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Germany and the Zeitenwende

Germany and the Zeitenwende

Three months after Olaf Scholz’s landmark speech, Germany has undertaken to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, re-examine its relationship with Moscow and diversify its partnerships in Asia. Redefining its strategic culture and posture will take more time.

A paradigm shift

The Russian invasion of Ukraine called into question fundamental aspects of German identity, as it has existed since the end of the Cold War. In 1990, after the peaceful reunification of Germany, Hans-Dietrich Genscher observed that "Germany is surrounded by friends." The nation sees itself as a "civil power" – a Zivilmacht - confident that its vision of a liberal consensus based on free markets and the law might extend even beyond the EU, justifying its reluctance to invest strongly in its own defense with its militaristic past. Indeed, Germans have developed an aversion to anything that may disturb this rather carefree worldview, former diplomat Martin Erdmann claimed in April 2022. The country’s economic success is based on its role as a net exporter of goods, as well as a steady supply of cheap Russian energy. The war Vladimir Putin has unleashed in Ukraine shatters those certainties and, as Albrecht von Lucke writes, marks "the end of our illusions". 

The MPs’ enthusiastic reception to Olaf Scholz’s speech on February 27—in which he invokes the "watershed moment" ("Zeitenwende") that Germany is facing—may also reveal the lawmakers’ guilty conscience. Just as with a genuine German unification, which is slow to consolidate even three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one may wonder how long it will take for the consequences of this Zeitenwende to take effect and how it will redefine the German approach to the big issues (the economy, energy supply, geopolitics and defense). 

In 2014, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Russian intervention in Donbas prompted discussions at the highest level initiated by then-President Joachim Gauck and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, which quickly soured. Germany’s reaction to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine is far more robust than that of eight years ago, but despite the strong message behind Scholz’s speech, Berlin has been accused by not just Ukraine but also several Central European and Baltic nations of being too timid, especially in terms of arms deliveries. Military historian Sönke Neitzel has claimed that "if Ukraine had relied on Germany and the EU, it would be Russian today".

The end of illusions?

As a former close collaborator of Gerhard Schröder, current German President Steinmeier has embodied German policy towards Russia over the last two decades. Today, in an extensive interview with Der Spiegel, the Federal President admitted that the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was "a mistake". Although previously convinced that Moscow had valid reasons to fear an enlargement of NATO, he now recognizes that "what Russia fears is the expansion of democracy," admitting he’s learned that “the foreign policy philosophy according to which political transformations can be achieved through trade doesn’t apply when dealing with autocracies". Wolfgang Thierse, the GDR-born former SPD president of the Bundestag, wrote an article questioning Germany’s blindness towards the realities of Putin’s Russia, urging pacifists to "re-examine their certainties", especially their "anti-American resentment" and "arrogance towards the existential fears of our Central and Eastern European neighbors". Winfried Kretschmann, the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg for over a decade now, has also criticized the "mendacious side of pacifism".

The idea that supplying arms to Ukraine will only contribute to prolonging the war and increasing civilian casualties still pervades.

Since February 24, the Putinversteher ("Putin sympathizers") have largely disappeared from public debate, but what political scientist Herfried Münkler has called "submissive pacifism" (Unterwerfungspazifismus) remains prevalent, though the traditional Ostermärsche (Easter peace march), dubbed "Putin’s fifth column" by liberal MP A. Lambsdorff, drew in meager crowds this year. However, the idea that supplying arms to Ukraine will only contribute to prolonging the war and increasing civilian casualties still pervades.

Former president of the German Evangelical Church, Margot Käßmann exemplifies this idea by rejecting the idea of a Zeitenwende to warn that "…more armaments and more weapons will not create more peace… NATO is equipped many times over in relation to Russia. It is not as if NATO urgently needs to catch up". Nearly thirty intellectuals and artists signed an open letter warning Chancellor Scholz of escalating the conflict and highlighting the risks of co-belligerence and even nuclear strikes. The philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas, in Süddeutsche Zeitung, while condemning "the massive war of aggression launched by Putin and the Russian government," also calls on Scholz to show restraint, troubled by Kyiv’s attempts at “moral blackmail” with the mistakes of previous coalitions. Confronted with this dilemma, he does however conclude that the West must not let Ukraine lose this war. 

Rebuilding defense policy

Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration in spring 2017, Angela Merkel declared that we, as the EU, had to "take our fate into our own hands." However, Germany’s leaders did not heed the warning of a changing international environment (aggressive Russia, the US pivot towards Asia), aside from an increase in the Bundeswehr budget. The continued dialogue with the Kremlin - in which Merkel had no illusions about Putin - is not as reprehensible as their relentless effort to maintain inadequate energy and defense policy, which, as we saw in February, gave Berlin little room for maneuver. According to Sönke Neitzel, if the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag had been involved in drafting the government’s February 27 statement, it would have sounded very different. Scholz realized that he had to show firm leadership and that Germany could no longer shirk its responsibilities.

Neitzel believes that these defense issues really only stir up debate among the German elites, and are not controversial in the rest of civil society. Indeed, according to the latest ARD DeutschlandTrend poll, although 63% of Germans fear their country being dragged into war, a mere 38% want to limit arms supplies to Ukraine, and 55% support shipments. However, according to a survey by the Allensbach Institute, there is far more reluctance to support Ukraine in the former GDR.

Scholz realized that he had to show firm leadership and that Germany could no longer shirk its responsibilities.

The transformation of the Bundeswehr into an army capable of ensuring Germany’s territorial defense while also contributing to operations abroad (Afghanistan, Mali), constitutes a significant challenge for the new coalition in power and its Defense Minister whose actions until now have been lackluster. This transformation requires an increase in overall capabilities, of course, but above all, it calls for changes to the prevailing strategic culture and mindset so that soldiers can be psychologically prepared for war. Structural reforms of the Bundeswehr and the defense industry are also vital, as previous budget increases (reaching €50 billion in 2022) have done nothing to improve efficiency or equipment availability. Just recently, the coalition parties and the CDU/CSU reached an agreement on the recipients of the "special fund" (Sondervermögen) announced by Olaf Scholz on February 27th. The €100bn fund will be used exclusively to finance the Bundeswehr - despite the Greens and some SPD leaders wanting to allocate funds more widely, to boost cyber defense, provide further assistance to allies, or increase the international aid budget, for example. It has also been announced that the 2% GDP target for defense spending will be reached "on average over several years".

Towards a redefinition of the "Export Nation" model?

With regards to the economy, the Zeitenwende is already taking shape. Many German companies have withdrawn from the Russian market – Siemens, notably, withdrew after 170 years of business in Russia. In just three months, Germany has significantly reduced its dependence on Russian energy, slashing Russian oil imports falling from 35% to 12% and gas exports from 55% to 35%, with a goal to fall under the bar of 10% of Russian gas by summer 2024, Berlin is urgently working to diversify its supplies, rushing to a deal with Qatar at the end of May. For his first trip to Asia, the Chancellor did not go to China, as Merkel and Schröder had done, but rather Germany’s ally Japan – a choice he made very deliberately. 

Berlin is urgently working to diversify its supplies, rushing to a deal with Qatar at the end of May.

In Tokyo, Scholz called the current state of trade and industry into question, wondering how much longer they could withstand "the dependencies that we share…particularly with regard to strategic technologies and raw materials" and that "what we need is a different globalization, a cleverer globalization." 

Receiving his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, the following week, Scholz announced that India, who he called "Germany’s central partner in Asia," would benefit from €10 billion in funding by 2030 aimed at boosting cooperation in the fight against climate change and continued development of hydrogen technologies.

While Scholz was in Japan, the Bundestag adopted a resolution calling on China to help work towards a ceasefire in Ukraine, as well as warning it against circumventing Western sanctions. Beijing remains Germany’s largest trading partner, but following the Greens - who have long advocated a change in strategy - German officials are beginning to adopt a more cautious approach. Finance Minister Christian Lindner is looking to redesign the economic model for relations with China, while SPD chair Lars Klingbeil has called to draw lessons from Russia’s aggression and to support moves towards ending Germany’s dependence on the Chinese market. Leaders of the BDA and the AHK, the two largest employer federations in Germany, have come to realize that Merkel-era approaches are no longer appropriate. Central and Eastern European countries are more important trading partners than China. Furthermore, a law requiring German companies to ensure social and environmental standards in their supply chains will be coming into effect in 2023, and could pose significant problems for German companies operating in Xinjiang, where forced labor is widespread.

How will this model affect Germany’s European policy?

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has also called into question what historian Gerd Koenen called "the Russia Complex" in his book of the same name. This idea is rooted in the economic compatibility between Germany and Russia, as well as what Koenen sees as "spiritual affinities" (Seelenverwandtschaften) between the two nations. However, this Russocentric view overlooks countries such as Ukraine and Belarus and the derived attempts to conflate modern Russia and the USSR, which seem so outdated today, were still prevalent until recently: for example, President Steinmeier invoked Nazi crimes against the USSR in his attempts to justify the construction of Nord Stream 2. Within the EU, the errors Berlin has shown towards Putin’s regime has strengthened the hand of those Central European and Baltic countries that have consistently warned of the Russian threat. Sanctions and drastic reductions in Russian energy supplies will inevitably lead to a sharp drop in bilateral trade and a rebalancing of Germany’s dealings with the region. Any return to normality in relationships with Russia seems a very distant prospect, at least as long as Putin remains in power.

A reconstruction of Germany’s strategic culture will be a further consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The creation of a national security council, as provided for in the coalition agreement, should not only improve coordination between foreign and defense policies but also contribute to spreading this new culture. Furthermore, the return of war to the European continent has made it even more necessary to rapidly overcome the difficulties encountered by ongoing Franco-German armament projects. For Merkel’s diplomatic advisor Christof Heusgen and former Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, it also increases the urgent need to build, in conjunction with the French, a new "European security architecture as an autonomous part of NATO," as the military might of the United States remains indispensable to the defense of the European continent. However, with the next US presidential election of November 2024, time is of the essence to make this project happen.


Copyright: Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

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