Lead psychologist Grünewald explains our dull fears of mega-war

Interview with Stephan Grünewald: Top German Psychologist Explains Our Fear of Mega-War

Thursday, 05/05/2022, time 09:19

Many people fear that war will come to Germany as well. The debate over sending heavy weapons raises this fear, says psychologist and surveyor Stephan Grünewald. But the guilt that many Germans feel is as severe as the fear.

Mr. Grünewald, since the beginning of the war, FOCUS Online has received many letters from readers in which the fear of war becomes clear. Fear that Germany may become more involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine. Is this a widespread phenomenon?

Stephan Gruenewald:
Shortly after the start of the war, we saw in in-depth interviews that people in Germany felt almost powerless. The idea that Europe could be at the mercy of an unpredictable and perhaps insane ruler like Putin also aroused fears of nuclear war in many people. This shock at the beginning of the war led to an overwhelming need for information in the hope that all fear would end as soon as possible.

But he did not. The result was the call to normalcy. People sought distraction, went to work or hobbies, so as not to constantly think about war. But fear remains virulent in the background for as long as the war lasts.

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

Yes, but the war is on the verge, so to speak. By the logic of escalation, there is a great underlying fear that war could spread to Germany as well.

What kind of logical escalation does it mean?

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

  • Climate change follows a linear, growing logic. Linearity creates the fabrication of predictability and sometimes fuels the hope that problems can still be solved over time with the help of science, politics and business. Linear logic is often perceived as threatening only when strong storms or natural disasters show the devastating consequences of a gradual process.
  • In contrast, Corona’s crisis perception works according to an exponential logic. The climbing curve first rises gently, then runs steeply upwards due to ever-increasing doubling rates. People try to stop this threatening scenario of fear with clear positions – masks, blockage or forced vaccination – which then quickly lead to social polarization.
  • But the Ukraine crisis has a natural escalation logic. Figuratively, the push of a button is enough and our entire civilization is destroyed. This logic has an incomprehensible and paralyzing shock effect. The discussion about sending heavy weapons to Ukraine makes it possible to get out of powerlessness, but also increases the fear of escalation.

“The Cold War seemed so predictable”

But are not these fears irrational from the total escalation of the war? In the Cold War, people lived for 45 years in the West and East with knowledge of nuclear missiles.

The Cold War was cold, it was cold. Like the climate crisis, the Cold War followed a linear logic of continuous rearmament. The Cold War seemed so predictable, especially with its detonation policy since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Ukraine war, on the other hand, is hot and very close. So people’s fear is grounded. And there are various threatening gestures by Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when they talk openly about nuclear war. This reinforces fears that the war could break out as a result of German involvement. Dealing with these fears, on the other hand, is sometimes irrational. Rodent purchases of products such as cooking oil, for example, act as big steps that should at least temporarily get people out of the feeling of helplessness.

About the expert

Stephan Grünewald was born on November 8, 1960 in Mönchengladbach. After studying psychology in Cologne, he founded the “Rheingold Institute for Qualitative Market and Media Analysis” together with business partner Jens Lönneker. In 2006 his first book “Germany on the sofa” was published. Grünewald was on the Corona Council of Experts for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Do you think that this fear has particularly affected the younger generations in Germany?

Not necessarily, but those who are 30 years old or younger are socialized quite differently from the elderly who grew up in post-war Germany and during the Cold War. They grew up in peacetime, are very cooperative and show solidarity, which they have just experienced during the pandemic. Harmony and cohesion are important to them.

The biggest fear of children and young people has been that their family structures may break down. Therefore, their internal mission is not rebellion, but stabilization of the system. This need for harmony is now threatened by a large-scale system clash. Young people experienced pacifism mainly in the form of small-scale family diplomacy. The brutal logic of war is profoundly foreign to them.

“Many people even feel in a double guilt trap”

How should young people cope with the war in Ukraine?

Intellectually, they may understand a policy of force or prevention, but emotionally they are largely blind to the horrors of war. The problem is that many schools also support this ignorance by dealing with the subject of war in the classroom with difficulty and getting caught up in the established curriculum.

Not only the younger generation ignored or underestimated the threat posed by Putin’s Russia. Do you think that many Germans also feel guilty about this?

Not just for that. In fact, many people find themselves in a double guilt trap. First, they have ignored or downplayed the real threat posed by Putin’s Russia for years. As a result of this attitude, recruitment was suspended and the call for higher defense spending was seen as a crazy idea that only guys like Donald Trump could think of.

On the other hand, they feel guilty because they can not or do not want to show greater solidarity with Ukraine.

What would he be?

Abandonment of Russian natural gas. People are afraid of the possible loss of their prosperity, the limitations in daily life. The supply of heavy weapons almost has the compensatory quality of the sale of indulgences. If we do not want to do completely without natural gas or oil from Russia, then let us at least send heavy weapons to the Ukrainians. However, the arms trade reinforces the logic of escalation in this war, and with it the fear grows again.

“When it comes to arms deliveries or the gas boycott, there is no clear right or wrong.”

Sounds like an emotional dilemma …

Politically and psychologically, yes. The prevailing feeling is that of great ambivalence. Most people feel that there is no clear right or wrong when it comes to arms shipments or the gas boycott. Whatever you do or do not do, you inevitably feel guilty.

Vice Chancellor Habeck’s remorseful struggle to take a responsible path, or the chancellor’s anxiety and hesitation, are expressions of this ambivalence. This guilty and powerless ambivalence also explains why we are not currently experiencing any substantial polarization in the debate and why people want to expel as many war thoughts as possible.

What advice would you give to people who are afraid of war?

One should not constantly sit in front of the news like a rabbit in front of a snake. Distraction certainly helps. But you should not boycott the news altogether. If one remains completely uninformed, there is a risk that the fear will spread even further into total ignorance.

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