German WWII memories loom large in Russia’s war on Ukraine

World War II and Nazism weighs heavily in Germans' living memories, shaping how people see Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the political response, writes Deborah Cole.

Demonstrators against Russia's invasion of Ukraine hold signs calling for peace in Berlin on March 13th.
Demonstrators hold signs calling for peace during a Berlin protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine on March 13th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The war weighs heavy on Ilse Thiele’s mind these days as she sits in the floral print armchair in her Berlin living room, the television constantly tuned to the news from Ukraine.

“Of course all the memories come flooding back,” the 85-year-old retired manager of an East German post office says, as she watches the streams of exhausted refugees meeting armies of volunteers just minutes away at Berlin’s main train station.

“I feel so sorry for all those people, especially the children.”

Thiele recalls the biting cold and ache of hunger on her own trek from Lower Silesia in today’s Poland in the winter of 1944-45, when she and her
mother fled the Russian advance on foot for Thuringia in central Germany.

READ ALSO: ‘It feels like a dream’: The Ukrainian refugees arriving in Berlin from war zone

World War II still looms large in Germans’ living memory and public discourse, shaping the perception of the Ukraine invasion and the political debate over how to face the moment.

Germans, proud of their robust democracy, have reacted with outrage at Vladimir Putin’s attempts to frame the war as a struggle against “neo-Nazi”
aggressors plotting “genocide” on Russia’s doorstep.

A 'stop Putin' sign near the Russian embassy in Berlin.

A ‘stop Putin’ sign near the Russian embassy in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Hanschke

The Russian president argued in a speech last month that Ukrainian forces aimed “to kill innocent people, just as members of the punitive units of Ukrainian nationalists and Hitler’s accomplices did during the Great Patriotic War”.

‘Epitome of evil’

In a Twitter exchange that went viral earlier this month, Russia’s South African embassy claimed Moscow “like 80 years go, is fighting Nazism in Ukraine!”.

The German mission in South Africa quickly stepped in, saying it couldn’t remain “silent” in the face of such a “cynical” statement while Russia was “slaughtering innocent children, women and men for its own gain”.

“It’s definitely not ‘fighting Nazism’. Shame on anyone who’s falling for this. (Sadly we’re kinda experts on Nazism.),” the mission added in a tweet that drew 160,000 “likes”.

Hedwig Richter, modern history professor at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, told AFP that Putin was perverting the “overwhelming international consensus” that the Nazis were the “epitome of evil” to make his case.

“It is absolutely absurd, particularly given the Jewish president of Ukraine” Volodymyr Zelensky, she said, noting that many Holocaust survivors associated Ukrainian town names now in the news with atrocities committed by the Germans.

“As a German, I am deeply offended that Putin would abuse the memory of the Germans’ crimes in the Nazi period to legitimise his rule,” she told AFP.

“What we’re observing is how important historical remembrance is, particularly when you see how Russia, by forgetting its Stalinist crimes, is feeding an aggressive nationalism.”

Refugees from Ukraine wait in Munich's main station.

Refugees from Ukraine wait in Munich’s main station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

She said Germany had been forced to learn that the lesson of its own dark history was “not only a yearning for peace but also, in a crisis, active military defence of human rights”.

Anti-war protests across Europe and throughout Germany have deployed a caricature of Putin with a toothbrush moustache in a reference to the Nazi dictator.

Historian Heinrich August Winkler stressed, in a recent essay, the singularity of Hitler’s brutal military campaigns and the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust – a point of consensus in mainstream German thought.

Nevertheless he argued in the weekly Die Zeit in an article titled “What Links Putin with Hitler” that the Russian leader’s obsession with a perceived “stab in the back” by the West and ultranationalist rhetoric were important parallels worthy of examination.

“Putin is now confronting Western democracies with the question of how seriously they take their much-espoused values,” Winkler said, much like the initially reluctant Allies of World War II.

READ ALSO: ‘Could have been us’: Why British-German couple took in Ukrainian refugees

‘Nasty pig’

Historian Gundula Bavendamm told AFP Germans had a visceral response to the invasion of Ukraine due to atrocities against civilians committed by the Nazis, and because every living generation had seen waves of refugees – after World War II, from Yugoslavia in the 1990s and most recently from Syria.

But she said she found the incessant references to Hitler problematic, not least because they obscured recent historical failings by Germany, including energy reliance on Russia, meagre military spending and “our closeness to Putin – seeing too late what kind of man this is”.

“Constantly invoking our responsibility for World War II may have kept us from important self-criticism in the last 10-15 years,” said Bavendamm, who runs Berlin’s Displacement, Expulsion, Reconciliation museum.

For Thiele, the Berlin pensioner, the failure to learn from the past rips open old wounds.

“My parents lived through two world wars and I lived through one thanks to that nasty pig Hitler,” she said, recalling that her late husband’s communist family had been prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen.

“Do they want to start a third world war? I just can’t understand how, if you know anything about war, you could start one again.”

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Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.