26th Sep 2022


Germans and Americans differ over Russia

  • Disagreement over how tough to be with Russia potentially foreshadows new stress in the US-German relationship (Photo: Bundesregierung/Kugler)

May 8 was VE Day, the 70th anniversary of the end of the bloodiest war in modern European history. The anniversary marked a moment to assess the role that tragic conflict plays in public consciousness. But it was also an opportunity to look forward to assess how the public sees the challenges that lie ahead.

Germany and the United States, adversaries in WWII, allies during and after the Cold War, are now the two pillars of the transatlantic alliance.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Differences over the Iraq war or US monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications play a minor role (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Their views of each other are complicated by recent disagreements over the Iraq war and US National Security Agency spying, and how they both see a re-assertive Russia. Nevertheless, their attitudes will shape the future of Europe’s ties with America for years to come.

No single event dominates public memory in either Germany or the US, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. World War II and the Holocaust loom large for Americans. Nearly half say those events more than seven decades ago are still the most important in the US-German relationship.

One slightly discordant note in this memory, a separate Pew Research survey found that fewer Americans believe Germany has apologised sufficiently for WWII than feel Japan has apologised sufficiently.

In the eyes of Americans, the second-most memorable event in the recent relationship has been the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Few mention the contretemps over the Iraq war or US monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s communications.

For Germans, the most important event in bilateral relations over the past 75 years has been the fall of the Berlin Wall. Roughly a third of Germans surveyed cites that incident. A fifth of Germans say it was WWII and the Holocaust or the Marshall Plan.

Only about one-in-eight mention the NSA listening in on Merkel’s phone conversations and nearly one-in-twelve reference the US-German disagreement over the Iraq War.

The relatively minor role recent disagreements play in historical memory, despite the attention they receive in the press and public discourse, help explain the strength of the bilateral US-German relationship today.

Brits most reliable to Americans

A strong majority of Americans (72%) see Germany as a reliable ally. About six-in-ten Germans (61%) similarly believe the US is a dependable ally. Notably, however, Germans trust France (78%) as an ally more than the US.

Americans are more likely to see Britain as a reliable ally: 85% say Britain is dependable, an affirmation of the “special relationship.” Only 55% of Germans view Britain as a reliable ally.

The Pew Research survey was conducted before recent revelations alleging that the NSA worked with Germany's intelligence agency, the BND, to spy on European firms, French officials and the EU's headquarters in Brussels.

The potential impact of such activities on the US-German relationship is unknown, but the low importance Germans place on past NSA revelations suggest it may prove less abiding than immediate headlines might suggest.

Looking forward, not since the end of the Cold War have German-American-Russian issues loomed so large in international affairs. This is in large part because of recent developments in Ukraine, where Russian activities have led to US and European economic sanctions against Moscow.

Germans less tough on Russia

But Germany’s geographic proximity and economic ties to Russia give Berlin and Washington different stakes in the current and in any future confrontation with Moscow.

Nevertheless, a majority of Germans (57%) believe it is more important for Germany to have strong ties with the US than with Russia. Just 15% prefer strong ties with Russia, and another 21% volunteer that it is best to have an equally close relationship with both.

On the issue of Ukraine, when asked if it is more important to be tough with Russia or to have a strong economic relationship with her, half of Germans voice the view it is more important to be tough.

In spite of Germany’s long-standing economic and energy ties with Russia, only about a third (35%) expresses the opinion that it is better to have a strong economic relationship with Moscow.

Americans and Germans disagree, however, about whether the current US and EU posture toward Russia over Ukraine is too tough, not tough enough or about right. Americans want to ratchet up the pressure, while most Germans do not support a tougher stance.

More than half of Americans (54%) believe that US policy toward Russia is not tough enough. And 59% say the EU is not being strong enough. At the same time, only 23% of Germans think Washington is not tough enough. And just 26% believe the EU is not aggressive enough.

This latter disagreement over how tough to be with Russia potentially foreshadows new stress in the US-German relationship and, by extension, transatlantic solidarity over what to do about Ukraine.

To date Washington and Berlin have worked hard to minimise any alliance differences over sanctions on Russia. The success of this effort can be seen in the continued belief among both Germans and Americans that the other is a reliable ally.

But public differences over Russia, potentially complicated if there are even more revelations about NSA activities in Germany, suggest sustaining the strength of the US-German relationship will be an ongoing challenge.

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


EU power shifts from Brussels to Berlin

Germany in 2013 consolidated its power within the EU, with key decisions ranging from bailouts to car emissions tailored to Berlin's demands.

How to apply the Nuremberg model for Russian war crimes

A Special Tribunal on Russian war crimes in Ukraine must be convened, because no permanent or existing international judicial institution is endowed with jurisdiction over Russian high-ranking officials, writes the head of the Ukraine delegation to the Council of Europe.

Losing on the Ukrainian battlefield will not unseat Putin

Notwithstanding the remarkable Ukrainian advances, a Russian defeat would not necessarily translate into regime change in Moscow. It is likely Putin will try to spin his military setbacks as evidence of the existential threat facing Russia.


How to respond, if Moscow now offers peace talks

It is difficult to see how Vladimir Putin can survive more major setbacks or outright defeat. Should this happen, Russia will find itself in a major political crisis. But offering him negotiations now would help him, by easing domestic pressure.

News in Brief

  1. More Russians now crossing Finnish land border
  2. Report: EU to propose €584bn energy grid upgrade plan
  3. Morocco snubs Left MEPs probing asylum-seeker deaths
  4. EU urges calm after Putin's nuclear threat
  5. Council of Europe rejects Ukraine 'at gunpoint' referendums
  6. Lithuania raises army alert level after Russia's military call-up
  7. Finland 'closely monitoring' new Russian mobilisation
  8. Flights out of Moscow sell out after Putin mobilisation order

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  3. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  5. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling

Latest News

  1. Ireland joins EU hawks on Russia, as outrage spreads
  2. Editor's weekly digest: Plea for support edition
  3. Investors in renewables face uncertainty due to EU profits cap
  4. How to apply the Nuremberg model for Russian war crimes
  5. 'No big fish left' for further EU sanctions on Russians
  6. Meloni's likely win will not necessarily strengthen Orbán
  7. France latest EU member to step up government spending in 2023
  8. Big Tech now edges out Big Energy in EU lobbying

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us