OPINION: Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

Russia's ruthless and illegal invasion of Ukraine has meant Germany can no longer hide behind its post-war policy of pacifism. Hard lessons need to be learned, writes Brian Melican.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, of the Greens, talks to Bundeswehr (army) soldiers of the German KFOR contingent in Kosovo on March 10th.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, of the Greens, talks to Bundeswehr (army) soldiers of the German KFOR contingent in Kosovo on March 10th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised once in a while. So after voicing my frustration at Germany’s strategic naivety/cynicism vis-à-vis Russia and the scandal that is NordStream 2, it was gratifying to see that Olaf Scholz and his tripartite cabinet have finally grasped the gravity of the situation and actually acted accordingly – and that public opinion has suddenly swayed to back them.

To an extent we would not have imagined politically possible even a few weeks back, we are now going to sanction Russia’s murderous regime, supply Ukraine with the weapons it desperately needs, and beef up our own neglected defences. We’ve also dumped NordStream and will be getting serious about diversifying our energy sources. This is the essence of the recent Zeitenwende – which might translate as anything from ‘radical change of course’ to ‘end/dawn of an era’ and, of course, was cleverly phrased to echo the 1989/1990 Wende, as the end of the Cold War is known in German.

READ ALSO: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gives a speech in the Bundestag on February 27th.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gives a speech in the Bundestag on February 27th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

While we’re on the subject of history, though, it’s worth casting an eye back over the last few decades to cut through some of the overly-enthusiastic commentary around our last-minute reality-check. After all, to those of us with long memories, this ‘unprecedented’ Zeitenwende actually seems, in more ways than one, rather familiar.

History repeating itself?

In 1998, a wholly new coalition had just come to power promising to revitalise Germany after 16 years under a CDU chancellor who, while widely respected for having reacted well to unforeseen events, had come to represent internal stasis. This new coalition included a Green party with an ambitious plan to reshape the economy and personnel straight out of the 1980s peace marches, and was led by the SPD, the party of Ostpolitik, rapprochement, and “Nie wieder Krieg!” (No more war). Within weeks, however, it was precisely this broadly pacifist government with an ambitious domestic agenda which found itself arguing for the first ever post-war deployment of German forces abroad – as part of the NATO intervention in Kosovo. 

It’s not just the political set-up, but the arguments for and against involvement which were strikingly similar to today’s. Where, until early March this year, much of the left wing was arguing that Germany should, in view of its history, never deliver weapons into war zones (especially if they could be used to kill Russians), in 1998, most of the SPD and the Greens started from the point of view that, as the colourful language of the time had it, “German army boots should never again be heard marching on foreign soil” – especially not in a part of the world the Nazis had so comprehensively defiled as the Balkans. 

Yet just as Putin’s brutality has proven enough to help us surmount the barrier of history in 2022, in 1998, the Serbians’ genocidal pedigree after the Yugoslavian Civil War caused even the most pacifist of German politicians to re-examine their position. It fell to Joschka Fischer – who, as a Green Foreign Minister, could hardly be accused of harbouring war-mongering tendencies –  to sum up the imperative of the hour: “We have always said that war must never happen again. Yet we have also always said that Auschwitz must never happen again.”

Joschka Fischer (Greens) former German Foreign Minister during an election campaign event in Frankfurt Oder in August 2021.

Joschka Fischer (Greens) former German Foreign Minister during an election campaign event in Frankfurt Oder in August 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Patrick Pleul

READ ALSO: German WWII memories loom large in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Ironically, the newly-elected SPD Chancellor back then was Gerhard Schröder, a man who has since so clearly forgotten any principles he ever might have held that there’s little point asking why precisely he is now, in 2022, arguing for appeasement. (Probable answer: money.) It is, however, definitely worth asking why Germany, between 1998 and 2022, wholly forgot some basic lessons it learned in the late 1990s: namely that, as a country which values peace and stability in Europe, we have to have a credible ability to fight those who do not share these values, and that, when it comes to keeping this peace and stability, we must stand unequivocally with our friends and Allies in NATO rather than trying to parlay with dictators.

Why did Germany fail to invest in its military?

In my view, there are two key reasons why Germany has gone round in a big political circle since this watershed. Firstly, the Kosovo intervention – for all its faults, an operation which achieved its key aim of preventing mass slaughter – was followed, in 2001, by Afghanistan. This lasting debacle was afflicted by every kind of strategic miss-step and instigated not by the affable moderate Bill Clinton, but rather by George W. Bush, who went on to further deplete his stock by trying to cajole Germany into Iraq. So, after 20 aimless years in Afghanistan with only the fact that we were savvy enough to steer clear of Iraq to comfort us, it’s perhaps unsurprising that German political discourse very quickly, after its brief Millennial expansion, reverted back to its deceptively simple mantra that “Due to what happened under the Nazis, Germany should never be involved in foreign wars”.

Secondly, in view of this past, Germany harbours an understandable, yet obviously obsolete complex about the use of force which blends with less honourable motives to keep our armed forces under-resourced and societally neglected. There is – and long has been – an unholy alliance in Germany between the political left, which argues that Europe must be saved from Germany (and Germany from itself) by making sure we have nothing but the bare minimum of military muscle, and the political right, which talks a good game on Germany standing up for democracy, but also likes balanced books and knows that cuts to military spending are more popular than, say, letting the Autobahn maintenance backlog get longer. 

READ ALSO: Germany to hike military spending after years of underfunding

This collusion is, by the way, nothing new, but rather as old as the Federal Republic itself. The Allies originally intended the new post-war Germany to be a de-industrialised collective of agrarian regions never again able to wage war; America, Britain, and France then changed their mind in the face of the Soviet threat in the late 1940s and since then have, to varying degrees, been exerting pressure on Germany to spend more on defending itself (and the rest of Europe). Yet Germany has never been comfortable with this, and has also preferred to spend its money elsewhere. Many of the seminal moments of Federal Republic’s history – the Spiegel Affair of 1962 resulting in the collapse of the government, the botched response to Arab terrorism in 1972, the controversy around Pershing missile deployment in the early 1980s – were linked to Germany’s disquiet at its military role and public unwillingness to support it.

Bundeswehr soldiers in a military training area in northern Germany.

Bundeswehr soldiers in a military training area in northern Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Wüstneck

That’s why the path of least resistance (and therefore the normal peace-time state of affairs) is to let the US take on the heavy lifting, putting in ear-plugs whenever it asks us to help out a bit more and doing dodgy energy deals with unsavoury regimes who will keep our heavy industry supplied with the gas and oil it needs, albeit at the price of severe geopolitical destabilisation: Iran in the 1970s, Libya in 1980s, now Russia. It is also why in 16 years under Chancellor Merkel (during all of which we were nominally engaged in Afghanistan), the Bundeswehr remained underfunded and undervalued: her CDU party held the defence ministry, but took no real action to revitalise the force, while her SPD coalition partners blocked the acquisition of modern weapon systems like armed drones and supported every attempt to please Putin.

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

In view of this, it is a very good thing that Olaf Scholz wants the special budget for rearming the Bundeswehr enshrined in constitutional law. Without this cross-party consensus, however the war in Ukraine ends, the strategic lesson we have just learned the hard way risks being forgotten again as future governments look for quick-win spending cuts on the path back to the popular “Black Zero” (achieving a balanced budget) and German political discourse returns to its default setting of hiding behind our historical responsibility to shirk unpleasant duties in the present.

Member comments

  1. I agree with much of this; nonetheless, I caution that a huge hike in defence spending might lead to a better-resourced military but not necessarily a more capable one. Just because the funding is now much better will not make the military an attractive career to most young germans: essentially Germany continues to lack any sort of military tradition and this will not change overnight. I also note that the military is the one area of German life that I am not absolutely certain has been sufficiently de-nazified.

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What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

Security experts are increasingly convinced that leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines are the result of sabotage. Could there be further attempts to damage infrastructure - and what would the consequences be for people in Germany?

What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

What’s going on?

Earlier this week, Swedish and Danish authorities reported three unexplained leaks in the two Nord Stream gas pipelines running between Russia and Germany. It came after a dramatic drop-off in pressure had been registered in both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on Monday night, reducing the capacity of the pipelines to zero.

On Tuesday, the Danish military published videos showing huge circles of gas bubbling to surface of the Baltic Sea – in some cases, stretching up to a kilometre in diameter. 

Nord Stream pipeline leaks

A video released by the Danish authorities shows gas bubbling up in the Baltic Sea. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Danish Defence Command | –

Then, on Thursday morning, the Swedish coast guard reported yet another pipeline leak, suggesting that the damage to the pipelines may be greater than previously imagined. 

“There are two leaks on Swedish territory and two on Danish territory,” a Swedish coast guard official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

The leaks are located near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Swedish and Danish economic zones but in international waters.

What’s behind the leaks?

The discovery of the damage has caused widespread concern in the European Union that critical infrastructure is being targeted by hostile actors.

Though investigations are still ongoing, Danish authorities have reported explosions in the affected areas shortly before the leaks were discovered. 

Both EU authorities and the NATO defence alliance are assuming that the leaks – and explosions – are the result of deliberate sabotage.

“As far as I can tell, it is a very intelligent attack that could not have been perpetrated by a normal group of people,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday evenings, adding that there was a high risk that a state could be responsible. “We have suspicions, of course. But it is too early to judge that conclusively.”

READ ALSO: Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Military experts have been slightly less reserved in apportioning blame for the destruction, with several looking to Russia as the most likely perpetrator of the attacks. 

“Leaks in gas pipelines are extremely rare,” Norwegian naval officer and military expert Tor Ivar Strömmen told AFP. Both the Nord Stream pipelines are both new and highly robust, he said. 

“I see only one possible actor, and that is Russia,” Strömmen added.

Meanwhile, Michael Giss, a naval commander in the German Bundeswehr (army), pointed to the fact that Russia’s sham referendums in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and the likely attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines occurred on the same day.

“We also know that there are drones in the Russian navy – or even small submarines – that could be used for such purposes,” Giss told Tagesschau. “I also don’t want to exclude the possibility that certain measures may have been taken in advance during the construction of the pipeline to trigger such an event.”

The motivation could be to unsettle an already nervous Europe and drive gas prices even higher, experts believe. 

Has this affected gas deliveries to Germany?

So far, gas deliveries haven’t been impacted by the damage to the pipeline – though the leaks have rendered both of the pipelines inoperable. 

The gas supply hasn’t been affected because neither of the Nord Stream pipelines are currently in service. At the start of September, Russia cut all gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline in what is widely seen as retaliation for western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the recently completed Nord Stream 2, the pipeline has never been in operation: Germany took the decision not to receive gas through the pipeline just days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, both pipelines contained gas at the time of the leaks: Nord Stream 1 is likely to have had residual gas from previous deliveries while Nord Stream 2 was likely filled after completion for testing purposes or as a way to place political pressure on Germany to put the pipeline in operation. 

READ ALSO: Germany says must brace for ‘unimaginable’ after gas leaks

Nord Stream 2 pipeline parts

Unused parts for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Has this impacted energy prices?

Prices for natural gas have risen significantly in the European energy markets this week. On Tuesday, shortly after the first leaks were discovered, gas prices shot up from €167 per megawatt hour to €182 per megawatt hour.

By Wednesday, TTF futures contracts for Dutch natural gas – which represent trends in the EU market as a whole – had gone up to €212 per megawatt hour for deliveries in October and to €234 per megawatt hour for deliveries in January. This marks an increase of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

However, gas prices still aren’t anywhere near their previous peak in August, when TTF contracts soared to €346 per megawatt hour. Experts also believe that the latest hikes aren’t likely to last.

That’s partly because most European countries have succeeded in filling up their gas reserves in preparation for winter.

In Germany, which has the largest gas storage capacity in Europe, the gas storage facilities were around 91.5 percent full on September 27th. The government hopes to fill the facilities to at least 95 percent of capacity by November 1st. 

To relieve citizens and businesses, the government is also working to introduce a gas price cap in the coming weeks. That would likely see households pay a capped rate for a certain amount of energy per year, with anything above that subject to market rates. 

This would shield people from the worst of the price rises, even if Russia carries through on its latest threat to shut off gas deliveries via the Ukraine. 

German politicians are debating how this would be paid for. 

READ ALSO: German regional leaders call for energy price cap

Could there be more attacks in future?

The fact that a potential attack on critical infrastructure was able to slip under the radar is a major concern. It has raised fears that other parts of critical infrastructure, including electricity cables, other gas pipelines and internet cables could be subject to future sabotage attempts, which would have a huge impact on people’s lives. 

One particularly worrying target is the some 1000km of underwater cables that deliver electricity from Finland to Germany via the Baltic Sea, experts believe.

According to NATO security expert David van Weel, critical infrastructure like this has become a major target for cybercriminals and hostile states. Analysts have been warning for years that China and Russia are conducting spy operations to assess the undersea infrastructure of NATO countries.

Beyond gas, supplies of drinking water and electricity, internet connectivity could also be under threat. 

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg.

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

There are currently around 400 undersea cables with a length of around 1.3 million kilometres that connect countries across the globe. If these were sabotaged, the consequences for communication and the economy could be disastrous.

After the Nord Stream pipeline leaks, NATO forces – including the German Bundeswehr – are increasing their presence around this vital infrastructure with additional patrols.

The EU is also working on implementing measures to protect the drinking water, electricity and other vital infrastructure in its member states.

The initiative was started in summer and is set to be accelerated in light of the pipeline leaks.