate protection, education and health; 4) Negotiations instead of arms deliveries; 5) Protection for all refugees in need.
This position does not imply Russia is the “friendly” side out of pure rejection of NATO; nor does it seek NATO’s responsibility for the global conflict, leading to the war in Ukraine. However, it does not take a stand on the question of how exactly the Ukrainian population should defend itself and how Germany can help it. This question is extraordinarily thorny and certainly cannot be solved without contradictions. But something should be said about it sooner or later, otherwise it could be seen as a violation of internationalist duties.
In the “Trotskyist family”, two currents, which emerged from the CWI, the Arbeitermacht group (which is affiliated to the Fifth International) and local Antifa and Ende Gelände groups, called for their own demonstration in Berlin on 9 April 2022. Their slogan was: “No War but Class War: Neither Russia nor NATO! Stop the war in Ukraine!” The appeal joins the ranks of those who see the war in Ukraine solely as a proxy war between the two imperialist powers, NATO and Russia.
The statement by the International Committee of the Free Workers Union (FAU), a grassroots anarcho-syndicalist trade union, stands out pleasantly from these groups, all of whom ignore the situation in Ukraine itself and write exclusively from a German perspective. The FAU rather focuses on the suffering and needs of Ukrainian workers and the need to support them. It also attacks NATO’s hypocrisy and complicity, but ultimately attributes the war to the constraints of the nation-state, which primarily represent the interests of private capital. Therefore, the FAU’s call has three specific aims: 1) Aid for refugees from Ukraine and Russia; 2) Money, medicine, protective equipment such as helmets and bulletproof vests for self-defence units in Ukraine; 3) Support for deserters on both sides. In addition, the FAU propagates the establishment of its own support funds, media and self-defence structures.
The NGO Medico International, the buzzword for the post-autonomist Left who are rather influential in Germany, also tend to focus on the question of state power. They proclaim the following: “There can only be an independent European way out of this crisis that takes up Gorbachev’s ideas and expands them into the world. The horizon is not to join one of the empires that now offer themselves. Nationalism and supranationalism like NATO are part of the failure of a foreign policy based on hegemony and domination. True, democratic multi-polarism with all its contradictions, a turning away from all nationalism and its patriarchal and chauvinist foundations are the only conceivable horizon”.
Among the organised political forces, comrades who originally come from the GDR’s United Left and who today animate the AK Geschichte sozialer Bewegungen Ost-West (Working Group on the History of Social Movements East-West) are among the few who openly speak out about the nature of the struggle in defence of Ukraine and support its “armed and unarmed” resistance. Having signed the international call “for an anti-imperialism in solidarity”, they emphasise: “We especially support the struggle of the Ukrainian Left, which stands in resistance against Russia’s imperial war of aggression and which at the same time fights against oligarchs and neoliberal as well as anti-democratic attacks on the wage-dependents in Ukraine itself”.
The International Socialist Organisation (ISO), another organisation from the Trotskyist side, also focuses on analysis of the war and Russian imperialism, without forgetting Karl Liebknecht’s slogan “The main enemy is in our own country”. In a resolution proposed by its leadership for the national conference, the ISO attends to the situation in Ukraine, identifying its class aspects. It emphasises the need to support Ukrainian women, workers and their trade unions, as well as emancipatory social movements and the Russian anti-war movement. Despite all the controversies and debates on delivery of heavy weapons and the role of the German state, there is fortunately — and indicatively — a great unity on all these issues.