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.

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


Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.