Great psychologist Grünewald explains our faint fear of a massive war

Interview with Stefan Grunewald: Germany’s chief psychologist explains our faint fear of a massive war

Many people fear that the war will also come to Germany. The controversy surrounding the delivery of heavy weapons adds to that fear, says psychologist and polling expert, Stefan Grunwald. But the guilt felt by many Germans is just as dangerous as the fear.

Mr. Grünewald, Since the beginning of the war, FOCUS Online has received many letters of readers in which the fear of war becomes apparent. Fear of Germany becoming more involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Is this a common phenomenon?

Stefan Gruenwald: Immediately after the start of the war, we saw in the in-depth interviews that the people of Germany felt almost helpless. The idea that Europe could be at the mercy of a ruler as unpredictable and possibly as crazy as Putin has raised fears of nuclear war for many. This shock at the beginning of the war led to an incredibly high need for information in the hope that the whole ghost would be over as quickly as possible.

But he didn’t. The result was a protest against normalcy. People were looking for a distraction, throwing themselves into work or their hobbies so they wouldn’t have to constantly think about war. But fear remains sinister in the background as long as the war continues.

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But the war is taking place in Ukraine, not in Germany.

Greenwald: Yes, but war is on its cusp, so to speak. According to the logic of escalation, there is a great fundamental fear that the war might also extend to Germany.

What kind of escalation logic do you mean?

Greenwald: We currently have three crises, and all three crises have a different logic for people:

  • Climate change follows a gently increasing linear logic. Linearity creates the imagination of predictability and sometimes fuels hope that problems can still be solved over time with the help of science, politics, and business. Linear reasoning is often seen as a threat only when powerful storms or natural disasters show the devastating results of a gradual process.
  • On the other hand, the perception of the Corona crisis works according to an exponential logic. The infection curve first rises gently, then turns sharply upward due to the ever-increasing doubling rates. People try to banish this threatening scenario of fear through obvious situations – masks, lockdowns or compulsory vaccination – which quickly leads to social polarization.
  • But the Ukraine crisis has an inherent logic of escalation. Figuratively speaking, one click of a button is enough and destroys our entire civilization. This logic has an incomprehensible and paralyzing shock effect. The debate about the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine makes it possible to get out of the deficit, but it also increases the fear of escalation.

‘The Cold War seemed too predictable’

But aren’t these fears of a full escalation of the war illogical? In the Cold War, people lived for 45 years in the West and East with the knowledge of nuclear missiles.

Greenwald: The Cold War was cold, and it was cold. Like the climate crisis, the Cold War followed a linear logic of constant rearmament. The Cold War seemed very predictable, especially with the policy of détente since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

On the other hand, the Ukraine war is hot and very close. So people’s fears are justified. There are also various threatening signals from Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they openly talk about nuclear war. This reinforces the fear that the war might be derailed as a result of German intervention. On the other hand, dealing with these concerns is sometimes illogical. Hamster purchases of products like cooking oil, for example, act as big leaps that will at least temporarily get people out of feeling helpless.

About the expert

Stefan Grunwald was born on November 8, 1960 in Mönchengladbach. After studying psychology in Cologne, he founded the “Rheingold Institute for Qualitative Analysis of the Market and Media” with his business partner Jens Lönker. In 2006 his first book “Germany on the Couch” was published. Grunwald was a member of the Corona Expert Council in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Do you think this fear affects the younger generations in Germany in particular?

Greenwald: Not necessarily, but people 30 or younger are socialized quite differently than older adults who grew up in post-war Germany and during the Cold War. They grew up in peacetime, they are very cooperative and show solidarity, which they have just demonstrated during the pandemic. Harmony and cohesion are important to them.

The greatest fear among children and young adults was the potential disintegration of their family structures. So their internal task is not to rebel, but to stabilize the regime. This need for harmony is now threatened by widespread system collapse. The younger ones experienced peace primarily in the form of small-scale family diplomacy. The brutal logic of war is very alien to them.

“Many people feel a double guilt trap”

How do young people deal with the Ukraine war?

Greenwald: Intellectually, they can understand the politics of force or deterrence, but emotionally they largely ignore the enormity of war. The problem is that many schools hardly support this ignorance by addressing the subject of war in the classroom and sticking to the prescribed curriculum.

Not only did the younger generation ignore or downplay the threat posed by Putin’s Russia. Do you think many Germans feel guilty about that, too?

Greenwald: Not just because of that. In fact, many people find themselves in a double guilt trap. For one thing, they have ignored or downplayed the real threat Putin’s Russia posed for years. As a result of this situation, conscription was suspended, and the call for increased defense spending was seen as a crazy idea that only men like Donald Trump would contemplate.

On the other hand, they feel guilty that they cannot or do not want to show the greatest solidarity with Ukraine.

Which one would it be?

Greenwald: Abandoning Russian natural gas. People fear the possible loss of their prosperity, the limitations of everyday life. The supply of heavy weapons has almost the compensatory quality of selling indulgence. If we do not want to do without natural gas or oil from Russia, let us at least send heavy weapons to the Ukrainians. But the arms trade reinforces the logic of escalation in this war, and with it, fear is growing again.

“When it comes to handing over guns or boycotting gas, there is no clear right or wrong”

Seems like an emotional dilemma…

Greenwald: Politically and psychologically, yes. The prevailing feeling is a great sense of contradiction. Most people feel that there is no obvious right or wrong when it comes to gun shipments or gas boycotts. Whatever you do or don’t do, you inevitably feel guilty.

Vice-Chancellor Habeck’s struggle to take a responsible course, or Chancellor’s hesitation and reluctance, are expressions of this contradiction. This contradiction of guilt and helplessness also explains why we currently have no fundamental polarization in the debate and why people want to keep ideas of war as far away as possible.

What advice would you give to someone who is afraid of war?

Greenwald: No one should constantly sit in front of the news ticker like a rabbit in front of a snake. Distraction definitely helps. But the news should not be boycotted entirely. If one remains completely uninformed, there is a danger that fear will spread further into complete ignorance.

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