It took a shock of the first order – open war on its doorstep – for Germany to finally realise that it must take its central role in the EU’s defence and security policy seriously. But is this really a decisive step in a new direction, or is the current hesitation in Berlin vis-à-vis a full embargo on Russian gas and oil rather a sign that the German government isn’t as serious about taking on a leading role in Europe as it first seems?
I happened to be in Berlin on that heady weekend three weeks ago when Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood up in the Bundestag and declared a “change in the times”, Zeitenwende – a term that echoes the German word for the geopolitical shift of 1989-90, the Wende – and in which he chose to make clear the extent of the turnaround. Owing to the pandemic, I hadn’t been in Germany much in recent months and when, shortly after the speech, I found myself near Berlin’s Victory Column surrounded by 100,000 Germans cheering him on, I felt I had been away for decades.
Let me say clearly: Germany has become a different country more or less overnight. It is hard to overestimate the scale of the change – initiated by a new chancellor who, just a few months back, had won a general election by standing as a Merkel-esque figure promising continuity, not radical shifts. Now, Merkel’s legacy, a policy of trying to tame Russia by tying it down with a tightly woven net of commercial deals, has been left in tatters.
My Berlin-based goddaughter was telling me about her emergency rucksack, packed and ready to go in case the city found itself under attack. After all, Berlin isn’t just geographically closer to the war zone than London; the painful memories of night-time carpet bombing and masses fleeing cities are deeply embedded even in today’s grandchildren of the war generation. It’s a collective trauma, an underlying German Angst which, resurfacing at this moment, has given Olaf Scholz the freedom of manoeuvre to pull off such a radical U-turn.
Yet this does not mean that the Zeitenwende, which has – quite rightly – garnered plaudits among Germany’s allies, will be implemented swiftly and consistently. In declaring Germany’s willingness to take on a leading military role, Scholz has announced something that will now have to be actually realised, both in practical terms and in the country’s psyche. And there is a not inconsiderable risk that the momentum behind the shift will end up being wasted.
When, for instance, the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the Bundestag last week by video link, despairing of Germany’s passive stance and economic opportunism in the build-up to this war, of the mental blocks that, for too long, prevented the country from accepting its responsibility to stand up to an increasingly aggressive Russian regime, the German parliament listened, applauded, and then went on with its planned domestic policy sessions. After all, a government statement had not been scheduled, and Scholz – as it happened, 100 days in office that morning – clearly didn’t want to change plans. The result was that Zelensky’s appeal to Germany’s conscience live from the Ukrainian inferno was left to echo around the chamber unanswered. Zelensky had stuck his finger in the (open) wound, but Germany’s parliament remained silent. It was a symbolic moment that showed just how quickly Germany’s euphoria over its new direction can be followed by its characteristic lethargy.
Germany doesn’t do war. For decades, it has slipped behind the shadow of its own monumental guilt whenever it needed to, disguising its selfishness as a morally superior position of principled non-violence. Just days before the Russian invasion began, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was still explaining how the country’s historic responsibility towards Russia meant that it could not supply weapons to Ukrainian forces. Her line of argument completely ignored the fact that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union attacked by the Nazis, too – and was just one instance of the lazy (and factually false) excuses doing the rounds in Berlin until just a few weeks ago.
Then there’s the whole generation of German millennials who have grown up in a strange parallel world completely devoid of the realities of plain power politics. As the researcher Ulrike Franke recently wrote in a fascinating essay on the matter, Germans have not just disarmed militarily, but also intellectually, in the very ability of their younger politicians and analysts to consider war as a geopolitical strategy and as a real possibility.
As long as this national culture of pacifism and the unspoken egoism inherent in it – ie, the willingness to leave the task to defend freedom to others – is not dealt with on a deeper level, Germany runs the risk of sliding back into the same comfortable pre-Ukraine pattern. The current, painfully slow debate about whether to embargo Russian gas and oil certainly doesn’t give much cause for hope. Of course it isn’t easy to cut Germany’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels overnight; but to use the threat of mass unemployment as a pretext for ruling it out in the immediate future, as the minister for the economy is now doing, shows that many in Berlin have yet to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
But for all the justified criticism of Germany’s acquired pacifism, it must never be forgotten that, at its origin, it represented an important historic achievement for the country that Germans worked to create for decades after the Second World War. That’s why it can’t just be wiped away in an instant. I myself remember endless school days spent analysing Hitler’s speeches and writing essays on why there must never be another war started by Germany ever again. Talking about Germany being able to “defend itself” feels, still, very difficult for me. And it appears I am not alone. Watching Baerbock give interviews, she also is still visibly struggling with this new terminology of Germany “taking the lead”.
This kind of radical shift in national identity, this Zeitenwende, will take time – and will require help from Germany’s allies. Speaking recently on the BBC, the security expert Claudia Major was spot-on when she said that to really keep going down the path of military leadership Germany will need psychological help from its European partners. In the beginning, this will mean constant and repeated reassurance that, really, no one sees Germany as a threat or an enemy anymore.
For this reason, it is not particularly helpful for Britain’s Conservative press to be ridiculing Germany’s slow progress in executing its strategic pivot and congratulating itself on Britain’s early, and indeed justified, decision to supply arms to Ukraine.
If Vladimir Putin is to lose this war, the West has to be so united that there is not a single crack in the wall. And that means that the UK, which, despite Brexit, is still geographically a part of Europe, must be mindful of its responsibilities: no more waxing lyrical about going it alone, about freedom from the shackles of the EU. After all, Putin’s attack on Ukraine was, first and foremost, an attack on the principles of liberal democracy – principles that London still, just about, shares. The attack was, moreover, an autocrat’s answer to the wish of a neighbouring people to join the West and the EU, an alliance that embodies these values like no other.
That is also what made Boris Johnson‘s grotesque comparison between Ukrainian resistance and Brexit more than just tasteless and tone-deaf. It was a conscious attempt to mislead, a rhetorical move straight out of the Putin playbook. As his Brexit fails to deliver, the Prime Minister needs, as Anne Applebaum put it, ever more “extreme forms of hyperbole to cover the gap between that reality and the false utopia that he and others promised”.
The general outcry at his comment, however, has revealed not only Johnson’s poor instinct for this historical moment in European history, but also just how isolated Britain has become as it keeps on heading further and further down its insular pathway – and the realisation of how dangerous that kind of populist jingoism can be if it gets into the hands of violent autocrats.
Indeed, Putin’s outrageous attack on Ukraine – and on Western values – is forcing every country in Europe to face up to its past miscalculations towards Putin and his cronies. This is certainly the case for Germany more than for others, and it’s easy to understand why many in London are bewildered by Germany’s difficulty in walking the walk when it comes to making good on its talk of Zeitenwende. Yet, precisely because of this, a UK that still cares about the values of the West has no choice but to grasp the seriousness of the situation and renew its alliances with Germany and, yes, the EU. The days of post-Brexit frivolity are well and truly over.
Translated from the German by Brian Melican.
[See also: Boris Johnson has shown why he is so unfit to be prime minister]