Zeitenwende: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

Driven by its violent history, post-1945 Germany has traditionally had pacifist tendencies. In just one week, the Ukraine invasion has changed that dramatically. Politicians - and the public - look ready to take a newly assertive role on the world stage.

Zeitenwende: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany
Over 100,000 people demonstrated in Berlin on Sunday, 27 February, 2022. Photo: Paul Zinken/DPA

It was an address that will likely be studied for years to come by everyone, from German residents to pollsters, journalists, and fellow politicians.

On Sunday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a watershed speech to the Bundestag, announcing that Germany would break with decades of its trademark restraint on military matters – a policy linked to its WWII legacy – by sending German weapons to arm Ukraine against invading Russian soldiers.

It was a policy Scholz’s government had previously taken great pains to avoid, frustrating both the Ukrainian government and Germany’s allies in NATO, including Poland and the United States.

But Scholz was only getting started.

Not yet in office three months, the Chancellor also announced the government was going to immediately spend €100 billion to modernise the German military and increase annual defence spending to more than two percent of German GDP.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Scholz calls on Russia to end Ukraine ‘bloodshed’

In the past, that’s been an unpopular policy with the German public, even though all NATO members committed to that target in 2014. Only a year ago, Annalena Baerbock (who is now Foreign Minister) had called the debate over the two percent target “absurd,” saying it was an arbitrary target.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gives a speech in the Bundestag on Sunday.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gives a speech in the Bundestag on Sunday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka


Scholz in his speech said that the war marked a “Zeitenwende”. Roughly translated, this word means a huge turning point or a sea change.

“This is one of the biggest shifts in German foreign policy since 1945,” political scientist Dr. Marcel Dirsus with Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy told The Local.

“Olaf Scholz didn’t just end decades of his own party’s positions within a single speech, he brought the public along with him. What we’re seeing now is nothing short of revolutionary.

“Even months ago, the idea of Germany delivering weapons that might be used to kill Russians would have been unthinkable. Now Germans are sending Panzerfausts (anti-tank weapons) to Ukraine with the explicit aim of taking out Russian tanks.”

Other commentators have also spoken of the dramatic change. 

Der Spiegel’s Christian Teevs called it a “complete 180 degree turn for German politics,” and that Scholz’s speech “throws years of certainties overboard”.

Berthold Kohler with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that Scholz had given notice of a fundamental change in German politics “not seen since reunification”.

READ ALSO: Boring to ‘historic’: the awakening of Germany’s Olaf Scholz

As Scholz spoke in the Bundestag in Berlin, over 100,000 people gathered mere blocks away with “Stop Putin” signs and Ukrainian flags. Some even drew the flag on their FFP2 masks.

It was one of the largest such anti-war protests in the world that day. But would the wider German public support Scholz’s unprecedented moves to help the Ukrainians with actual weapons?

On Tuesday, a new poll dropped suggesting the answer was an emphatic “Ja.”

U-turn in public opinion

The Forsa poll, conducted for German broadcaster ntv, found that 78 percent of those surveyed supported both sending weapons to Ukraine and the federal government’s decision to immediately spend €100 billion on modernising the German military. Before Russia’s invasion, both steps were considered highly controversial in Germany.

Support for arming Ukraine directly signals the strongest shift in German public opinion – with 78 percent now in favour. Only about a month ago, about 73 percent were opposed.

That previous result was well in keeping with Germany’s post-war stance. Even Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a who advocated a more values-based foreign policy that would be tougher on authoritarian regimes like Russia and China, originally came out against arming Ukraine, citing Germany’s violent past.

“Our restrictive arms export policy is based on our history,” she said at the time. Scholz originally wouldn’t even let Estonia send German-made artillery.

Tuesday’s poll appeared to confirm that not only had the government done a complete U-turn from the month before, but the public had as well.

READ ALSO: OPINION: This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

Marking another – albeit smaller – shift in public opinion, the same poll found that around half of Germans are now in favour of Ukrainian membership in both NATO and the EU. To put that in context, another survey carried out just before Russia’s invasion found that over half were in favour of offering Russian President Vladimir Putin assurances that Ukrainian membership in NATO was off the table.

So what explains the German public’s sudden willingness to break with decades of its traditionally peaceful, militarily pacifist self-image? There’s unfortunately been many other wars and conflicts in the world since 1945. What is different about this one that made Germans make such a drastic change?

For Dr. Mareike Kleine, an Assistant Professor of EU Politics at the London School of Economics, the result isn’t as surprising as one might think at first.

“We’re dealing with an obvious and flagrant violation of public international law,” she told The Local. 

“Emotionally, it is [also] a war at Germany’s doorstep, an invasion of a much weaker, more democratic and pro-EU state by a powerful, autocratic one that openly defies liberal values. It bears striking similarity to Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939. In other words, [response to] the war combines all the elements that Germany can rally behind.”

‘Dramatic change’

The change isn’t just evident in how Germany is now seeing itself militarily. Russia’s war in Ukraine has also seen the end of another controversial German foreign policy – the Nord Stream 2 pipeline designed to bypass eastern European countries to supply Russian gas directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea.

Around 60 percent of Germans supported its continuation only about a month ago. Before last week, few high-ranking German politicians were ready to admit it was a project with geopolitical implications that might help Putin isolate eastern European countries economically and politically. Instead, many German politicians – including previous Chancellor Angela Merkel – stressed that Nord Stream 2 was purely a commercial project, a line Germany’s NATO allies never bought.

And then last week, Chancellor Scholz suspended it as part of German government responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Given Germany’s history, Scholz’s newly assertive brand of German foreign policy was a tremendously risky leap to taking initially.

So far, his decision is translating into Merkel-like approval ratings – which the Forsa poll currently pegs at 56 percent. His leadership is most strongly supported among voters for his own Social Democrats – a party previously known for its close relationship with Russian elites.

Yet, even a majority of voters for the opposition Christian Democrats – a party that previous Chancellor Angela Merkel led for nearly two decades – currently approve of Scholz’s performance.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

But could this shift be temporary?

Dr. Ursula Münch, Director of the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing, says there’s a good chance it could continue.

“[Scholz] presented himself very differently in his speech to the Bundestag [on Sunday] than in the first few weeks of his term,” she told The Local.

“He spoke much more clearly and forcefully than before.

“Crises are the hour of the Executive, and a security crisis as serious as this one increases the demand for effective politics and assertive politicians.

“At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we saw even higher approval ratings for the federal government; I’m assuming that the poll numbers will continue to go up.”


Poll or survey – (die) Umfrage

Politician approval rating – (die) Politikerzufriedenheit

Weapons delivery – (die) Waffenlieferung

Historical turning point – (die) Zeitenwende 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Ukraine won the Eurovision Song Contest Sunday with an infectious hip-hop folk melody, boosting spirits in the embattled nation fighting off a Russian invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of people.

Rapping, breakdancing Ukrainians win Eurovision in musical morale boost

Riding a huge wave of public support, Kalush Orchestra beat 24 competitors in the finale of the world’s biggest live music event with “Stefania”, a rap lullaby combining Ukrainian folk and modern hip-hop rhythms.

“Please help Ukraine and Mariupol! Help Azovstal right now,” implored frontman Oleh Psiuk in English from the stage after their performance was met by a cheering audience.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the triumph was met with smiles and visible relief.

“It’s a small ray of happiness. It’s very important now for us,” said Iryna Vorobey, a 35-year-old businesswoman, adding that the support from Europe was “incredible”.

Following the win, Psiuk — whose bubblegum-pink bucket hat has made him instantly recognisable — thanked everyone who voted for his country in the contest, which is watched by millions of viewers.

“The victory is very important for Ukraine, especially this year. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Glory to Ukraine,” Psiuk told journalists.

Music conquers Europe

The win provided a much-needed morale boost for the embattled nation in its third month of battling much-larger Russian forces.

Mahmood & BLANCO  performing for Italy at Eurovision 2022

Mahmood & BLANCO perform on behalf of Italy during the final of the Eurovision Song contest 2022 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!” he wrote on Facebook.

“This win is so very good for our mood,” Andriy Nemkovych, a 28 year-old project manager, told AFP in Kyiv.

The victory drew praise in unlikely corners, as the deputy chief of the NATO military alliance said it showed just how much public support ex-Soviet Ukraine has in fighting off Moscow.

“I would like to congratulate Ukraine for winning the Eurovision contest,” Mircea Geoana said as he arrived in Berlin for talks that will tackle the alliance’s expansion in the wake of the Kremlin’s war.

“And this is not something I’m making in a light way because we have seen yesterday the immense public support all over Europe and Australia for the bravery of” Ukraine, Geoana said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the win “a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom”.

And European Council President Charles Michel said he hoped next year’s contest “can be hosted in Kyiv in a free and united Ukraine”.

‘Ready to fight’
Despite the joyous theatrics that are a hallmark of the song contest, the war in Ukraine hung heavily over the festivities this year.
The European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, banned Russia on February 25, the day after Moscow invaded its neighbour.
“Stefania”, written by Psiuk as a tribute to his mother before the war, mixes traditional Ukrainian folk music played on flute-like instruments with an invigorating hip-hop beat. The band donned richly embroidered ethnic garb
to perform their act.
Nostalgic lyrics such as “I’ll always find my way home even if all the roads are destroyed” resonated all the more as millions of Ukrainians have been displaced by war.

Kalush Orchestra received special authorisation from Ukraine’s government to attend Eurovision, since men of fighting age are prohibited from leaving the country, but that permit expires in two days.

Psiuk said he was not sure what awaited the band as war rages back home.

“Like every Ukrainian, we are ready to fight as much as we can and go until the end.

Britain’s ‘Space Man’

Ukraine beat a host of over-the-top acts at the kitschy, quirky annual musical event, including Norway’s Subwoolfer, who sang about bananas while dressed in yellow wolf masks, and Serbia’s Konstrakta, who questioned national healthcare while meticulously scrubbing her hands onstage.

Coming in second place was Britain with Sam Ryder’s “Space Man” and its stratospheric notes, followed by Spain with the reggaeton “SloMo” from Chanel.

After a quarter-century of being shut out from the top spot, Britain had hoped to have a winner in “Space Man” and its high notes belted by the affable, long-haired Ryder.

Britain had been ahead after votes were counted from the national juries, but a jaw-dropping 439 points awarded to Ukraine from the public pushed it to the top spot.

Eurovision’s winner is chosen by a cast of music industry professionals — and members of the public — from each country, with votes for one’s home nation not allowed.

Eurovision is a hit among fans not only for the music, but for the looks on display and this year was no exception. Lithuania’s Monika Liu generated as much social media buzz for her bowl cut hairdo as her sensual and elegant

Other offerings included Greece’s “Die Together” by Amanda Georgiadi Tenfjord and “Brividi” (Shivers), a duet from Italy’s Mahmood and Blanco.

Italy had hoped the gay-themed love song would bring it a second consecutive Eurovision win after last year’s “Zitti e Buoni” (Shut up and Behave) from high-octane glam rockers Maneskin.