For most of the past 70 years, Germans and Americans have found themselves largely on the same side of issues related to Eastern Europe and Russia. During the Cold War that followed immediately after the Allied victory in World War II, Germans were gradually brought into the various formal institutions of the Western political/economic/military alliance, and with membership in these, individuals and groups found strong footing for the expression of common values and norms.
These common values ran obviously counter to the loudly proclaimed goals and the threatening behavior of the Soviet regime. Yet throughout this same period, complementarity between German and American perspectives was successful in large part because of their considerable differences of experience with Russia.
For Germans, Russia has been a concrete and even ubiquitous reality. It has stood for a centuries-long history of mutual trade and cultural exchange, often at the highest and deepest levels (think of Empress Catherine the Great, a.k.a. Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst). Germans visited the Russian Empire as traders, technical specialists, mercenaries, and settlers over many centuries, and Russians viewed the lands of German-speaking “Mitteleuropa,” where their own merchants and nobility ventured, as the natural bridge between the Roman Catholic West and the Slavic Orthodox East.
For Americans, Russia has more often been an abstraction. For much of the nineteenth century, Russia was imagined as a distant but great and brotherly nation, sharing a civilizing mission with Americans across a vast continental space that linked the Atlantic and Pacific worlds. Even Alexis De Tocqueville drew that comparison, writing, “the Russians and the Americans…their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” Yet by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Americans came to associate Russia only with tsarist despotism, superstition, and paranoia—the opposites of what Americans believed they stood for—a conception that David Foglesong has dubbed the “dark double” or “imaginary twin.”
These differences in German and American thinking about Russia from long before the twentieth century’s two great world wars and the subsequent Cold War have nonetheless persisted to a considerable degree today. It is because Germans understand Russia in concrete and immediate ways—which can only be abstractions for Americans—that Germany has often played a vital intermediary role between Washington and Moscow. Likewise, Americans, who enjoy security, distance, and minimal economic interdependency with Russia, have often provided a platform for German and European thinkers to express their deeply held convictions and fears about their neighbor to the East. German and American cultural, civic, and political leaders, in dialogue about Russia, can educate and encourage one another in the direction of greater moral clarity, but also of more effective and pragmatic mutual engagement with Russia.
Matthew Rojansky is Director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He is a participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.