The official view is on display in today’s New York Times, where a prominent news analysis piece (p. 4) claims that Germany’s pacific attachment to Ruhe and Ordnung (quiet and order) has been shaken by the aggressive behavior of Russia in the last month. (They also say it’s been undermined by the Snowden revelations, but that is quickly dropped after the opening paragraphs; it’s not why this article was written.) Quoting an article in Die Zeit and a CDU (conservative) politician, the article concludes that Germany has to face the reality that cooperation and compromise is not how the world works, and that it must rearm and adopt what amounts to a more NATO-friendly foreign policy.
Your first indication that this is about what Germans should think and not what they do think is the fact that both of these “representative” sources are from the right. Die Zeit, in particular, is an interesting animal: it is literate and thoughtful, the journal whose want ads you would peruse each week if you were an academic looking for a job, but on international matters its tone is set by its editor and boss, Josef Joffe, perhaps Germany’s only high-profile neocon. (He also holds a visiting post at the Hoover Institution.) My ninth-grade social studies teacher told me that one of the main ways a newspaper spins the news is by selectively quoting those who agree with them. (I had to memorize SQECBOP: slanting-quoting-editorial-cartoon-burying-omission-photo. See, I still remember.)
Now, I’ll admit I’m hardly an expert in What Germany Thinks. I know a few Germans and have an idea what they think, but I do try to keep up with what’s happening there. I have an alternative take on how the Ukraine business is affecting most Germans:
1. Germany made a deal after WWII to be “of Europe”; it’s the basis for its return to political and economic power. This is ingrained in popular consciousness. The German economy also depends mightily (too much, in fact) on its exports to the rest of Europe. The mess in Ukraine is seen as a crisis for Europe, and a threat to the European-ness of the other ex-Communist states in the region. There is also a historical connection: Ukraine has been the home of large communities of ethnic Germans dating back centuries, and many current German citizens can trace their roots to Ukrainian ancestors. Germans, except on the hard left, want Ukraine to be pro-West.
2. One of the lessons German drew from their disastrous experience before and during the Third Reich is that society must be based on compromise and consensus. The majority should get the majority of what it wants, but not everything. All points of view that are willing to join the overall compromise should be respected and have a voice in the final outcome. I was in Germany during the police invasion of Zuccotti Park, and everyone I talked to was appalled that the government would simply try to wipe out Occupy rather than talk with them and allow opinion and policy to shift a bit toward the Occupiers.
Now we come to the crux: Germany was in the process of negotiating a deal between Yanukovych and the Maidan protesters when the sniper attack occurred that killed over a hundred people, protesters and police alike, and that resulted in a new government in Kyiv. There is suspicion in Germany that the origin of this breakdown in Ruhe and Ordnung may have had its roots in far-right elements of the protesters themselves. While Putin himself is unpopular in Germany, there is considerable support for the view that the current Ukrainian government lacks legitimacy. Its basis was the suppression of compromise and inclusion. (If you want to be cynical, you could say that there would be more support for the interim government if it included Hamburg’s favorite son, Vitaly Klitschko.)
3. Another lesson Germans learned is that small numbers of armed fascists can cause big problems. You shouldn't let them form militias, and you shouldn’t bring them into the government, even as junior partners. There is a much higher level of concern in Germany than in, say, the US over the roles of Svoboda and the Right Sector. They are less inclined to dismiss the claims by pro-Russian elements that fascism is a real threat. I’m writing this from the US, but my guess is that most Germans agree with the Russian side that the latest deal requires the Right Sector to disarm at the same time as the pro-Russian militias. Can anyone back me up on that?
4. The leaked Nuland phone call made a big splash in Germany. I doubt that most Americans even know what it was. The only reference to it in the Times in the last month was in an op-ed piece entitled “The Case for Profanity in Print”. Germans can’t be happy that the US schemed behind the scenes to keep Klitschko out. Oh, and they didn't like that comment about the EU either.
So do I think Germans are going to abandon Ruhe and Ordnung, compromise and consensus, reliance on diplomacy, because of Putin’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine? I’d say no, and that there won’t be any rush to rearm and extol the use of force. We’ll see how this develops.