Authoritarianism Finds a Friend in Germany

Written by: Audrey McGrory

While Germany has positioned itself as the bulwark of European interests in intercontinental and foreign affairs, its murky dealings and relationships with authoritarian regimes have influenced important policy decisions, threatening the legitimacy of international institutions and democracy.

Historically, Germany has been slow to condemn and challenge the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia—two countries that have actively suppressed democratic freedoms, threatened the sovereignty of independent nations, and committed crimes against humanity. While China and Russia remain two notable examples, there are many other authoritarian regimes that Germany has supported—much to the concern of its Western allies. 

Germany’s compliance and support of authoritarian regimes is a likely result of its geographical location and the political changes it experienced in recent decades. Germany is located in central Europe which places it directly between two competing powers that have publicly promoted two distinct world orders: a bloc of liberal democracies in the West and increasingly authoritarian regimes in the East

Germany has borne the influence of both blocs. While the 1990 unification of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) marked the end of official boundarial divisions within Germany, an ideological contrast still exists today. A 2019 survey found that only 38% of citizens in eastern Germany saw reunification as a success. Wages and unemployment persist in eastern Germany at unsatisfactory levels compared to western Germany, while infrastructure, living standards, the environment, and health provisions similarly lag behind.

Despite the residual influence of the GDR, Germany has aligned itself with the West, becoming a founding member of the European Union (EU) and an important member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While seemingly attaching its political, economic, military, and diplomatic interests to those of the West, Germany has continued to aid authoritarian regimes in a way that separates it from many of its allies. 

Germany’s defense budget has been one point of concern for its Western partners. While Germany has vowed to increase its defense budget in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the percent of Germany’s GDP used on defense has been steadily decreasing since 1963. While recent years have seen a slight uptick, Germany’s lackluster defense spending has contributed to Western concerns, especially due to Russia’s consistent use of military force against its own people and neighboring countries

Germany is not alone in its cooperation with authoritarian regimes, and many other Western countries have maintained relationships with authoritarian states despite acknowledging their dangerous actions and policies. One of the more significant examples is the United States’ continued dealings with Saudi Arabia despite the country’s repressive policies against women, human rights violations, and notably the government-ordered murder of Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi. While there are many other examples of Western nations engaging with authoritarian regimes, mainly through trade, Germany’s hesitancy to support certain initiatives to assist Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion has placed the country’s support of authoritarian regimes into a new focus. In particular, Germany’s relationships with China, Russia, Hungary, and Azerbaijan will be examined to illustrate the country’s continued legitimization of authoritarian regimes—many of which are actively working to suppress the institutions that Germany has claimed to champion. 

The most important trading partner of Germany is China. Germany’s close relationship with China has concerned many of its Western allies, particularly the U.S., which has actively lobbied its European allies to enforce regulations against trade with China. In 2017, Germany’s increasing dependence on Chinese exports was “welcomed” by the German government, as Germany sought to protect global free trade in response to U.S. tariffs imposed by then-President Trump. At the time, the Bundesverband Großhandel, Außenhandel, Dienstleistungen (BGA)— Germany’s leading organization for foreign trade and services—announced, “Given the protectionist plans of the new U.S. president one would expect that the trade ties between Germany and China will be further strengthened.” While Germany and China have developed closer ties in recent years, there have been indicators of a potential shift in policy.

Many Western media organizations, including those within Germany, such as Deutsche Welle (DW), have insinuated that Germany has taken an increasingly hostile stance towards China, positioning itself more in line with its Western allies. A DW article from May stated that German politicians “expressed shock” after viewing Xinjiang Police Files, a film that documents “the scale and brutality with which the Chinese state oppresses its mainly Muslin Uyghur minority.” The shock of German politicians is suspect. 

There have been many notable instances of the international community condemning the treatment of the Uyghur community by the Chinese government, including a joint statement by 44 countries, including Germany, “condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang, as well as the deterioration of the fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.” The reaction of surprise by German politicians thus seems questionable—the human rights abuses of the Chinese government is a fact of which they have been long aware.

In August, it was reported that Germany planned to “expand its military presence in the Indo-Pacific…as it keeps an eye on the ‘enormous’ build-up of China’s armed forces.” The claim that Germany would risk “irking its top trade partner” to protect the region from “Beijing’s territorial ambitions” hits a falsely heroic note. 

While Germany has long enjoyed close economic relations with China, the German economy became more dependent on China in the first half of 2022, with German investment in China reaching around €10 billion—a total that far exceeds the previous peak half-year value of €6.2 billions. In addition, German automotive and chemical industries have expanded their presence in China, as European-Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) continues to increase. 

While the economic ties between Germany and China are strengthening, the political ties are similarly well-established. In December 2021, upon Olaf Schulz becoming Chancellor of Germany, a press release from the Chinese government emphasized the deep political ties between the two countries, noting the weight of such a relationship in broader EU policy: “In recent years, China-Germany cooperation has always been a ‘bellwether’ of cooperation between China and European countries, which is a right choice made by the two countries in line with the development trend of the times,” the press release read. 

While Germany has joined its international partners in acknowledging the human rights violations committed by the Chinese government and thrown harsh rhetoric towards its top trading partner, its actions tell a much different story. More recently, China has sought to relieve Russia of burdens caused by Western sanctions. Along with China, Russia has enjoyed some assistance from other countries, like Germany

There are many examples of Russia invading a neighboring country and receiving little criticism but rather support from Germany. In 2008, after failing to reach certain goals in its invasion of Georgia, Russia sought to improve its military capabilities and appealed to Germany for help. In response, Germany agreed to sell combat simulation systems to Russia. After facing criticism from allies, Germany canceled the deal but not before 95 percent of the gear had already been delivered. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Germany initially refused to join the U.S. in sanctioning Russia. Only after 300 civilians were killed by Russian separatists in the downing of MH-17, a Malaysian Airlines passenger flight, did Germany finally agree to sanctions. 

By late June of this year, thousands of Ukrainians had been killed. Images of dead bodies in streets, evidence of brutal massacres, and videos of the wide-scale perpetration of war crimes have prompted many Western countries to send billions of dollars in aid and equipment to Ukraine. And yet in late June, three months into the invasion, Germany had just sent its first shipment of heavy weapons. The next month, it was reported that Germany had been actively blocking 9 billion euros in aid to support Ukraine, approving only 1 billion of the greater sum. Regarding Ukraine in particular, Germany has used its vast political and economic influence to alter the policy decisions put forth by its European allies, as it seeks support to Ukraine from its brutal invasion, while maintaining an economic relationship with the invasion’s perpetrator, Russia. 

Germany has been reliant on Russian gas since the early 1980’s—the result of a 1970 meeting between senior German and Soviet politicians who convened at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Essen to sign a contract that would establish a gas pipeline from Siberia to Bavaria. The gas pipelines running from Russia to Germany have become integral components of both Germany and Russia’s economies, fueling German industry and providing Russia with substantial capital. Despite the recent expressions of regret by German politicians, Germany’s reliance on Russian gas has undoubtedly pushed the country into a corner on the international stage. 

While China and Russia serve as two widely-known examples of Germany’s reluctant condemnation of authoritarian regimes, there are many other lesser-known examples. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—the EU member country’s far-right leader whose authoritarian policies have resonated with right-wing movements around the world, including within the U.S.—has received little condemnation from Germany. In July, Orbán gave a speech that warned against European people “mixing” with non-European people. The speech, in which he exclaimed, “We do not want to become peoples of mixed race,” led Zsuzsa Hegedus, one of Orbán’s closest advisors, to call the speech, “a purely Nazi diatribe worthy of Joseph Goebbels” in her resignation letter. The July speech remains consistent with many other examples of Orbán promoting racist ideologies that often find legitimacy in Hungary’s domestic and foreign policy. While the EU has withheld some payments from a pandemic recovery fund to Hungary as punishment for the increasing hostile rhetoric and policies of Orbán’s regime, the July speech, like many other examples, faced little condemnation from Germany.

Germany has formed a close economic partnership with Orbán’s government. German automotive companies provide direct employment to nearly 50,000 Hungarian employees, creating about 2.5% of Hungary’s gross domestic product (GDP). While the EU has taken action against Hungary, Germany has hardly been deterred by Orbán’s authoritarian policies, leading Berlin’s Global Public Policy Institute to state in 2018, “The German car industry has to stop allowing itself to be used by Viktor Orbán.” As Timothy Garton Ash, a renowned professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford once put it, “German business abroad does have a certain track record of, to put it mildly, tolerating corruption…Indeed, until some years ago, bribery abroad was, under certain circumstances, tax deductible.” By pouring money in Hungary, German industry has provided economic legitimacy to Orbán, doing little to curb the rising authoritarianism observed in the policies and actions of the Hungarian government. German automakers have also directly supported Hungary’s anti-free press policies, advertising almost exclusively in publications with links to Orbán. 

The example of Azerbaijan offers another interesting look in Germany’s seeming compliance with authoritarian regimes. According to Freedom House, the Azerbaijani government is “highly concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev,” the leader of the central Asian nation. In Azerbaijan, corruption is widespread and political opposition remains nearly nonexistent. In recent years, government authorities have “carried out an extensive crackdown on civil liberties,” and its military incursions into surrounding territories have led to the deaths of over 2,700 soldiers.  

The Azerbaijani government provides vast sums of money to German political parties. The political donations allow Aliyev to expand his influence in Europe, creating business opportunities between the two countries and deepening their political ties. One important line of Azerbaijani influence into German and European politics is through an internship program; the example of Nurlan Hasanov illustrates the program’s political impact. 

In 2012, Nurlan Hasanov, an Azerbaijani national, was serving as an intern in the Bundestag, the German parliament, as a part of the International Parliamentary Scholarship (IPS), a German scholarship program that provides opportunities to students. In recent years, the program has shown a nearly exclusive preference for Azerbaijani nationals due to political donations from the Azerbaijani government. 

When the internship was complete, Hasanov engaged in business with Steffen-Claudio Lemme, the German politician under whom he had served. The business included employing nursing staff from Azerbaijan and the importing and exporting of goods from the Caucuses. 

The business relationship between Hasanov and Lemme prompted a series of concerning events that have become commonplace in German-Azerbaijani political interactions. For example, in February 2020, Lemme observed the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, which saw Aliyev’s party win an absolute majority. While election officials from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) “complained of massive violations in the counting of votes, unclear voter lists, and pressure on voters,” Lemme claimed that the elections were “conducted democratically [with] no violations recorded.” Many German politicians have echoed Lemme’s claims in their own observations of Azerbaijani elections, ultimately legitimizing the fraudulent elections of an authoritarian government. The active role of German politicians in overseeing the IPS selection process has continued the legacy of Azerbaijani influence in European politics and given legitimacy to a corrupt government. As for Hasanov, he now serves as an elected deputy in Azerbaijan’s national assembly, where he represents Aliyev’s ruling party. Germany has become an important entry point into Europe for autocrats, who have learned to effectively exploit “weak spots in financial oversight to water down European positions on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.” While few Western countries are guiltless when it comes to their associations with authoritarian regimes, the example of Germany reveals one notable place in which authoritarianism often finds legitimacy. While Germany’s influence in the European Union and global affairs is not likely to rescind anytime soon, the country’s continued legitimization of authoritarian regimes might make some question its role in foreign affairs, especially as the 21st century has seen a rapid decline of democracy and the steady rise of authoritarianism.

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