Germans not keen to ruffle Russian feathers

The iconic image of a Red Army soldier on top of the Reichstag in 1945 Image copyright Getty Images

European leaders have debated how to punish Russia for its actions in Crimea. But for many Germans, the key is not to ruffle Russian feathers.

On the wall of the office of the left-wing MP, Jan van Aken, is a very big, framed black-and-white picture.

It is the classic image of a Red Army soldier balancing precariously on the turret of the old Reichstag building and raising the hammer and sickle banner, the smouldering ruins of Berlin in the background.

I asked him why he had it on his wall in the German parliament and he replied with a laugh that it was taken on his birthday, 1 May, and then he added more seriously that it tells a story.

The Russians were liberators, he said. They rescued Berlin and Germany from the Nazis.

He doesn't diminish the contribution of others like the British, but he makes much of the Red Army's role.

The picture - and he's the first to admit it - tells a more complicated story, too.

It is a tale of propaganda.

He said it was taken on 1 May but the actual event - the raising of the red banner on the Reichstag - happened on 30 April, the same day Hitler committed suicide in his bunker about half a mile away.

The picture had to be re-staged because the soldier raising the flag had an arm full of wrist-watches looted from the terrified population.

In the days before Photoshop, the soldiers had to climb back up with the flag, their arms now clean of the spoils of war.

The population in East Germany was liberated only to be then subjugated for more than a half a century.

But the picture shows why many Germans today are ambivalent about what's happening in Ukraine.

Van Aken is an MP for Die Linke, the party descended from the old communist party in East Germany.

He says many of his fellow party members remain grateful to the Soviet Union.

In the west of the country, anti-communism was rife but in the east of the country, Russia was not only the oppressor but also the liberator.

The signs of that liberation are there for all to see, even in the Bundestag building itself where graffiti scrawled by Russian soldiers, in the Cyrillic script has not been scrubbed away.

It is there for MPs to see as they enter the chamber, the names of soldiers with dates in May, 1945.

The soldiers who raised the flag came down and did what soldiers do - they wrote their names on the walls they'd breached. One of the soldiers who raised the flag was Ukrainian, from Kiev.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Gerhard Schroeder and Vladimir Putin had a close working relationship

Young East Germans, like Angela Merkel, learnt Russian.

We will never know if she accidentally bumped into KGB agent Putin, who was stationed in Dresden, but she's certainly bumping into him now.

Berlin feels a lot nearer Moscow than does London or Washington. Of course, it is nearer, but it is also emotionally closer.

Politicians - like the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, now in his mid-90s and still, by the way, smoking furiously even in television studios - are unequivocal in their commitment to democracy.

But Mr Schmidt is also of the "go easy on Russia" school. Sanctions, he said, were "nonsense".

Germany has to do business with Russia, is the common sentiment, so let's remember that.

The same sentiment comes from another former Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, though in his case he really does do business with Russia as the chairman of the board of Nordstream, owned by Gazprom, the Russian energy company currently in dispute with Ukraine.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gazprom sponsor one of Germany's biggest football teams, Schalke 04

Apart from Chancellor Merkel's predecessors, a string of very powerful German businessmen are lining up to say how important Russia is, from the boss of Siemens, often pictured with President Putin, to the chief executives of Adidas and of the steel giant Thyssen Krupp.

A short distance from the Bundestag there is a grand Soviet memorial to those killed liberating Berlin. It is in need of some loving attention. Some of the letters on the inscription have fallen off - the "V" in soviet has gone, for example.

On top of the columns is a huge statue of a Red Army soldier, gazing down at anyone bold enough to look up at him.

I say "gazing", but actually he's staring. He may be inert and bronze, but I have to say I find it hard to look him straight in his fierce eyes.

He seems to be saying: "We rescued you. Don't forget where power lies."

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