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War forces Germany to chart a new future – and that’s not been easy

Germany, the European Union's political and economic center, is undergoing a deep transformation in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine. It's a “Zeitenwende” – a sea change moment in the face of a bleak future.

(CN) — These are not easy times for Germany.

Following the shock of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, German society, economy and politics are going through a period of profound change and uncertainty as long-held assumptions are cast overboard and the country embarks on a new route toward rebuilding its military, turning its back on Russia and girding for a future defined not by global free trade but great power rivalry.

“It's been a period of soul-searching,” said Ed Turner, an expert on German politics at Aston University in Birmingham, England.

The changes taking place in Germany cannot be overstated: Perhaps more than any other European Union country, the war in Ukraine is affecting Europe's economic powerhouse the most.

Only three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went before the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and delivered what is known as the “Zeitenwende speech,” named for a German word to describe a historic turning point.

“We are living through a watershed era,” Scholz said. “And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.”

Germany's history was distilled at that moment. In his trademark mechanical voice, the new 64-year-old centrist Social Democrat, who'd identified as an anti-NATO Marxist in his youth, became the person to deliver the bad news: Germany's delusions about a future of inevitable peace, expanding liberalization and prosperity were over.

Standing in the starkly modern plenary chamber of the Reichstag, Scholz announced it was time for Germany to confront a more dangerous future and rebuild its military in order to “protect our freedom and our democracy.”

For a nation rebuilt from the ashes of its Nazi past, talk of mass rearmament had been unthinkable, a kind of taboo, for large segments of German society and the political class only three days before.

In the speech, Scholz pledged to spend 100 billion euros (about $106 billion) to restore Germany's long-neglected military, the Bundeswehr; and he vowed to nearly double Germany's annual military budget to meet a NATO target of spending 2% of Germany's $4 trillion gross domestic product on defense.

The speech broke another taboo: The chancellor said Germany would send weapons to Ukraine, a decision that swept aside a longstanding rule to not allow German-made arms to get shipped into a war zone where two nations were fighting each other.

“The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law,” Scholz told the Bundestag. “Whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the 19th century and the age of the great powers. Or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.”

Fast forward a year and Germany has become the fourth biggest supplier of arms to Ukraine and it's taken an increasingly prominent role in the escalating war.

But getting to this point has been extremely fraught because sending German-made cannons and tanks into a war against Russian troops triggers a particularly sensitive historical memory for a country that killed millions of Russians during World War II. Before the Russian invasion, Germany was reluctant to even send combat helmets to Ukraine.

In the same speech, Scholz also promised to end Germany's reliance on Russian oil and gas and cut off trade with Moscow, a major market for German goods.

These were major shifts. Most of the Bundestag – except parliamentarians on the far left and far right – rose in applause at the end of his speech.

Before the war, Germany received about 55% of its natural gas from Russia and its impressive industrial and economic gains since reunification in 1991 were fueled in part by the flow of cheap Russian gas and oil and the emergence of new markets following the breakup of the communist bloc.


The Nord Stream natural gas pipelines connecting Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea exemplified the country's appetite for Russian energy.

“It's not a secret: Germany has had quite intimate and extensive trade relations with Russia, especially in the gas sector,” said Jonas Driedger, an international security researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, a German think tank.

For a half century before the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Germany had been wedded to “Ostpolitik,” an approach advocated by former Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt who in 1969 called for rapprochement with communist East Germany and the Soviet Union. Many Germans feel this “eastern policy” helped bring about an end to the Cold War and the reunification of Germany.

“Ostpolitik is really important in German thinking,” Driedger said.

The premise was that trade would help an authoritarian Soviet system become more democratic. Germans use the pithy phrase “Wandel durch Handel,” or “change through trade,” as shorthand for this creed.

An updated version of Ostpolitik also guided relations with Putin's Russia and underpinned a German notion that peace in Europe depended on maintaining peace with Russia.

Now, this is an idea often discredited as dangerously naive not only for relations with Russia but also for China. Since the outbreak of full-scale war, Germany has come under mounting pressure from the United States to rethink its warm ties with China. Germany exports more than $100 billion in goods a year to China (making it Germany's second biggest export market in dollar terms after the U.S.), an amount valued as supporting more than 1 million jobs.

None of this is easy for Germany and the disorienting fallout from the war in Ukraine comes on top of a decade full of nasty surprises and disturbing twists for the EU's most populous country.

Briefly, here are the shocks Germany's suffered in recent history:

  • Following the Great Recession of 2007-2008, Germany became a figure of opprobrium as citizens in debt-ridden EU countries like Greece, Portugal and Italy accused Berlin of forcing their governments to trim pensions, close hospitals, lay off public workers and cut services to the benefit of German bankers and creditors and in order to stay within the EU’s austere budget rules.
  • In 2015, Poland elected a new ultra-nationalist, far-right and vehemently anti-German government. The relationship between Berlin and Warsaw has only worsened since then with members of the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland even accusing Germany of seeking to turn the EU into a “Fourth Reich.”
  • Then came the Brexit referendum in June 2016 and the looming exit of the United Kingdom, the EU’s second-largest economy after Germany, from the bloc. Brexit was a big blow to the EU project and Germany’s central role in it.
  • Four months later came the shock of Donald Trump’s election. Trump’s ascendancy to the White House terrified Germany: There he was tearing up international treaties, casting doubts on the worth of NATO, disparaging allies in Europe and cozying up to far-right forces across Europe.

This decade of strife and the war in Ukraine are pushing a hesitant Germany to see the need to become more assertive and decisive as a new generation of leaders – many with only a vague memory of the Cold War and none of World War II – takes the country's reins in an era that many political scientists see as a new Cold War rivalry between blocs. Annalena Baerbock, the 42-year-old Green foreign minister, embodies this new crop of leaders.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, right, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, arrive for a press conference at Meseberg palace near Berlin on Sunday, March 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Still, Germany can seem ill-suited to become a bold leader both inside Europe and on the international arena. It remains haunted by its Nazi past and its post-war constitutional framework intentionally makes decision-making slow, deliberative and based on consensus.

“In 1949, what is the most important thing when you are building a West German constitution?” Driedger said. “Well, you want to avoid a Fourth Reich; avoid Germany rearing its militaristic head and again trying to conquer Europe.”

“So, in the constitution there is very strong federalism,” he said. “There is a strong distribution of the responsibilities that you need for war making, in particular proactive, quick, strategic and by implication offensive war making.”

In rebuilding itself after the horror of Nazism, Germany was admired for becoming a highly efficient, technocratic and responsible nation championing diplomacy, multilateral institutions, international laws, liberal values and democracy.

“It preferred softer tasks at times of international conflict,” Turner said. “It tended to focus its efforts more on diplomacy and economic development and construction rather than on hard-edge defense tasks.”

“If you compare Germany to, let's say France or the United Kingdom or the United States, there is much less proactive policy,” Driedger said.

So, how will Germany adapt in this new era? That remains to be seen.

But so far Germany has proven it can move quickly when it reaches a point where it must make a decision to safeguard its own survival, said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in German politics at King's College London.


“Once a decision is made and something is considered of existential importance, the state and the system can move very, very quickly to change things and move things in a new direction,” Clarkson said.

This, he said, was clearly seen with its impressive shift away from Russian natural gas.

“If Germany had not quickly found a replacement, the entire economic model would have ground to a halt and that would have caused huge problems,” Clarkson said.

In the past year, Germany in conjunction with other EU countries has replaced Russian energy by increasing gas and oil imports from countries such as Norway, Qatar, Algeria, Libya and the U.S.

At the same time, Germany pushed to quickly build liquefied natural gas terminals and employ floating LNG terminals to receive gas tanker shipments. Since August, Germany has not received any Russian gas.

Meanwhile, Germany also has sped up its programs to boost renewable energy sources and offered households and businesses substantial subsidies to invest in green infrastructure – such things as solar panels, wind turbines and heat pumps. Rising energy costs forced Germany last October to set up a 200 billion euro ($210 billion) subsidy fund to shield businesses and households from the price shock.

“I think American observers, even German observers themselves, tend to underestimate the sheer level of German industrial power, the sheer level of industrial, manufacturing, engineering capacity of German society and how advanced Germany is technologically in some areas,” Clarkson said.

But doubts remain about just how ready – or capable – Germany is to actually follow through on the pledges Scholz made in his Zeitenwende speech.

One year after the speech, Germany has been heavily criticized by Western commentators, think tanks, experts and political allies for not moving faster on rebuilding its military and for remaining hesitant to take the lead.

Two Leopard 2 tanks are seen in action at the Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf, Germany, on Feb. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

Most notably, in recent months Scholz was excoriated by allies for taking so long to decide on whether to send Ukraine its Leopard tanks, a move the chancellor took only after getting a commitment from U.S. President Joe Biden that the U.S. will send American Abrams tanks too.

Meanwhile, the 100 billion euro military fund remains largely unspent and this year's military budget still stands at about only 1.4% of GDP, well below the 2% pledge.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bundeswehr has shrunk drastically as German leaders saw little reason to invest in it because the Soviet threat vanished and they felt the money could be better spent elsewhere. Then in the lean years following the Great Recession, the Bunderwehr's budget was cut further, though spending has increased steadily since 2015.

“It was cut to the bone,” Clarkson said. “Restructuring your energy market was straightforward – building inter-connectors and building LNG terminals. Rebuilding a military involves hiring more people and buying all kinds of different pieces of equipment, expanding the air force, and fixing the navy. So, that is going to take a lot of time.”

Driedger said his country's careful stance following the Ukraine war can be seen as a continuation of the reactive nature of German foreign policy.

“In a way, there's a continuity in Germany before and after Zeitenwende,” he said. “Before Zeitenwande, people were saying: 'Let's do what we always do, namely negotiate, try to get Russia to the negotiating table and threaten sanctions that we deem OK for our own interests.'

“Then pressure builds up, Zeitenwende happens, you have a dramatic change in the policy,” he said. “Then the new logic is: 'Well, let's keep doing that, right. Let's support Ukraine, let's try to avoid nuclear war, we will send what we have to, but we will not act proactively.'”

However, he said Germans aren't about to reconsider their support for Ukraine and turn back to a policy of Ostpolitik.

“The Russian aggression against Ukraine – at least since 2022 – doesn't lend itself so much to the Cold War analogy,” he said. “It lends itself much more to another important war that German society well remembers and that's 1939: An aggressive, chauvinistic, major power attacking a small neighboring state. So, in that image Ukraine would be Poland and I think that is why even among German pacifists there is a big confusion and a lot of open questions that they haven't resolved for themselves.”

After a year into the war in Ukraine, Driedger said German society is divided over what their country's position should be.

“We are now at this situation where some are saying, 'Well, weapons will only lead to escalation;' and – this is new – certain sectors are saying, 'Well, peace through victory.'”

He said Germany still hasn't really had a national debate on whether victory for Ukraine is “feasible, possible and desirable for Ukraine or will it inevitably lead to Moscow bombarding the rest of the world with nuclear weapons.”

Prominent Germans from an older generation – including feminist activist Alice Schwarzer and Jurgen Habermas, a towering figure in German philosophy – are calling for peace negotiations, something more than 60% of Germans agree with.

“The majority in Germany was absolutely dumbfounded” when Russia attacked Ukraine, Driedger said.

A year later, Germany finds itself militarily involved in a war that has thrown into question the future of the EU and globalization – the very foundations that helped Germany thrive – and is struggling under the weight of inflation, high energy costs and signs of recession.

All of this is weighing on Scholz's coalition government of Social Democrats, Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats with all three parties seeing public support drain away and the opposition conservatives are back on top of the polls.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Government, International, Politics

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