by Katja Hoyer
Tuesday, 15
March 2022
Dispatch
13:28

Putin’s war sparks an existential crisis in Germany

Schoolrooms and families across the country are reconsidering their nation
by Katja Hoyer
Credit: Getty

“I never thought I’d see an outright war of aggression from our friends in Russia,” Dagmar tells me in the dingy little corner bar in Potsdam. I’d arranged to meet her to discuss her political career in East Germany in the 1970s, but we ended up talking about the present as much as the past. Like Dagmar, many of my compatriots tell me they are deeply shocked by the invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s war has changed Germany.

Russian troops marching into Ukraine marked a “watershed” in German history, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it when he announced a doubling of defence spending. Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht has confirmed her intention to purchase over thirty American F-35 fighter jets which “offer the unique potential to cooperate with our NATO allies”. This reversal of German geo-policy was unthinkable just a few weeks ago.


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The policy change reflects a shift in public opinion. “I voted for Scholz last year because he seemed the least bad option,” says my friend Robert, a software programmer in Berlin. But the events of the last few weeks have changed his mind. “Scholz has really shown some mettle.”

Robert is not alone in this view. A recent study showed that Scholz is now by far Germany’s most popular politician. Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has also made huge gains since her bullish speech in the UN in which she spelled out that “Russia’s war is one of aggression. And it is based on lies.” Germans clearly approve of a more assertive foreign policy.

Anne, a politics teacher in Brandenburg, also says the conflict in Ukraine has sparked “a feverish interest in current affairs” in her students. “Many used to take part in ‘Fridays for Future’ and argued fiercely for an end to nuclear and coal, but in light of current events there is now real debate about energy policy.”

Indeed, over half of Germans want the country’s nuclear exit to be delayed as energy dependence on Russia was exposed. But so far Economy Minister Robert Habeck is unimpressed by the swing in public opinion and wants to stick to the scheduled phase-out by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, more than 50% of Germans even support a continuation of the coal sector as they realise that their gas bills continue to feed Putin’s war chest. Former President Joachim Gauck has called on the country to “freeze for freedom”, but Habeck has ruled out an import ban on Russian oil and gas, fearing “social unrest”, despite the fact that 55% of German voters would be happy to make the enormous sacrifice.

But despite the spirit of defiance, the emotion I see most among ordinary Germans is fear. My grandmother in Thuringia tells me she can’t bear the Ukrainian air raid sirens on TV. A schoolgirl during the Second World War, her fear of bombardment, dormant for nearly eight decades, has resurfaced. “You don’t know what it’s like to sleep with your shoes on in case you have to run to the shelter again.”

But many younger Germans are frightened too. A powerful mix of the collective national guilt carried over from two world wars, their country’s central position at the fault lines of the Cold War, and its direct borders with Eastern Europe, make the horrors of the war in Ukraine very tangible to them. But this time, fear has not turned into pacifism. Putin’s war has made Germany realise that peace in Europe needs to be defended.

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Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
8 months ago

Will war wake up the ‘woke’ generation?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
8 months ago

indeed – nothing like a bit of real perspective and reprioretizing ! Maybe we can all ease back to some sanity.

Rob Britton
Rob Britton
8 months ago

I wouldn’t bet on it.

R Wright
R Wright
8 months ago

No. Their aggression has already been co-opted for this war.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
8 months ago

… but Habeck has ruled out an import ban on Russian oil and gas, fearing “social unrest”, despite the fact that 55% of German voters would be happy to make the enormous sacrifice.

I can think of sacrifices that might be regarded as more enormous.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 months ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Of course that’s the case – so I imagine you’d be perfectly sanguine about your energy bills doubling? Nothing like performative cost free sneering at others for not making ‘sacrifices’ while making none ourselves.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
8 months ago

I’m meeting a friend for lunch tomorrow who has German relations who’ve told him that this change in German policy feels like a revolution in Germany.
The change in German policy is well overdue in my view, but the adoption of a meaningful global defence role for Germany has always been held back by their overloaded war guilt. Ironically (but logically?) it’s taken the emergence of an evil tyrant from another country to allow the Germans to cast off their mantle of war guilt.
Unfortunately for the Russian people, once they see what Putin’s forces have done in Ukraine after this war (like the Germans who were made to see the concentration camps after WW2), they’ll probably develop a similar level of war guilt for the next 50 years.

Last edited 8 months ago by Ian Stewart
Marie Morton
Marie Morton
8 months ago

Interesting that Annalena Baerbockis one of the WF Young Global Leaders. More and more I am finding so many links to WEF
Community | The Forum of Young Global Leaders

Michael Davis
Michael Davis
8 months ago
Reply to  Marie Morton

Who???
How do you become a young global leader?

Dont remember being asked to vote

Warren T
Warren T
8 months ago

“Russia’s war is one of aggression. And it is based on lies.”
When a first world Foreign Minister utters such insanity, you have to wonder what planet they live on?
If you believe in your heart that having an arch enemy sitting on your Western border is an existential threat, how is it a lie?

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
8 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

Remind me. Who exactly has threatened Russia, and with what?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

When has NATO ever attacked Russia, or even threatened to since the Cold War ended?

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
8 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

Of course Putin’s war is based on lies. Do you seriously believe that, as Putin has claimed, Ukraine needs ‘liberating’ from its (Jewish) Nazi President? Have you not noticed the appalling attacks on civilians, something Putin has claimed his forces are not doing? Is it not significant that Putin is closing down all independent sources of news within Russia, and preventing protests? And who was it who was not going to invade Ukraine in the first place? We know which is the real ‘Empire of Lies’, I think.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
8 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

Of course Putin’s war is based on lies. Or do you believe that, as Putin has claimed:
– Russia is liberating Ukraine
– Russian forces are not targeting civilians
– The Russian military ‘operation’ is going to plan ?

And perhaps you believed Putin when he said he was not going to invade Ukraine.

Norm Haug
Norm Haug
8 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

The existential threat excuse might be believable if not for Putin’s attacks on Chechnya, Georgia, and the Crimea.