Chancellor Scholz Embarks on a Zeitenwende: Germany Breaks with the Past

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had been in office just short of three months when he called for a fundamental shift in German foreign and security policy, a change that would move Germany away from its post-World War II pacifistic leanings. This Zeitenwende* was prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with Germany adopting a more realistic approach to the Russian threat, reinforcing its allied institutions and relationships, and reconstructing the Bundeswehr to meet the new threats to the democratic order in Ukraine and Europe.

The ramifications of the Zeitenwende are substantial and move Germany away from the “structural pacifism” that had been a key component of German political culture—in its approach to military decisions, political positions, and budget/economic allocation across traditional parties. Pacifism permeated German society until the pivotal 1994 major decision by the Karlsruhe Constitutional Court to lift the German interpretation on the use the armed forces beyond NATO boundaries. The first conflict outside of NATO Europe that Germany participated in was when Tornados flew in support of Kosovo independence. The Green Party, in particular Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, made this possible by declaring that a lesson from World War II is not “Nie wieder Krieg” but “Nie wieder Auschwitz.” [Not “never again war,” but “never again Auschwitz.”] In 2003 Germany stepped outside European territorial borders for the first time and joined the international coalition in Afghanistan in the War on Terror against the al-Qaeda terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and caused a third plane to crash in Pennsylvania. With annual Parliamentary approval, the German Bundeswehr remained in Afghanistan throughout the conflict and until 2015 when coalition forces assumed an advisory role. Those forces remained even as many others departed until the mass evacuation of all remaining forces began in August 2021.

This is not to ignore earlier shifts at official levels. For example, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 signaled a turn in official attitudes toward Putin. German President Joachim Gauck and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen gave speeches at the Munich Security Conference calling for Germany to assume greater responsibility internationally. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier reached out domestically using the web to reach the younger generations and broad public. Although Chancellor Merkel did not publicly echo their remarks, the general tenor of official sentiment had begun to shift, albeit often unexpectedly. While participating in Afghanistan, Germany did not participate with the US force in Iraq in 2003 or in NATO’s operation in Libya 2011.

The Zeitenwende represents a number of challenges for Germany—three of the most pressing are global, regional, and operational. Whether Scholz would have given his February speech to the Bundestag without Putin’s invasion of Ukraine three days earlier is debatable, but the speech was crystal clear—Germany would support Ukraine and those NATO members and allies in defending against an invasion. There was no question about his conviction that the attack by Russia on Ukraine required Germany to reconfigure its relations with Russia, particularly in the energy sector, where the Germans were in danger of becoming energy dependent on the Nord Stream pipelines, including after the Nord Stream 1 “repair” that began in mid-July. In spite of many who insisted that Nord Stream 1 might not even resume deliveries thereafter, it did so, albeit at only 40% and at this point has dropped to a mere 20% of past capacity. As of this writing, it remains highly unlikely also that Nord Stream 2 will even be activated. The public debate over the impact for the coming German winter has been considerable across family dinner tables and has even grown fierce among experts and professionals over the expected economic costs by winter. Only days after Nord Stream 1 reopened, Russia’s Gazprom announced the need for additional technical repairs to one or more turbines.

A Black Sea grain agreement, negotiated in Istanbul by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with the assistance of Turkey, appeared to offer relief from the Russian Black Sea blockade on shipments of globally needed Ukrainian grain, particularly to regions in the Middle East and Africa. The agreement appeared to be a successful step forward in reversing dwindling grain supplies. But unexpectedly thereafter, Odesa was presumably hit with Russian missiles, an action indicating the difficulties of dealing with Russia. In this time frame, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined President Putin and others in underlining Russian intentions to annex larger areas in the war. Germany is now resolved to wean itself off Russian gas/energy resources, enforce existing sanctions, ban many Russian natural resources and steel trade, and even take sharp measures that could impact populations, not only in Germany but around the globe.

Second, while former finance minister Scholz’s demeanor is typically cautious—often raising criticism from the German and European publics—his decisions and follow-up have become significant in German contributions to Ukraine’s defense against Russia. Germany is solidly behind the NATO decision not to introduce troops on the ground given the chance of heightening the conflict with Russia. Furthermore, the Chancellor has made clear the importance of assisting the NATO alliance in its efforts to halt Russian attacks and reassure Ukraine of allied unity with equipment and funding assistance. In addition, Scholz joined the French, Italian, and Romanian heads of state to support Ukrainian (and Moldovan) candidacy for EU membership. This would begin the EU accession process and subsequent long-term benefits that come with membership. Most recently, at the conclusion of the G7 summit in southern Germany, host Olaf Scholz announced plans for the group to explore with the European Commission a future Marshall Plan similar to the successful plan provided to Germany after World War II, a move that could unify international as well as European institutions after the conflict.

In a third shift, the increasingly poor quality of the Bundeswehr has underscored a growing threat to Germany’s ability to defend itself and its allies if attacked (NATO, Article 5). As the conflict in Ukraine has intensified a sense of threat from the East, Scholz has—despite being seen to be slow to act, but determined—fulfilled his promises to Ukraine. As Russia has moved into the Donbas and Odesa regions (potentially even broaching Moldova), threatened nuclear use, and strengthened Russian forces on the ground and in the Black Sea, the Chancellor asserted that the military equipment Germany is sending would be able to “to protect an entire major city from Russian air attacks.” 

In accordance with this newly announced Zeitenwende for Germany, Scholz has pledged Euro 100B ($106B—in the form of a special investment fund specifically for a modernization of the Bundeswehr) and will now meet the NATO 2014 summit pledge in Wales of a 2% or higher percent of GDP allocated to defense spending. The short-term financial consequences have raised sharp public debate over moving from light to “heavy” weapons and equipment, including 15+ million rounds of ammunition, 100,000 grenades, and over 5,000 anti-tank mines. Initial Panzerhaubitze 2000 (“heavy” equipment) arrived the end of June, as Germany announced it would supply Ukraine with IRIS-T air defense systems as well as tracking radar that can detect mortars and Howitzers. The latter have proven highly lethal to Ukrainian civilians as well as the military. HIMARS—High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems—are planned by German defense for Ukraine to reinforce these earlier deliveries. On July 18, Germany delivered the first three Gepard (“Cheetah”) anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine—three months after they were promised—and was encouraged to accelerate future deliveries despite worries about Putin’s reaction. Scholz was criticized for the long delay. At its recent summit, the Alliance expanded the NATO Response Force (NRF) from 40,000 to 300,000, to which the Bundeswehr will contribute 15,000 (with 3-5000 German troops stationed in Lithuania). These force increases are expected to be difficult to raise and train in the necessary time frame, not to mention equipping the expanded force to meet the even short-term, not to mention long-term needs.

In sum, over the past five months, Chancellor Scholz has demonstrated the gradual, but new direction on which he has embarked. His efforts not only reflect a dramatic shift in German-Russian security, economic, and political relations, but they also have potential impact on the stability of democratic regimes in Europe and beyond. The challenge will be substantial, but as he commented in his Bundestag speech held in special session last February: “We will have to invest more in the security of our country to protect our freedom and democracy. This is a major national undertaking.” 

* Zeitenwende has been variously translated as “watershed,” “historical turning point,” and numerous other terms in the literature.

 Gale A. Mattox is a member of the Board of Directors of American Friends of AvH and directs the Foreign & Security Policy Program at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. This essay does not reflect the views of any governmental or organizational affiliation held by the author.

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