The Germans have every reason to be grateful to Mikhail Gorbachev. When courageous citizens took to the streets in Leipzig, Berlin and other cities in 1989, the Soviet tanks stayed in the barracks.
It can also be different, as Waldimir Putin is showing the world. Because the Kremlin is ruled by a man who cannot bear the loss of imperial influence and sends his military into battle to enforce a colonial empire long lost, many suffer and die.
When Gorbachev led the Soviet Union, peaceful revolution was possible: in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries.
Now, under Putin’s rule, rebellion ends fatally for many: in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, but also in the case of assassination attempts in Western Europe from Great Britain to Berlin’s Tiergarten. Anyone who judges the two Kremlin leaders by the results of their actions will see Gorbachev as the counterpart to Putin. One allowed freedom in peace, the other bloodily suppressed it.
However, this view is not a consensus in Europe, as the obituaries, reports and analyzes on the day after Gorbachev’s death show. It has a specifically German touch.
In many other countries, the image of him is more complex. And some classifications even draw parallels between Gorbachev and Putin.
In comparison, many German obituaries seem like an awe-inspiring transfiguration. Aspects that do not fit into the legend of the Prince of Peace, who gave the Germans and Europeans liberation from the Soviet dictatorship, are ignored. Some stylize “Gorbi” in an astonishing twist of processes to an architect of today’s map of Europe.
Gorbachev wanted neither to give up the Soviet colonial empire nor to dissolve the Soviet Union. His goal was to reform the system of government with glasnost and perestroika in such a way that Soviet rule would gain strength.
Gorbachev was not the driving force behind the dynamics that led to the fall of communist dictatorships and the spread of national self-determination and democracy in Central Europe.
This role was played, for example, by the Polish Pope John Paul II, who called out to the Poles: “Don’t be afraid!” and US President Ronald Reagan, who made it clear to Moscow that it cannot win an arms race, only them ruined Soviet economy.
The Germans owe their unity to the Polish trade union “Solidarnosc”, which undermined the dictatorship more courageously and consistently than other freedom movements. And the Hungarian government, which decided and announced that their section of the Iron Curtain would no longer be shot at.
In 1989, Soviet tanks remained in barracks in Poland and Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. That saved the citizens a lot of bloodshed. But was that a conscious decision by Gorbachev? Or was it a passive letting happen? Because organization and chains of command had collapsed? Putin, who was then a KGB officer in Germany, said instructions were sought. But none came.
Gorbachev has used the military to quell protests elsewhere: in Georgia in April 1989, in Azerbaijan in January 1990, in Latvia and Lithuania in January 1991. That doesn’t fit the legend of the peace-moving “Gorbi”.
Nor did Gorbachev’s attitude towards the confrontation with Ukraine. This is where the parallels to Putin’s way of thinking culminate. Gorbachev has backed the annexation of Crimea and military support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Gorbachev did not want to dissolve the Soviet Union, he wanted to keep it. He failed in this goal. Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union. And will probably also fail. Under Gorbachev, the use of military force was limited. Putin makes brutal use of it.
The dialectic of the effective relationships between the two Kremlin leaders also includes: By not intervening in 1989, Gorbachev deprived the KGB agent Putin of his livelihood in East Germany. And later, “Gorbi” with his actions, omissions and failures contributed to the fact that after the chaotic years of decline in power under him and Boris Yeltsin, someone like Vladimir Putin was able to seize power.
Yes, the Germans can and should remember with gratitude that they were spared the bloodbath of 1989. But they shouldn’t ignore the fact that Gorbachev struck deadly in other countries that are now EU partners. When Germans and other Europeans have too different images of their common past, it is difficult to make a common EU policy. Mikhail Gorbachev is not one of the master builders of a free Central Europe. He couldn’t prevent it. And that’s a good thing.