Friends and Foes – German (Self)Righteousness

It happens that sharp-eyed psychologists are amazed at how similar people, e.g. men and women, can become when they are together for years, e.g. in a marriage. Malicious voices even claim that such similarity may frequently be observed between a dog and its master (mistress). Both then seems to become each others strange counterfeits. We need not find this surprising: a close coexistence inevitably leads to an alignment of habits, views, preferences, and antipathies – otherwise a close coexistence would not come about in the first place. To put it in even more general terms, human culture is an expression of collective uniformity at the highest level. From language to the aesthetics of everyday life to shared beliefs, people have created a common foundation for thought and action that clearly distinguishes them from other peoples and cultures.

It is a fact, however, that assimilation does not only concern friends but extends to enemies as well. Love makes people similar to each other because they strive to put themselves in the position of their fellows. But fear and hatred produce a similar effect. To fight the enemy effectively, one must know him and his motives. In this sense, I have often pointed out that the combat techniques and objectives of the superpowers are becoming increasingly similar. First and foremost, this is, of course, true in the material sphere, and here especially in armament. There is no invention of human destructiveness that is not instantly copied, because otherwise one would be giving an edge to the enemies. This explains why, from the hand axe to the neutron bomb and bacterial and chemical weapons, the most diabolical inventions for the extinction of life have spread across the globe with lightning speed. The process is determined by fear. Visceral fear will determine the fate of people as long as there is no transnational authority beyond the individual states that can strictly control and limit armament. In human history, fear has proven to be the most effective catalyst for imitation – more effective even than love and empathy. Fear is the driving force of that military and economic race of nations which drives all of us towards the abyss.

Not only the race of nations springs from fear but also the increasing control and disempowerment of their populations. Fear of weakening one’s own camp in the battle with the enemy has led to the almost total eradication of opposition in Putin’s Russia; and fear is the driving force in China where millions of cameras are used to monitor all citizens from cradle to grave. But surveillance has turned into a worldwide trend. In the United States, the McCarthy era had begun with the snooping on political beliefs, the post-9/11 Patriot Act continued this tendency, and the extradition of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, while going less far than the attempted assassination of Alexei Navalny, nevertheless obeys the same motivation: dissent that leads to an internal weakening of the enemy is to be banned. There can be no doubt: fear not only caused East and West alike to strive to instantly adopt each other’s weapons of apocalypse, it also caused the rival camps to become increasingly similar in psychological terms. More similar, but not the same. The differences still matter.

However, these differences tend to be overlooked, especially in the West and among intellectuals – this is where German (self-)righteousness comes into play. Germans tend to have particularly high expectations of role models. After the downfall of the murderous Third Reich and the training in democratic thinking and practices by the victorious Western powers – at the time readily and even gratefully accepted by a majority – the US (and by no means Stalin’s Russia!) advanced to the position of a role model. From the Soviet point of view, this meant, that we were nothing but the subservient vassals of the US. The fact that the states of the Warsaw Pact were given much less freedom under Russia did not count. During the Cold War, Europe and Germany could certainly not have acted against U.S. interests; but this was a small price to pay for Europe’s security. The U.S. even put up with the fact that Germany’s economic success – the so-called German “economic miracle” – (as well as the Japanese one) – undermined its economic supremacy at the same time that it shouldered the heavy financial of military protection.

Germans, however, tend toward idealism; in other words, they are particularly strict in their dealings with role models. An ideal that disappoints them seems to them even more reprehensible than an enemy whose motives they try to understand and to excuse through understanding – this is a widespread conception of justice among Germans, which for some years has led to the fact that it has become fashionable among left-wing intellectuals (not to mention right wing extremists) to criticize the U.S. all around, while conversely one tries very hard to understand Russia and Putin. This is even accepted as a proof of a superior kind of political analysis. These people tend to think that the role model is simply no longer worth anything if it no longer corresponds to the ideal. And they have an easy game since the weaknesses of the American superpower are obvious.

And these weaknesses are closely linked to mutual assimilation described above – an assimilation that began with the Cold War period. Both camps pushed to fortify and expand their respective spheres of influence. Each successful advance by the enemy was understood as a defeat to one’s own camp. In the process, Western capitalism and democracy were touted in no less messianic terms than Soviet communism. Where ideologies clashed directly, as in Korea and Vietnam, but also in Salvador Allende’s Chile, peoples were sacrificed with equal ruthlessness. But the similarity is deceptive – in the United States, democracy allowed for a broad anti-war movement; in Russia, dissent was always suppressed with utmost brutality. The war that the U.S. unleashed on Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses (weapons of mass destruction) is to this day seen by many Americans not merely as a crime but as an unforgivable political stupidity, since it helped Iran to become a major regional power with nuclear ambitions. Likewise, the military support of the Arab Spring was born out of political naivety (see Putin’s vision for Ukraine and for Europe) and was doomed to fail from the start – this stupidity, which caused disaster in Syria and Libya, is now successfully exploited by Russia to portray the West and NATO as an aggressor. However, the West’s biggest mistake undoubtedly occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its abandonment of communism. Neither the United States nor Europe provided the same generous assistance to the resurrected Russia that the United States had given to Germany after the end of World War II.

This is all water under the bridge, but the discussion about NATO remains topical. For many, especially in the camps of both the radical left and radical right, NATO has become an intellectual scarecrow, although there can be no doubt that Europe was able to preserve its independence during the Cold War only thanks to the US heading this institution of mutual defense. And who among the eloquent critics of NATO objects to the ever-closer friendship between Russia and China, which has now evolved into an undeclared defense alliance with joint maneuvers? Here, as so often in history, beta and gamma nations joined forces against the dominant alpha power. Do you ever hear the German critics of NATO whining about Europe being threatened by CRUA (China Russia Undeclared Military Alliance), a defense alliance that consists of the most populous state in addition to the one with the largest surface area and most raw materials? It is true that at the time the German minister of foreign affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, had give a verbal assurance to Gorbachev that the Atlantic defense alliance should not expand eastward; but this was a rather careless lapse, since Genscher had no authorization whatsoever from Poland or other former Warsaw Pact states to make such a commitment on their behalf. And if the Russians are opposed to defensive alliances like NATO, how do they justify their actual, if undeclared military alliance with China? The only demand they can legitimately make concerns their safety interests. A defensive alliance must never become an offensive one. Here, both the Eastern and Western camps must make concessions if the prevailing military arms race is not to drag all of us down together.

According to everything we know from history, the ideal state, the ideal human community has never existed – if only because people get bored even and especially in paradise and then use their intelligence to provoke each other to malice. You don’t have to be a pessimist like Schopenhauer to note with resignation that Dante, who knew so much about hell, failed miserably in describing paradise – there he could say next to nothing. On the other hand, pessimism tends to be blind to all-important differences. If the ideal society or a permanent state of happiness never existed and probably never will, there still exist enormous differences between tolerable and inhuman conditions. Yes, the U.S. is far from being an ideal society. We need not follow Russian and Chinese propaganda to agree on this point. Precisely because they allow their citizens much more freedom than the regimes of Putin and Xi Jinping, they are subject to particularly strong and dangerous internal rifts. But the graveyard silence of Russia, which thousands of deadly bombs now carry into Ukraine, and total surveillance in China are no alternatives. It is not a better understanding of justice that keeps alive the fashionable anti-Americanism of those who mistake it for superior political insight, but lack of realism and judgment (and in our ego-obsessed fun society, unfortunately, also the striving for success with a sensation-seeking public, because you win more followers with offbeat theses than with a sober sense of proportion). Chomsky is right when he considers his own country a “rogue state” – judged by the ideal, this designation applies to all great powers of history. Goethe had said that political agents are always unscrupulous /der Handelnde ist immer gewissenlos/, and it is no longer a secret that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Chomsky was not the target of an assassination attempt by the U.S. government, and he does not have to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. That is a significant difference.

Chomsky, Assange, and all others who put their fingers on the many wounds that injustice emanating from their own country has inflicted and continues to inflict are right. The closer a society comes to the ideal, the less it must fear those who dare to speak the truth. But truth must be as impartial as we demand of justice. If people criticize and condemn only where and when they are given the freedom to do so with impunity, then a sense of proportion is lacking, then truth easily turns into lies and justice becomes its distorted image, namely self-righteousness.