Not for nothing is the role of German defence minister dubbed “the ejector seat”. The job of modernising the country’s under-resourced, bureaucracy-strangled armed forces has repeatedly tarnished or even ended its incumbent’s career. As chancellor, Angela Merkel used the role to test – or some claimed, diminish – rising politicians who might one day succeed her. Now it has claimed another victim. Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat in Olaf Scholz’s coalition government, resigned on 16 January. Rumours abound that it took more than 24 hours to name her successor, Boris Pistorius, because other candidates turned down the job, despite Russia’s war in Ukraine making it a position of continent-shaping importance.
Lambrecht was distinctly unsuited to the job, taking it on with no prior experience in defence and, reportedly, as a consolation prize for missing out on the interior ministry. She left a trail of blunders, such as using military helicopters for personal engagements and proudly announcing in January 2022, as Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders, that Berlin would send Kyiv 5,000 helmets. The final gaffe was her posting of a tone-deaf Instagram video on New Year’s Eve in which, with Berlin’s fireworks popping in the background, she described how the war had given her “special experiences” and “encounters with great and interesting people”.
Yet as the “ejector seat” term suggests, Lambrecht’s demise is part of a longer trail of woe in Germany’s defence ministry. During the Cold War the Bundeswehr, the federal German armed forces, was a constitutionally limited but still formidable defensive force: some 4,000 tanks awaiting a Soviet invasion of West Germany.
But then came the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. Seen from a reunified Germany, history had given way to a perpetual European peace in which trade and dialogue would keep tyranny at bay. Defence budgets shrivelled and the role of defence minister slid down the cabinet hierarchy. The bureaucracy’s tentacles grew and tightened; Germany’s fleet of Leopard 2 battle tanks contracted to about 350.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 proved the folly of these policies and the complacent post-1989 assumptions on which they rested. Briefly, it seemed that Germany finally understood this. In a historic speech to the Bundestag three days after the invasion, Scholz described the moment as a Zeitenwende, a turning of the eras. The misguided Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia would not open, Germany would break its taboo on exporting arms to war zones, its defence budget would meet the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP, and the government would create a €100bn “special fund” for its armed forces.
Yet the execution of these policies has been patchy. Mobilisation of the special fund has been achingly slow, and it is clear that it will not fix decades of underinvestment. The Nato target will not be hit until 2025. And the lessons of Germany’s recent over-reliance on Russia have not been learned. In October, Scholz rammed through the sale of a stake in Hamburg’s port to a Chinese state-backed firm. Although Germany has sent Ukraine valuable arms, it has for months stalled over Kyiv’s request for Leopard 2 tanks. Berlin has offered weak excuses for not sending them, including the mantra that Germany should not “go it alone”. This defies basic facts: the US has approved the transfers; Britain has announced it is sending Ukraine 14 Challenger 2 battle tanks; and partners such as Poland and Finland are impatient to send some of their Leopard 2s, but under re-export rules need German approval.
Pistorius is expected to make an announcement about the tanks ahead of a defence summit at Ramstein, the US airbase in western Germany, on 20 January. Yet even if Berlin submits to their transfer, the delay hardly bespeaks a German establishment that has internalised the Zeitenwende.
In fact, that might not be the right term at all. “Turning of the eras” describes the shift that took place in Europe on 24 February, but what is taking place within Germany is less a rupture with post-Cold War complacency than a gradual evolution away from it. A more accurate term would be Generationenwende (turning of the generations). This is an evolution driven primarily by younger Germans, who, polling shows, are more realistic about Europe’s new security realities and are more favourable towards proactive German foreign and defence policies. A pattern is evident within politics and government, too. The political parties most resolute in their support for Ukraine are Scholz’s two junior coalition partners: the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, two parties favoured by younger voters. The Green foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock (born in 1980), has often outflanked Scholz in backing weapons transfers.
This distinction must feature in what allies should expect from Berlin. Yes, the country is moving towards a more serious security role, towards greater leadership and impetus in Europe. But that is not happening in one single transformative moment. Rather, it is happening slowly and gradually. The problem – for Germany and Europe – is that events are moving much, much faster than that.
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis