Myth of Russia in German Culture

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The history of Russo-German relations has never known a period of such close cooperation. During the four and a half decades of the Soviet occupation zone and the GDR, the knowledge of “East Germans” about Russia undoubtedly became more accurate and extensive. They studied the Russian language and literature (at schools and universities), there were student exchanges and cooperation in the sphere of politics as well as economics, science and culture. There was a practice of traveling to the USSR on vacation or with a view to get to know the Soviet Union. Besides, numerous Soviet books and films as well as the Societies for German–Soviet Friendship, presented, though ideologically tinged, but a diversified image of the country as opposed to the FRG where the image of Russia and the Russians was meagerly one-dimensional.

It is interesting that the image of Russia in the intellectual circles of West Germany was influenced by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books, beginning with a novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and ending with a great trilogy The Gulag Archipelago; many of them could only be published in the West of Germany. This influence affected not only the representatives of the anti-communist movement, but also the critical Left. The friendship between a writer Heinrich Böll (very popular in the Soviet Union) and a critic Lev Kopelev created a new version of German-Russian mutual understanding – the friendship “beyond” official relations between the states based on non-conformism and self-critical reflection on both sides. Just like Solzhenitsyn, Kopelev found his first shelter in Germany at H. Böll’s place.

Starting from the 1970s, books about Russia were published in West Germany, which were supposed to provide the readers with more accurate information. Such a keen interest was prompted by the desire expressed by important industrial groups to expand trade ties with Russia. And although such interest was not always upheld by state relations, it was obvious that capital holders, intending to expand trade ties with Russia, also insisted on a political settlement of relations between the states.

Other important positive factors were the Khrushchev thaw and the re-escalation of tensions in German-Russian relations. In 1963, after numerous trips and many years of work, a historian Günther Specovius published a book about the man and society in the Soviet State under the title the Russians are different (Russen sind anders). For Speckovius, it was important to differentiate between the notion of Russia, the Russians and the Soviet Union. He believed that one should not equate Soviet ideology, Soviet lifestyle and communism. In his works, Klaus Mehnert also aimed at understanding and shaping an objective image of Russia. A German, born in 1906 in Moscow and saying at the end of his life in 1983 that the Russians were the “second most important people of his life”, he urged the reader to do justice to the Russians for their cultural achievements instead of making some general assumptions about them and thus causing protests among the population. Mehnert was one of the best connoisseurs of the USSR in Germany, who knew all about their everyday life, and manners not only from his early childhood, but also from his long periods of stay in Russia already as a journalist. In his book The Soviet Man (Der Sowjetmensch, 1958), he tried to give an illustrative, versatile and realistic portrait of the people in the Soviet Union, their everyday life, including showing their attractive sides. However, stereotypes can also be found among his multipage descriptions. For instance, Mehnert found an inner connection between Russianness and Bolshevism. According to the writer, an essential trait of the Russian character is their willingness to abide, an ability to suffer, lack of individualism, and messianism. And Bolsheviks took advantage of it to take over the entire country. After years of fighting with the lack of discipline and fatalism of Russian people, by 1960 Bolsheviks had all the people in total subordination. At the same time, the emerging civil society and intellectual nature of the Russian culture on the whole were also noted in the book.

Articles and books by Hermann Pörzgen also played their part in shaping the German myth about Russia. Being about the same age as Mehnert, he also worked in the Soviet Union as a reporter before World War II. Since 1956 he wrote articles for Frankfurter Allgemeine from Moscow. Behind him there were 11 years of Soviet captivity. The reports made in a friendly manner were there to resist West German simplifications. Just like Mehnert, he emphasized that it is difficult to separate the Russian and the Soviet. In his book “So lebt man in Moskau” (That’s how you live in Moscow, 1958), Pörzgen writes that the Soviet Union cannot be imagined without a pronounced Russian element.

September 1969 was marked by the development of a “new eastern policy” of the FRG as the Social Liberal government of Willy Brandt and Walter Scheel came to power. The German-Soviet Treaty of 1970 was a breakthrough to a consistent reduction in confrontation and to the extension of relations at all levels. The new government officials had a more positive attitude towards Russia (the USSR) and the Russians, even when, according to a politician Egon Bahr, the Kremlin remained a dark spot (“dunkler Begriff”) because of a sick inclination to classify everything.

In the FRG of this period the views on the Soviet threat were not unified. But on the whole, they tried to move away from the categorical opinion that Soviet communism was claiming world domination. Nevertheless, the expansionist policy of the USSR was still heatedly discussed. In his memoirs Men and Powers (Menschen und Mächte, 1987) Helmut Schmidt writes about the direct continuation and growth of the expansionist policy of Soviet Russia. Most of the Soviet strategy was characterized as Russian-traditionalist.

Inspired by intensive contacts with representatives of the USSR in previous years, especially in 1969, right before the government change, the creators of a “new eastern policy” hoped to steer Russian Western policy more rationally, especially in relations with Germany. In their efforts to ease tensions the Western authorities sought to create prerequisites for solving the “German question” (that is, the issue of the divided Germany). The memories of the war faded away and for the first time there was an atmosphere that allowed for the discussion of the issue of mass extermination of Russian people and Slavic peoples on the whole – along with the discussion of the mass extermination of the Jews. This topic was especially relevant during Adenauer’s visit to Moscow, but it took three decades for the liberal-conservative circles to change their mind in this respect. This could be seen in President Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech in the Bundestag on May 8, 1985.

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