When Russia invaded Ukraine, most former European leaders with lucrative posts on the boards of state-backed Russian companies were quick to jump ship in protest: from Finland to Italy, France to Austria, ex-premiers swiftly resigned their positions.
Only one did not — the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
His refusal to offer any criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin has mystified and angered former colleagues and the German public. “I just don’t know why he’s done this,” a former colleague said. “It’s very hard to understand.”
In response, Schröder’s entire office staff resigned and he has been stripped of honorary citizenship of his home city of Hanover — a punishment it last meted out, posthumously, to Adolf Hitler.
Still, the former leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) has retained his positions at Kremlin-backed companies; he remains chair at oil company Rosneft and gas pipeline project Nord Stream, and has not rejected his recent nomination to the board at state-backed Russian gas exporter Gazprom.
Those who know Schröder say his decisions are emblematic of his party’s decades-long commitment to rapprochement with Russia, from former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt’s Soviet era Ostpolitik to “Wandel durch Handel” — change through trade — a policy that continued under his Christian Democrat successor Angela Merkel.
But his motives, they argue, are also deeply personal: as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, Schröder struck up a friendship with Putin during the men’s earliest days in office that endures to this day.
“This is, first of all, a strong emotional story,” said Reinhard Urschel, author of a biography of the former chancellor.
In those early days of his leadership, Schröder’s stilted English skills impeded close relationships with other world leaders, a former official said. But Putin — an ex-KGB agent based in former communist East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell — spoke fluent German.
“As so often in life, language matters — and chemistry,” he said. “There was a bit of Verbrüdering [fraternity].”
The two leaders’ families have met for Christmas, and were photographed together on a sleigh ride in Moscow in 2001. Similar childhood pasts also drove the friendship: both came from poor families and battled their way to the top through their wits.
As a young journalist in the late 1990s, Urschel recalled visiting Schröder when he was prime minister of Lower Saxony: “He came out, beaming, and said: ‘you won’t believe who I just talked to on the phone — an honest-to-God billionaire’. That really moved him, the little boy who came from the very bottom,” he said. “I can understand why he almost worships Putin, who made it even further.”
But Schröder was also genuinely committed to trying to bring Russia into the post-war liberal world order after the Soviet Union’s collapse, ex-colleagues say.
In the early 2000s, the British were “mildly disinterested” in Russia, the former official said, while the Americans considered Moscow “just a regional power”, leaving Germany and Brussels to take the lead. “It was in a European context. But it was a unique role that Germany played.”
Germany was partly motivated by a sense of historical guilt for its devastating second world war invasion of Russia, officials say — but also by economic interests.
Schröder and Putin formed strategic working groups to discuss industry, security and economic policy. German businesses soon arrived in Russia, from small family-owned concerns to large companies such as Volkswagen and Daimler.
Since leaving office, Schröder has become a wealthy man. Financial statements from Rosneft show he earns €600,000 a year. His Nord Stream salary has been reported by German media to be another €250,000, and he has been nominated to join the board of Gazprom with confirmation expected in June. He also receives a government pension of about €8,000 a month.
“I asked him on his 60th birthday what he would do when he left politics,” Urschel said. “And he said, simply: ‘earn money’. He feels he’s served his country . . . now he’s entitled to that money.”
So far, Schröder’s only statement on Ukraine is on his LinkedIn profile, where he wrote: “The war and the associated suffering for the people in Ukraine must be ended as soon as possible. That is the responsibility of the Russian government.”
His own party has stumbled in its response to its former leader. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s SPD chancellor, has appeared visibly irked at press conferences, where his view of Schröder is often the first question asked.
Four state SPD branches have requested Schröder’s membership be revoked. But the SPD prime minister of Lower Saxony has refused to withdraw the former chancellor’s medal of honour and maintains contact with him.
Political opponents have seized on the party’s hesitancy. Michael Brand, the CDU’s parliamentary spokesman on human rights, called on the government to impose sanctions on Schröder.
“It doesn’t matter whether people feel uncomfortable. We are at war in Europe. A government must act — not hide,” he said. “Schröder is less of an ex-chancellor than a foreign agent of Putin.”
The government says it cannot target Schröder because the energy companies he works for are not subject to international sanctions. They were granted exceptions because many countries in Europe rely on Russian fossil fuels — notably Germany, which before the war received 55 per cent of its gas imports, 50 per cent of coal and 35 per cent of its oil from the country. On Friday the country pledged to wean itself off Russian gas by mid-2024 and become “virtually independent” of Russian oil by the end of this year.
With Schröder staying silent, Germans have taken to parsing Instagram posts by his wife, Soyeon Schröder-Kim. As reports emerged that he had travelled to Moscow in early March to mediate in the Ukraine crisis, she posted a photograph of herself praying, the night skyline of Red Square behind her.
Nothing came of the meeting. Schröder’s former colleague now wonders whether the ex-chancellor was effectively “cornered” into standing by Putin.
“He’s finished anyway, politically,” he said. “Schröder is maybe [Putin’s] good present or past friend. But today, [Schröder] is basically Putin’s employee — who he corrupted by paying too much money.”