The War is Changing Germany
One year on, it's clear there has been a decisive break with Russia—despite the skeptics.
One year ago today, as Europe reeled from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a speech that seemed to meet the moment. The world, he declared, was facing a “Zeitenwende”—a turning point in history. In response, Germany would throw its support behind Ukraine, increase its annual defense budget to surpass NATO’s long-ignored 2% target, and dedicate €100 billion to modernizing its armed forces. The declaration was nothing less than a revolution in German foreign and defense policy. With his speech, Scholz temporarily silenced the many critics who accused Germany of having enabled Russian aggression with its past complacency. At long last, they muttered, Germany had learned its lesson.
Twelve months later those critics are back in force proclaiming that Scholz’s Zeitenwende is little more than a slogan, that a year has been wasted, and that Scholz secretly dreams of a return to business as usual with Russia. They seem to have a lot of arguments to support their thesis. Berlin dragging its feet for months when Ukraine requested Leopard 2 tanks is just the latest twist in a saga that began with Germany only being willing to supply helmets on the eve of the war. At home, a sustainable increase of military funding has still not materialized. Scholz has never even said he would like Ukraine to win the war.
Nonetheless, the image of Germany clinging to the status quo is a caricature. For the first time in decades, the political elite is seriously trying to change. The war in Ukraine is an important watershed: a symptom of a global re-orientation that Germany feels more painfully than most other European countries.
To grasp what is at stake it is necessary to revisit two dates, 1969 and 1989. The former is the date that West Germany launched Ostpolitik, the strategy that shaped its diplomacy for decades. In brief, Ostpolitik meant accommodation with Russia, East Germany and the other countries in the Warsaw Pact. Engagement, the theory went, would encourage change from within. The policy—a combination of self-interest and idealism—included massive purchases of Russian gas for Germany’s booming industries, and was well-suited to the widespread pacifist sentiment engendered by the World Wars.
In 1989 this approach seemed vindicated beyond even the wildest dreams of its advocates, as communism peacefully collapsed and reunification got underway. “The experience of 1989,” Thomas Bagger, Germany’s ambassador to Poland, wrote a few years ago, “shaped the German perception of the world.” For the first time in the 20th century Germany was on the right side of history. The principles that emerged after the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War fit perfectly with the political culture that developed in West Germany after 1945: liberal democracy, pacifism, a social market economy, openness, the primacy of economics, the secondary role of military power.
It was just a matter of time, the Germans believed, until exchange and dialogue would force other countries to adopt these values too. Interdependence was framed as a guarantee of security and peace. Pursuing this goal became the mantra of German foreign policy, and a justification for strengthening ties with authoritarian partners like Russia and China. Never before had Germany been so perfectly in line with the zeitgeist. No wonder that under Angela Merkel it became the most prominent defender of the status quo.
But February 24th 2022 shattered the illusion that the “German moment” could last forever. (Many believe Berlin should have come to this conclusion much earlier.) Putin’s aggression undermined Germany’s success story. It ended the symbiosis between economic interests and foreign policy which the gas partnership with Moscow rested on. It called the virtues of a highly globalized and interdependent economy into question. It hampered Berlin’s moral superiority. And it laid bare Germany’s military weakness. Over the last year, the country has not just been trying to come to terms with its failed Russia policy—it has realized that it needs to reinvent itself and shed the legacy of a status quo that is no longer sustainable.
To this end, Zeitenwende has, despite the foot-dragging when it comes to defense, dramatically and irreversibly transformed Germany. The country no longer imports any energy resources from Russia. Almost €10 billion of public funds have been earmarked until 2038 for new energy infrastructure designed to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). Three terminals have already been opened, and by the end of 2023 LNG will make up almost 30 percent of Germany’s gas imports. Big German companies such as Siemens and Wintershall have withdrawn from Russia. The latter, linked to the chemicals giant BASF, was the cornerstone of Berlin’s energy partnership with Moscow—and now the Kremlin has stolen €2 billion from the company. It’s clear that there can be no return to the past with Russia.
Foreign policy thinking has also been transformed, most notably within the ruling SPD, the party most wedded to the old Ostpolitik. The new 45-year-old party co-leader Lars Klingbeil has a relatively loose attitude to this tradition. He knows that the skirmishes of the 1980s, which shaped the mindset of his older comrades, are not part of his own generation’s experience. “I want us to learn from these mistakes and draw the right consequences,” he told party members in October. “There will be no return to the status quo before Russian aggression.” An SPD foreign policy manifesto released in January declares an end to the idea that security in Europe can only be organized with Russia. Instead, “it must now be organized to defend it against Russia.” This is a Copernican turn, although it will take time for the whole party to embrace the new reality.
It is true that Germany’s armed forces are in a miserable state, something that will not change any time soon. Nevertheless, the new minister of defense, Boris Pistorius, has announced talks with the defense industry to accelerate orders, fill gaps in ammunition stocks, and produce spare parts. Upon taking office, he got serious about Leopard tank deliveries to Ukraine and opened a debate about increasing the regular military budget—a significant step after years of negligence and denial.
Furthermore, Berlin is applying key lessons from the Russia disaster to its policy elsewhere. The government has put limits on state guarantees for investments in China in order to discourage German companies from putting all their eggs into the Chinese basket. Siemens has just announced that it will shift some production from China to the United States because of the rising risks in the People’s Republic. In the last year, Scholz and his ministries have forged closer trade relations with countries like Canada, Vietnam, Chile and Argentina. Diversification is the new mantra of Germany’s geo-economic strategy.
In short, the genie of transformation is out of the bottle. Germany’s foreign policy debate has never been so engaged and informed, despite its idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. There is a fast-growing understanding that security has its costs, and that Germany needs to limit its dependence on authoritarian regimes. Clinging onto the failed Ostpolitik when the policy no longer fit the times has long since destroyed confidence that Berlin is up to the task of leadership in Europe; but it needs to be acknowledged that Germany is finally embarking on the right track.
No one knows how far Germany’s reinvention will ultimately go. But the country’s journey is in the interest of Europe and the world. We should give it the benefit of the doubt.
Piotr Buras is the head of the Warsaw Office and Senior Policy Fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
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