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How war radicalised Germany Have the ghosts of the past been banished?

Germany is suddenly on a war footing. Credit: Stefanie Loos / AFP /Getty

Germany is suddenly on a war footing. Credit: Stefanie Loos / AFP /Getty


March 7, 2022   5 mins

“Death is a master from Germany.” The line is from Paul Celan’s Deathfugue, a poem which tried to express the abject horror of the Nazis’ genocidal war in Eastern Europe. Celan, a Jew, was a son of Chernivtsi, then a Romanian city, now in Ukraine.

Those unforgettable words, written in 1945, remained buried in the German psyche. A bottomless sense of guilt for the crimes of the Third Reich meant that for decades many Germans (mostly in the western half) harboured a deep suspicion about their own culture and country, a fear that a militarist, nationalist, murderous Germany could rise from the ashes of the war.

Hence, for decades, Germany pushed pacifism and disarmament coupled with trade and dialogue, a policy that took off with social democratic chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in the late Sixties and Seventies, as West Germany began to import natural gas from the Soviet Union. When, in 1999, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who had lived in Dresden and was a fluent German speaker, replaced Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin, Germany doubled down on Wandel durch Handel (change through trade). Volkswagen opened a large factory in Kaluga south of Moscow in 2007.

In 2011 — under the watch of ex-chancellor Angela Merkel — the Nord Stream 1 Baltic pipeline began to inject Siberian gas directly into the veins of German industry — circumventing transit countries like Ukraine, robbing them of revenue. Until the day of the invasion, Germany somehow imagined the controversial Nord Stream 2 would still open.

In December 2021, Putin phoned Merkel to thank her for “many years of fruitful cooperation”. In hindsight, what he meant was: thank you for filling my war chest. A day earlier, the Russian president had written to the incoming social democratic chancellor, Olaf Scholz: “I count on engaging with you in constructive dialogue and working together on current issues on the bilateral and international agenda.”

In mid-February, as the Russian troop build-up suggested that Putin was really planning the unthinkable, Scholz took his turn at the end of that six-metre table in the Kremlin to talk diplomatic solutions — and flew back to Berlin, hopeful.

Then, on February 24 the sky fell in. Putin’s invasion of a large sovereign country two borders away (as the crow flies Kyiv is 748 miles from Berlin) shattered every illusion. The entire West was duped, but no country was more duped than Germany.

Germany was lost for words. The vocabulary required to describe what had happened lay beneath the ruins of the country’s beliefs about itself, Russia and the world. As Armin Nassehi, a sociologist at the University of Munich, wrote on February 25: “We seem to be completely blank to Russia’s aggression, not only militarily but also intellectually and conceptually.”

The Germans had failed to fathom that, nearly 80 years after the Second World War, the existential threat to Europe would come from elsewhere. As the scale of Putin’s plans for Ukraine sunk in, Germany’s political consciousness began to shift. It was now clear that the support of Europe’s economic powerhouse for Ukraine (5,000 helmets!) had been shamefully inadequate. On Sunday February 27, Olaf Scholz — who up to that point had been viewed as a bland, ineffective chancellor — stood before the Bundestag and announced the most profound about-face in German foreign and security policy since World World II.

“In view of the turning point Putin’s aggression represents”, he said, “our standard is: What is needed to secure peace in Europe will get done”. A €100 billion defense fund for this year alone, twice the size of the annual military budget. Massive modernisation of the arsenal, structural reform of the decrepit, poorly organised armed forces. Germany would, for the first time since WWII, send weapons into a crisis zone. From now on the budget would surpass 2% of GDP — just as a blustering Donald Trump had demanded. A few sentences transformed Germany into the world’s third largest military power in terms of expenditure, surpassing Britain and France.

MPs cheered. Some cried. Scholz had turned Germany’s understanding of itself on its head. The widespread delusion that a country of 80 million smack in the middle of the continent could remain an over-sized Switzerland died for good.

Naturally, left-wing SPD backbenchers and their Green counterparts made their outrage heard but the leadership of the two left-of-centre parties stands behind the Scholz proclamation, as does the yellow partner in the “traffic light” coalition, the pro-business FDP. Unsurprisingly, the centre-right CDU is on board.

“In less than 96 hours”, wrote Die Zeit, “the political coordinates have shifted. The SPD has thrown 30 years of foreign and security policy overboard, the Greens have finally said goodbye to pacifism, the FDP has said goodbye to austerity at all costs and to the idea that the energy transition should not cost the state anything — and the CDU has said goodbye to the certainty that 16 years of Merkel were 16 good years”.

This government’s central project, climate neutrality, has been derailed. The idea that Russian gas could serve as a stop-gap measure until enough renewable energy sources came online was one more shattered illusion. The Green economy minister Robert Habeck must now cobble together a path to carbon neutrality that slashes dependency on Putin’s fossil fuels. To keep the lights on, Habeck, of all people, is mulling an extension of coal and nuclear plants. Security trumps climate.

Another observable effect is a fraying of the political edges. The Right-wing populist AfD is fractured and weakened. Their previous admiration for the Russian president isn’t a good look, neither is ranting about “globalist” institutions such as the EU and Nato. Their whining about “corona dictatorship” comes off as puerile when an actual dictator starts a war.

Meanwhile, members of the small Left-wing party Die Linke, with its roots in East German communism, have also struggled to condemn Putin and suppress their anti-Nato instincts. Some still insist that the alliance’s eastern expansion is to blame for the war, but they’re getting lonelier by the day. This line of thought resonates with ever fewer Germans. As one commentator wrote: if Poland weren’t in Nato, the Russians wouldn’t stop until they reached SƂubice on the German border.

A minority of Twitter leftists warn of a new German militarism and the dangers of “shifting baselines” — the implication being that a better-funded, more effective Bundeswehr could result in aggression originating from Germany itself. In the minds of such people, Germany will always have an authoritarian, bellicose core, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

A dictator has spat in Germany’s face and is threatening the stability of its neighbourhood. “We have an enemy again, who turns the gaze on ourselves”, writes Nassehi, meaning Germany has finally woken to the obvious fact that it is a mature, responsible democracy firmly anchored in Europe. That neighbouring countries such as Poland celebrated Scholz’s sea change boost is significant.

A friend close to the SPD leadership explained that Scholz’s defense initiative will be deeply embedded within European structures and in coordination with Germany’s allies. It’s light years from the old German militarism.

Has Germany banished its ghosts once and for all? Was this the final milestone on its path to normality? There are grounds for scepticism. The VW plant has closed but Russian gas still flows through Nord Stream 1. One could argue that Scholz didn’t really change his mind, but was strong-armed by allies. Some point out that throwing money at the neglected Germany military won’t solve its structural problems. A writer in Berliner Zeitung says Germany’s “toxic pacifism” will rage on beneath the surface.

Ten days into the war, Germany is a changed country, no question. What another ten days could do, is anyone’s guess.


Maurice Frank co-founded the English magazine Exberliner and now co-writes the newsletter 20 Percent Berlin. 

mauricetfrank

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

An interesting piece, but I disagree that the push back against Covid dictatorship wasn’t very important. Russia merely highlights the reasons why any sort of dictatorship is a road we don’t want to go down.
Then ‘From now on the budget would surpass 2% of GDP – just as a blustering Donald Trump had demanded’ – the sentence would have been more professional and punchy if the word ‘blustering’ had been left out. It wasn’t necessary and Trump was right.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Indeed – and all recent US presidents have been demanding this.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

I have to add the article makes no mention of why Russia invaded Ukraine. The aithor falls into the now commonplace trap of seeing Putin as some one dimensional cartoon baddy from an 80s action film.
Perhaps he has lost his mind. But far more likely is that there are is a complex geo-political dynamic at play, in which Putin’s ego and pride play a part.
And as always: follow the money. Who worries more about moldering warehouses of old rockets than the manufacturers of new ones?
Big Tech and Big Pharma just had their payday. Now, with the latest manufactured crisis, Big Arms is having its turn suckling at the teet.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Russia wants The Ukraine under its control so that the Ukrainians can’t undercut them when the (newly-found?) Oil and Gas gets sent to Europe via Poland. The extra wheat will be an added bonus.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

Who is going to run the farms growing the wheat, alongside the mines that will need to be cleared and the infrastructure rebuilt? Russia?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Yes it’s all terribly complex because it’s Putin and his tremendous genius. Isn’t it?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

‘From now on the budget would surpass 2% of GDP – just as a blustering Donald Trump had demanded’ 
I think he meant to say “the prescient President Trump”

Francisco Menezes
Francisco Menezes
2 years ago

Pearls for swines. Some people will never learn from their mistakes. Like the Germans.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Admiral Ramsey after Dunkirk said ” All British victories start from defeat”. Does that mean we are good at learning from our mistakes? As Orwell asked ” Why are poems about failures and not successes. There is a poem about the Charge of Light Brigade but not Waterloo ?” Does the self deprecating humour of the British prevent excesses ?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

No the fascist supporting Trump.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Journalists and most other writers just can’t help themselves.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

It’s a problem! A lot of my editing process is nothing more than removing adjectives.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Trump would have let the Ukrainians sink, like when he tried to bribe them for a favour over military arms. He cares about no one but himself. Bluster is rather too kind.

Kerry Davie
Kerry Davie
2 years ago

TDS still lives.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Well, nothing has actually happened yet, it’s just a statement of changed intent at the moment.

Meeting their NATO defence spending obligations is scheduled for 2024.

By the way, the rockets that Germany intends to send to Ukraine are so old that about a third of them have become inoperable. Germany’s ‘defence’ has been mouldering away in manky warehouses, so they need to pull their fingers out on this.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Another step nearer the “EU army” that Putin is doubtless concerned about.
ETO might be more worrying that NATO.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
2 years ago

meaning Germany has finally woken to the obvious fact that it is a mature
What has happened to the word “awakened”? Awoken is valid, really?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Woken is the past participle of ‘to wake’, whereas awakened is the part particle of ‘to awaken’. Both are acceptable ways of indicated the transition from sleep to alertness/consciousness.
To make matters worse, we also have the verb ‘to awake’, for which the past participle is awoken.
And of course, thanks to our friends on the unhinged left, we now have the adjective ‘woke’, the nouns ‘wokester’, ‘wokeness’…
To avoid the tangle, I suggest we simply go back to sleep. 😉

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
2 years ago

“From now on the budget would surpass 2% of GDP — just as a blustering Donald Trump had demanded.”
As with so much Donald Trump spoke the truth (THE truth, not his truth). Note the clip of German officials sniggering as Trump warns about Germany relying solely on Russian gas.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Hallejulah!
And now the mantle of guilt for inhumanity passes from Germany and Japan to Russia, for the next 60 years.
Enjoy the vodka, comrades!

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

The Germans man for man arguably were the best soldiers in the world. Only Churchill and the blunders of the mad man at the top kept them from victory.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Not really. When Britain started it’s war economy in 1939 we became far more efficient than Germany by mid 1940. Germany started planning for war in 1919 and trained in the Ukraine from the late 1920s to early 1930s and then Hitler took over from 1933.
From 1930 the left wing intelligentsia were against the armed forces and stopped investment in the defence required. What Germany did do was prepare for war from 1919, whereas Britain forgot the vast majority of lessons learnt by 1918 and spent most of the 1930s ignoring the drumbeat of war. However, when it came to it, we developed what was needed for a modern war.