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CNN's March 3, 2022 video H.R. McMaster on how NATO is holding up against Vladimir Putin's stress test includes the following statements by United States Army lieutenant general, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Visiting Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies H. R. McMaster.

The list of accolades is intended to establish that the following words carry some weight and represent a scholarly and informed view, and may have elaborated on this point elsewhere or be referencing other known scholarly works on this topic.

My transcription starting at about 05:10:

I think that what Putin wanted more than anything was disunity. And I think if there's anything that you have to give the Biden administration credit for is that they preserved unity. They preserved unity across the Nato alliance and with other European partners, especially in the very strong response that they've had in condemning these attacks. But the big shifts that have occurred that have allowed some of the more severe economic sanctions that have really had a huge impact on Germany.

I think it's really important to note that the chancellor of Germany comes from the SPD party - the Social Democratic Party, which has a long history of kind-of a deep affinity for Russia; unnatural affinity for the Russians. And he's jettisoned that, and he's not only agreed to the more severe financial sanctions, but has also agreed to ship weapons across Germany and agreed to use - and to allow German origin weapons into Ukraine.

Question: To what does H. R. McMaster refer when he says that Germany's Social Democratic Party has a 'deep and unnatural affinity' for Russia?

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5 Answers 5

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In a nutshell:

Back in 1914-1918, the German "Left" split into the Social Democrats and the Communists. The Social Democrats voted for the WWI war bonds, the Communists against it.

Then came the 1918 revolution. The SPD made the strategic choice to work with the Republic, the Communists were not quite happy with it. Meanwhile, Communists took power in Russia which became the Soviet Union. Under Soviet leadership, the German Communists fought the Nazis and the SPD. Moderate leftists have seen that as a betrayal of the Republican idea, while the Communists saw the SPD betraying Socialist ideas. After WWII, the Communists in the East Germany suppressed the SPD. So, plenty of bad blood between them, hence the unnatural.

Then, during the Cold War, it was Social Democrats who championed the new Ostpolitik, change through rapproachment. They see that as a key ingredient of the peaceful resolution of the Cold War, and they are quite proud of it. Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt are still fondly remembered by the SPD. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the SPD felt vindicated and tried to reap the 'peace dividend,' including improved economic relations with Yeltzin-era Russia. Hence the deep.

What happened now might be characterized as Nixon goes to China moment, a center-right government would have had a much harder time completely revamping the German defense policy. In a way, this is similar to the Agenda 2010 welfare reforms, arguably overdue but the fact that the Social Democrats did it has cost them votes ever since.

(Note that this simplification equates Russians, Communists, and Soviets. Which is wrong, but it resonates emotionally.)

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    That all sounds reasonable and not unnatural, but then it's only the wording of a single general.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 3 at 7:01
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    @o.m. Why would modern russians being the communists successors, except in having ancestors who belonged to the communist party? That's like saying that the US alliance with Germany is unnatural because germans are the successors of the nazis the US fought in WWII.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 3 at 11:08
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    @SethR, denazification in the West was very much pro forma. For instance, they decided to exonerate most of the Wehrmacht by blaming things on the SS.
    – o.m.
    Mar 3 at 15:40
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    @Rekesoft: Modern Russians are right now trying to install a puppet regime in Kyiv, just like Moscow did in the Soviet era. It would take Olympic-level mental gymnastics not to see them as successors.
    – MSalters
    Mar 4 at 9:30
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    @MSalters: Modern americans invaded Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, just like the Soviet Union did in the 80's. Does that mean the USA is the natural successor of the Soviet Union? Two people can do similar things for very different reasons. I doubt Putin wants to spread communism in the world; many countries in the world may have reasons to be weary of Russia, but the notion that Germans should be natural enemies of Russians because of past relations with the Soviet Union is absurd. They should be even more enemies towards France and the UK.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 4 at 10:01
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Historically, there have been ties between Germany and Russia for a long time, through trade (eg Hanseatic League) and politics (since 1762, and especially during the Napoleonic Wars); this only deteriorated towards the end of the 19th century when Russia aligned with France against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

I would see McMaster's use of unnatural based on several aspects, some of which have already been mentioned:

  1. The 1914 split into social democrats and communists, with the latter attacking the former as 'class traitors'. Since they were aligned with the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, there is a natural antipathy against the USSR on the side of the social democrats. After all, they are the friends of their enemies.

  2. Later developments in the USSR turned it into a dictatorship under Stalin, which was communist only in name. The German right had (temporarily) no qualms aligning with the USSR for short-term political goals (dividing Poland) in the 1939 treaty. The attack on the USSR in 1941 was then the implementation of the fascist 'Lebensraum' policy. At this point, the social democrats are out of the picture, being either in exile or in camps. But Stalinism is also counter the social democratic view — again it would have been unnatural for there to be any affinity towards the USSR.

  3. Post-war, the SPD in the East was coerced to join with the KPD (communist party) to form the SED. This was not what many social democrats would have wanted. When in power, Brandt's Ostpolitik tried to accept the historical developments and aimed for reconciliation with Poland especially. Many (especially younger) social democrats were not impressed with what they saw as American imperialism and had some sympathies for the USSR, but often also saw the negatives (and that it was essentially a dictatorship, not a communist society). I think that is the one aspect where any affinity originates from.

  4. With the collapse of the USSR post-1991, it turned into an oligarchy where a small elite was plundering the wealth of the country, and despite initial hopes Russia did not turn out as a western-style democracy. A repressive pseudo-democracy is not what social democrats would support, so this again would be unnatural. Even with America behaving somewhat erratically with Bush jr (Iraq war) and later Trump, most social democrats would probably still take the side of the US if pressed, as it is at least somewhat more democratic.

I think McMaster's use of unnatural affinity is based on a pro-American world view (what else would you expect from him?). While the USSR/Russia has never really been anywhere near a political system that social democrats would view as desirable (at least in hindsight with more information available — not sure how much people knew at the time), the main reason for any affinity was the duality between the US and the USSR during the Cold War, when US imperialism was seen as more of a danger to World Peace than the USSR, which mainly kept to itself (unlike during the immediate post-war era).

Gorbachev eventually agreed to German re-unification. I still remember vividly that Yeltsin (as mayor of Moscow) was seen as a hero when he defeated the coup in August 1991; and the perception in the mid-80s was that the USSR supports existing governments/regimes (eg in Cuba, Afghanistan), while the US actively tries to topple them (eg Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam). While the KGB murdered individual dissidents, the CIA was engaged in wholesale regime-change.

It has been a slow process to accept the harsh reality, which makes it even more remarkable how quickly Germany acted in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. WWII still looms large over any military thinking in Germany.

Someone like McMaster would have a different view of these events, and thus find it hard to understand why there was any logical reason for pro-Russian sentiments in Germany.

(Note: I grew up in Germany in the 1980s, so a lot of this is based on my personal experiences; I do accept that other people have different views on what the perceptions were at the time.)

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  • "Later developments in the USSR turned it into a dictatorship under Stalin, which was communist only in name." Because real communism has never been tried, right? ;)
    – nick012000
    Mar 5 at 16:21
  • @nick012000 Just because it calls itself communist doesn't make it communist. Just look at the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea... Mar 5 at 16:35
  • “With every five year plan, we come one step closer to true communism”. “And how far are we still away?” “About twenty miles”.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 5 at 18:06
  • @OliverMasin Supporters of communism minimising the crimes of communist regimes by saying that they're not really communist is common enough to be a meme. Yes, both Stalin's USSR and North Korea are communist.
    – nick012000
    Mar 6 at 0:02
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    Point 4 is what I would suspect that he is getting at. Russia's government is not just authoritarian: it is fairly hard-right, with its ties to and favoritism toward the Orthodox Church (and occasionally conservative versions of Islam) being common knowledge, and Putin having made various anti-gay, anti-transgender, and at times sexist statements (with the policies to match in some cases) and saw income inequality growth. It would probably seem unnatural to someone in a socially progressive government that any left-wing, progressive party would have an affinity for that type of government.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 7 at 0:26
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Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was from the Social Democratic Party, had relatively good relations with Russia and is known to be a personal friend of Putin.

However what the USA sees as “deep and unnatural affinity” for Russia by the Social Democratic Party started long before Schroeder during the Cold War. In Germany it’s known as Ostpolitik. And the Wikipedia reference.

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    +1 but I still don't understand McMaster's deliberate choice of the word unnatural; can you include something about that in your answer post? What would be so unnatural about it? Thanks!
    – uhoh
    Mar 2 at 22:36
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    This is one aspect but one should note that Gerhard Schroeder was heavily critized for his pro Putin stance during the last couple of years even by members of the SPD.
    – quarague
    Mar 3 at 8:21
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    @uhoh It's unnatural from an American standpoint only. Mar 3 at 10:31
  • @uhoh So as far I understood it, it´s unnatural from his point of view.
    – convert
    Mar 3 at 10:34
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    @jwenting That was Willy Brandt, not Schmidt. Mar 3 at 13:12
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What he might refer to

  • The role of Willy Brandt, social democratic chancellor 1969-1974, in the relaxation of Cold War tensions (he received a Nobel Peace Prize for that).
  • Most importantly: The role of Gerhard Schröder, social democratic chancellor 1998-2005 who coined the often mocked term "flawless democracy" (lupenreine Demokratie) for Russia, who lobbies for Putin's Russia, pushed for Nord Stream 2 and is in leading offices of Russian energy companies for years. In the light of current events, demands are raised for exclusion from the SPD as well as other measures against him.

What he probably does not refer to

  • The role of the SPD in World War I, like other answers suggest. The fact that SPD said yes to war bonds, that is a yes to national unity against internationalism, is split the party at that time and what sticks to this day from that era.
  • Unification with the communist party in the GDR after WWII. This was opposed not only by the West German social democrats, but also by a fair share of east German social democrats and is by no means a positive reference in the dominant social democratic memory.
  • Antithetical anti-soviet/Russian mile stones of SPD politics that also exist. E.g. Helmut Schmidt, chancellor 1974-1982 who pushed hard for NATO-Pershing rockets stationed in Western Europe during the Cold War.
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Germany just closed half of its nuclear power plants and now relies heavily on Russian energy. 1/2 of natural gas and 1/3 of oil that Germany consumes is coming from Russia. That effectively makes Germany a puppet of Russia, as was clearly demonstrated in its reluctance to join the rest of the Western world imposing meaningful sanctions.

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  • If "...join(ing) the rest of the Western world imposing meaningful sanctions" is your "Russian puppet" test, then it seems Germany is not one.
    – uhoh
    Mar 5 at 6:04
  • Hang on, it's the UK who are not following through with sanctions. And given the financial dependence of the ruling party on Russian money, they are the real puppet here. Mar 5 at 10:10
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    Michael, your comment is about one week out of date. By now it is quite clear that the whole of Germany is totally pissed off with the Russians. So pissed off, the Green Party has agreed to 100bn a year increase in defense spending, reinstating all nuclear reactors, plus increase of coal power, in order to stop buying any Russian gas.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 5 at 18:13
  • “Reluctance” means sanctions were a tough decision. Which all the German parties fully agreed with in the end.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 5 at 18:15
  • What you are describing sounds like a natural affinity. It does not in any way answer the question about an unnatural affinity. Mar 5 at 20:04

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