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In a TV debate the prominent left wing politician Gregor Gysi made the following argument. (Translated)

Interviewer: You didn't change your opinion on weapons delivery to Ukraine? You are still against it?

Gysi: True, but I'm not against the right of self-defense by Ukraine; Ukraine still has that right. In my opinion, our history forbids us to deliver weapons. Germany started the second world war which killed about 27 million people in the former Soviet Union, among these many Russians and Ukrainians, but also people from other nationalities. When we start arming former soviet republics against each other, I guarantee you that the war will come to Moldova, but also Armenia or Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan would use these weapons to fight each other. Thus taking into consideration our history, we should not deliver weapons and profit from weapons delivery. France, UK, Sweden, Finland, these countries have other histories and can act differently. But I acknowledge that this position has also to do with my age; when you are younger you do not have this special relation to history, as I have.

I don't understand the argument at all. Why is weapons delivery by other states than Germany permissible, but not for Germany? Why does it matter where the weapons delivered come from? I could accept being for or against weapons delivery, but how can you be both?

Interview

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    It's probably worth noting that the settled view of German politics before Putin's second invasion of Ukraine was that Germany doesn't send weapons to war zones (although conveniently ignored at times). It was even in the coalition agreement, I believe. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 22:52
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    Context: Gregor Gysi is a former Soviet Politician (East German Republic, until the bitter end), so he has quite different views on former soviet states than most of Germany
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 11:44
  • The title reads as if Gregor Gysi deliverers/manufactures weapons (for the uninitiated, it could sound like a weapons manufacturer, like Friedrich Krupp AG). Perhaps rephrase? Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 18:22
  • @PeterMortensen Done! Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 11:32

7 Answers 7

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His argument is one about historical/generational responsibility and is a common one against all military involvement of Germany brought forward by the political far left.

It basically states that since Germany started and pursued WWII with all its atrocious acts and deaths, Germany as a whole is directly responsible for all that. To atone and account for that, Germany should generally not take part - or have a part through arms deliveries - in armed conflict ever again, keeping itself out of it completely. In other words: Germany shall never do or help to kill people out of political will ever again. This is especially true for the former Soviet republics as there, the casualties were highest in WWII.

People holding that view generally also are against Germany being a member of NATO and having a standing military at all, definitely against missions outside of Germany (these positions used to be held by Gysi's party, him being a famous advocate). They tend to be in favour of absolute pacifism as a political stance.

Obviously, the same does not apply to other countries as they did not start the war nor did they have SS, GeStaPo, etc. carrying out crimes against humanity in other countries.

It is also why he mentioned his age: for him, Germany having a special historical responsibility is much more tangible since he grew up in a time where that was more widely discussed and part of everyday culture still, especially in the former GDR with regards to the Soviet Union.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 23:05
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Gregor Gysi is a complex figure. On the one hand he's an intelligent and eloquent person that is able to make sharp pointed critique that is actually quite reasonable, on the other hand his past and the past on his party is in that debate not necessarily neutral.

He has been a lawyer in the German Democratic Republic (DDR or "East Germany") which is almost a tell tale sign of having good political connections with the regime which usually means involvement with the infamous Stasi. He has for years adamantly fought against those allegations which come up regularly but haven't been conclusively proven before a court. He has been a member of the de facto one and only party (there have been nominally more but they were largely insignificant) of that regime (SED = Socialist Unity Party of Germany, forced merger between the KPD (communist party of Germany) and SPD (social democratic party of Germany)) and tries to paint the narrative that the ruling regime and the draconian surveillance apparatus were two different unconnected entities... And he has been the parties last leader during the transitioning period of the reunion where he reformed the party from the SED to the PDS (party of democratic socialism) to ensure that the party property stays withing the party. The PDS then later merged with another western leftist party to form "Die Linke".

So his party and probably himself might have a traditionally more favorable position towards Russia and in general given that they have been close allies for quite a long time. And so unfortunately it's necessary to not just look at the argument but also at it's effect and no matter what he's saying here the effect is that the biggest economic and probably military power in Europe is not contributing to the defense of Ukraine and given that this interview was given on the 4th of May so pretty early on when this had made a substantial difference.

Though to their credit this position of being against being a major arms dealer and to exit NATO and a general pacifism as a result of the Nazi crimes aren't a novel argument and they hold this position for years. And technically it's a communist position since before WWI not to support wars where workers shoot each other for imperialistic goals. That being said again the Soviet Union and Russia have also been imperialist and engaged in war, so the reasonable argument for pacifism can also be used to advocate for complacency.

Though unlike for example a Sahra Wagenknecht, Gysi knows when he has lost a point and his positions, when assumed to be in good faith, often make at least some sense. Before the war for example (around January or something like that) his position was that the NATO has set precedent that international law can be unilaterally broken without consequences and he cites Yugoslavia as well as Irak as examples of that. And argued that the increased presence of NATO troops along the border only increased the tension.

So yeah, it's a position that you could have. NATO and it members violated international laws repeatedly and more troops could indeed be used as a reason/excuse to escalate. Part of the truth might also be that the NATO invasions still had more of a point to them than an invasion for conquest, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it willingly and deliberately broke international law and set a dangerous precedent.

This broken the seal of violating international law narrative has persisted till the day of the invasion. After that he knew that he couldn't keep it up. The invasion was transparently an aggressive act of war and no "but NATO"-talk would convince anybody. He even tried that tactic in the interview that you've linked but conceded that it's not enough to put that anywhere in relation to each other. That attack was so blatantly obvious and one sided that any attempt to invert victim and perpetrators would be impossible or make you look crazy. He also distances himself from Sahra Wagenknecht who continues her support for Russia with a brief period of self-reflection and who is now calling it an "economic warfare against the Germany's biggest energy supplier", as if Germany had started the war against Russia and as if Russia has just proven itself to be reliable business partner that is not using any money to fuel it's war machine...

No the situation is so transparently fucked up that the last thing he can do is to argue that the Nazi crimes mandate to pacifism. And he's well aware that this argument only applies to Germany and only for his Generation. It holds some weight as it's official German narrative that the Nazi era crimes mandate to peace and the prevention of wars. And pacifism and learning from Nazi crimes isn't per se a bad position, also it kinda implies a little that you're team pro-Nazi if you are against it. That being said the timing and the interpretation is, though not inconsistent and not unheard of before, still somewhat weird.

Not to mention that the both sides of this conflict have been victims of the Nazi regime so it's not that one would arm a 3rd party because they set out to slaughter Russians. And as other parties are already doing it and as he can't reasonably argue against the right to self-defense of Ukraine and the intention to support them he's kinda left with arguing for a symbolic position with the practical implication that Ukraine is short of one ally. Because if Germany does what it already did that is giving arms via NATO allies or exchange programs or whatnot, then even that symbolic position would be an obvious farce.

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    This is first trying to explain why Gysi has the opinions he has and then talks about whether you agree with them or not. It doesn't really answer the question that OP asked, namely what exactly the position of Gysi is.
    – quarague
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 10:15
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    @quarague it does. Just not in spoon-fed directivity. It however gives the absolutely needed background to Gysi that other answers ignore
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 11:53
  • I am not sure that Wagenknecht continues her support for Russia. AFAIK she has clearly stated her opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but she disagrees with others on how Germany should respond to that.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 10:39
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About 80 years ago, Germany (the German Reich) invaded the Soviet Union. That was a war of aggression, it was an attempted genocide against the Jewish people in eastern Europe, and also an attempted genocide against the Russian people and some others, like the Ukrainian people. (The Nazis wanted to murder all Jews, and all educated/culturally significant parts of the Slavic people. The latter is also genocide.)

One well-known consequence of this is the policy of Germany (the German Federal Republic) towards Israel. Germany has knowingly sold Israel submarines to carry their nuclear deterrent, for instance.

Gysi and many other vocal figures believe that with this history, it is the historical responsibility of Germany not to provide weapons for another "attack" on Russia. This seems to be more present in the German public debate than the historical responsibilty to arm the Ukraine for defense. It gets complicated by the question of just who is the heir of the Soviet Union, morally speaking, and if the Soviet Union was Russia in a meaningful way.

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The old former warrior, assassin, etc. who has done horribly things in the past, but then experienced a revelation and has renounced violence altogether is a well-known archetype in stories. Sometimes he is the mentor of the hero, and the pacifism explains why the mentor can only train the hero, but not fight the bad guys himself. Sometimes, the story centres on the inevitable moral conflict when the former warrior could use his skills to help the innocent, if not for his vow of pacifism.

Gysi's argument is just the position of the former assassin, applied to Germany as a whole. He is saying that since Germany committed such horrible deeds in the past, the only way forward for her is to renounce violence altogether. This is not a universal pacifism, where no one must ever use violence for any reason; this is a statement very specific about Germany and her history. It is also not a position at all particular about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but a position Gysi has advocated for a long time.

This argument is not one I agree with, but it follows a pattern familiar to many.

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He doesn’t have any real argument(s); it's pure populism! Gysi is the perfect definition of an armchair pacifist: In his mind, military is bad, and it's a death-bringing group of murderers. He doesn't see military and guns as a pillar of political stability or even as an option to defend against aggressors (a common mindset in the political left).

He defines each weapon as a death-bringing item, even when the topic is clearly defending Ukraine's people against a violent attacker on their own soil. Air-defence systems alone would help a lot (and cannot even be misused to attack). He knows that and still ignores it.

His argument #2, profiting from weapons delivery is also nonsense, as there's surely the option to give the weapons for free, non-profit or as a free loan. He knows that and ignores it.

His argument #3: He uses the populist concept of "hereditary debt" to trigger peoples' feeling of guilt, building a bizarre bridge between Hitler and helping Ukraine. "The government of today's Germany is still guilty for crimes done by a dictator 80+ years ago, so sending military help is not possible, sorry Ukraine."

Personal opinion: He doesn’t even see the people of Ukraine as the most important topic here. He's focussed on "correct behaviour" of Germany, not how to create the most positive outcome for the people of Ukraine.

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    Welcome to Politics SE! On this site, we try to avoid overly opinion based answers. In this case, stating arguments Gysi has made is fact-based but your opinion on them is not.
    – H Huang
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 19:50
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    This has nothing to do with populism. Populism is about steering and using public opinion. Gysi is one of the few German politicians who is both well-read and articulate. He even admits in the last sentence that in this case, it might be rather due to sentiment than argument. So keep your own populism to yourself, please. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 21:59
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    "He doesnt even see the people of Ukraine as the most important topic here, he's focussed on "correct behaviour" of Germany" - seems to be right for a German politician, asked about German policy on German Media.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 8:24
  • @nvoigt that would be right for a nationalist, not for a left wing politician whose priority should be helping other nations
    – user27557
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 10:02
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    You seem to have a weird definition of "right wing" and "left wing". A German politician should be concerned first and foremost with the actions of Germany, no matter what their political leanings are.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 14:41
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His position is one of moral absolutism in the context of the Second World War - in short that because Germany started that war without provocation, they as a nation essentially cannot be trusted to ever take part in any sort of warfare again, whether direct or indirect, because of (a) their guilt for WW2 and its atrocities (b) the possibility they might repeat that guilt. It's important to understand that this is a personal viewpoint held by Gysi that has little evidence to support it.

Things that Gysi is omitting in his argument but are likely also factors in his opposition:

  • He is strongly anti-war in general, and thus would view the concept of providing weapons for purposes of war as immoral, regardless of which countries were providing and receiving these weapons.
  • Supplying German weapons to Ukraine, a nation involved in war with Russia, could provide Russia with justification to declare war on Germany. Very few Germans want such a thing to occur, regardless of how much they wish to assist Ukraine.
  • Gysi grew up in East Berlin, aka Soviet-occupied Germany, and for many with similar experiences Russia is as much, perhaps even more, of a mother country to them than Germany. For someone with such beliefs, the potential of supplying weapons to fight Russia would likely be emotionally conflicting.
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I don't understand the argument at all. Why is weapons delivery by other states than Germany permissible but not for Germany. Why does it matter where the weapons delivered come from? I could accept being for or against weapons delivery, but how can you be both?

Gysi is certainly a little more strict than other politicians due to party politics, but basically, the German stance across all democratic parties is: we acknowledge the right of Ukraine to defend themselves and we are willing to help, but it would be bad to deliver German weapon systems directly to the Ukrainian battlefields.

Why is that?

Well, no politician has officially come forward and said it into a camera, but German equipment is pretty distinct. Germany build/t their own tanks, for better or worse. You can recognize German equipment as German in videos. There is plenty of video material of German equipment manned by Germans, driving through the landscape of eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia (both being part of the Soviet Union at that point), waging war, pillaging, destroying, and killing. Those WW2 images are iconic. German tanks rolling through Russia. If you have any western TV stations, if you switch to their respective "history channel", there is a good chance you can watch them right now. The pictures are 70 years old and still people watch it.

It is part of the German self-image that never again should German tanks roll through foreign territory. That image gets a little blurry, when NATO parter Turkey has their (German made) tanks roll into Syria or Kurdish territory, but it is the general thought that counts and after all, German tanks never rolled through Syria before, so there is no side-by-side footage of Nazi tanks and modern German tanks invading Syria.

Now Ukraine? Oh yes. If German main battle tanks rolled through Ukraine shooting at Russians again, Putin's propaganda machine would have a field day. Finally, they can show their material of the Nazi invasion of 1941, in parallel to German tanks rolling through the very same plains in 2022 and explain how they were absolutely right from the beginning; this is a war against "the Nazis" all over again and they have proof. "Denazification of Ukraine" sounds phoney, but if you can show German tanks rolling in the general direction of Russia, people will recognize the tanks as "German made". German tanks are rolling again. The Nazis are coming. That is a very simple and very much practiced narrative that you can call up in a heartbeat if given the chance.

So the solution seemed to be that Germany delivers German tanks to eastern NATO allies, so they in turn can deliver their Russian-based tanks to Ukraine. In theory a win-win. They get modern tanks, Ukraine gets tanks compatible with their logistics and Russia is denied their propaganda coup. Because Russian tanks look Russian. Russians know their own tanks. You cannot really rekindle the "Nazis are coming" image with a Russian tank fighting another Russian tank.

So this is one reason why politicians in general in Germany are open to give logistical help to Ukraine, but they are very reserved when actual, recognizable German weapons, especially tanks, are concerned. There is a huge difference between a German made tank rolling through Ukraine and a (let’s say) British made tank rolling through Ukraine as far as the propaganda images are concerned. It does not matter whose money bought them, but how they look.

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    This question is about what arguments Gregor Gysi made. Not about arguments he should make or which politicians don't dare to make.
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 9:03
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    @Philipp Why does that matter in context of the question? The question was not about what Gysi personally said, but what the argument he used is about.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 9:05
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    BTW: when I said that politicians don't say it into a camera, I did not mean I made it up. It is up to debate and discussed in the media.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 9:06
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    This question is not about Gysi at all. The OP is not wondering why Gysi of all people is using the argument, they are wondering about the argument that was made itself. If Markus Söder had said the same thing, we would have the same question from the OP. So my explanation is not about Gysi, but explaining reasoning behind the argument.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 9:15
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    What you are describing is the position of Scholz, not the position of Gysi. You are also overstating the uniformity of German politicians stances on the issue. There are plenty who have spoken out in favour of sending Leopard (II)s to Ukraine.
    – Arno
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 11:12

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