Myth of Russia in German Culture

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On the other hand, the Conservatives and the monarchists appreciated Russia and thought that subordination to the Tsar and patience of the general public deserve praise. Patriarchal relations in agrarian Russia demonstrated that their world was perfectly fine. The family and the community as a nucleus of the State seemed to be unwavering and indestructible; the peasants still followed their instinct of bowing their heads before the monarchy and the church. A Catholic theologian Franz von Baader expected some initiatives on Russia’s part to save the Western Christianity.

Since the 19th century fiction has taken active part in shaping the German myth about Russia. In the middle of the 19th century a novelist Friedrich Spielhagen becomes extremely popular. One of his most famous novels is Problematic Characters (Problematische Naturen, 1861) dedicated to the revolution of 1848. The novel enraptured thousands of Germans. They named their newborns after the main characters. The descriptions of such an exotic country as Russia definitely made the novel more attractive (4: 97).

The long passages are dedicated to Saint Petersburg where the main character Spielhagen has never been to but, apparently, was familiar with travelers’ notes about it and also indulged in fantasies. The reader learns about Russia and Saint Petersburg from a travelling circus director Kaspar Schmenkel who, owing to his artistic nature, doesn’t mind embellishing the reality. Nevertheless, the audience believe his stories about Russia. Apparently, Schmenkel’s stories were as convincing for the actual readers of the novel as they were for the characters of the book. According to Schmenkel, Saint Petersburg is marvellous. The Tsar’s and the nobles’ palaces are built from sparkling blue and white ice. To their amazement “They are supposed to melt in summer, aren’t they?” the artist responds without hesitation: “Here is where it gets interesting. There is no summer in Saint Petersburg. It is snow and ice, ice and snow all year round”. Schmenkel says that his horses caused quite a sensation in Russia as these animals are exotic for the Russian eye; everyone “rides reindeers. Even the cavalry”. Such images of Russia could not but take root in the minds of the Germans who engrossed themselves in Spielhagen’s novel.

The main character is amazed by the warm-heartedness of the Russians and their Tsar. The whole court and the Tsar himself visited Schmenkel’s circus every day. His majesty applauded so much that he had to change his soft white gloves every five minutes as they became practically worn out. Against the background of revolutionary, often dramatic events in the Germany of 1848 the stories about a kind and cordial Tsar sound like a fairy tale. But this fairy tale is perceived by the audience as something self-evident and real.  Schmenkel and the Russian Tsar become sworn friends. One day the Tsar invites him for a cup of tea, another – for a glass of punch. Apparently, such an image of the Russian Tsar has its origins in the recent liberation wars against Napoleon where the Russian officers surprised Europe by their bravery, literacy and charm. The image of Russia gets complemented by the statements about women which have an element of maximum intensity: “<…> those who have not seen Russian women, have not seen women at all”. Spielhagen being a representative of burgher realism still continues the traditions of German romanticism incorporating the description of a magical, exotic and mysterious country in the East into the plot of his book. For him such country is Russia.

Since 1880 in the political arena anti-Russian attitudes, inspired by the imperialism, have started to grow dramatically. Before World War I the key word of the parties represented in the Reichstag was “imminent”. They meant the upcoming fight against the Slavic world. Russia’s geographic, demographic, and economic potential was perceived as a threat. Since the late 19th century wild expansionist and colonization plans have become prevalent and made their way into the press. For instance, in his essays Paul Rohrbach suggested segmenting Russia like an orange (“wie eine Orange”).

At the end of World War I, before the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918 everything looked as if the German military authorities were going to not only annex the vast regions of Russia and make them satellite states, but make the entire Russian state governed since 1917 by the Bolsheviks economically dependent on Germany. Some of the military had plans to intervene in the civil war between the Whites and the Reds and to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Such attitudes explain the late delusions of 1941 when there was a plan to carry out a sudden attack (“blitzartig”) on the USSR and destroy it.

From 1914 to 1918 the German social democracy cooperated with Russian comrades and supported them on multiple fronts, but nevertheless the images of Russia were full of negative clichés. Thus, August Bebel at the SPD congress at Erfurt in 1891 spoke of “a breeding ground for cruelty and barbarism, of the enemy of all human culture”. At the beginning of the war, the discourse of the social democratic functionaries was hardly any different from the hostile tirades of the Slavophobic nationalists. One of the latest Prussian Prime Ministers Otto Braun wrote in his diary (entry for August 5, 1914) about “hordes of semi-Asian, drunken Russian Cossacks who trampled the German fields, tortured German women and children, desecrated and debauched German culture”. For the Social Democratic Party, the image of the enemy is, among other things, the image of aggressive tsarism itself which is considered as the hotbed of reaction and one of the factors why many supported the war.

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