BRUSSELS – Since the defeat of Nazism, Germany has consciously dedicated itself to promoting “peace” and integrating itself into a European and transatlantic security order in which consensus has been the key word.
Russia’s war in Ukraine now forces Germany to do so rethink ideas of decades on its place in Europe, its relationship with Russia and the use of military force.
Germany built its postwar economy on cheap Russian energy and seemingly apolitical trade with Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, believing that trade brings change, somehow moderating regimes. authoritarian.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put all of this into question.
It meant a lot to Germany psychological shock as politicalundermining many of his assumptions about Russia, its president, Vladimir Putin, and Germany’s role in a Europe suddenly at war.
The disorientation is most evident in Germany’s reluctance, for now, to send its excellent main battle tank, the Leopard 2or to allow other countries to do so.
This location runs the risk of isolated Germany and exasperate her allies.
More importantly, according to the Ukrainians, German reluctance threatens to hamper their ability to halt or reverse a planned Russian offensive this spring.
Although the Germans overwhelmingly support Ukraine in its fight, the hesitation about sending tanks reflects deep ambivalence in a nation with a catastrophic story of aggression during WWII and who remains deeply divided about being a military leader and risking a direct confrontation with Russia.
Opinion polls show that half of Germans do not want to send tanks.
“The German reluctance here can be summed up in one word, and it is ‘history’said Steven Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany.
“The Germans want to be seen as a partner, not an aggressor, and they have a particular sensitivity when it comes to distributing weapons in regions where German weapons have historically been used to kill millions,” he said, quoting Russia, Poland and Ukraine.
“People don’t want German weapons at the front to be used to kill people in those regions.”
But Germans risk misinterpreting the lessons of their history, he said. Timothy Garton Ashhistorian of Germany and Europe at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.
“The German position is deeply confused, with the old thought to be dead and the new still to be born,” he said.
Indeed, despite German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s declaration early last year of a “Zeitenwende,” or historic turning point, Germany, its government and its country have found it difficult to push ahead with building its military.
While the war in Ukraine has sparked serious debate in democratic Germany, it’s not over yet, said Garton Ash.
The result has been what Scholz’s critics see as his excessively wavering leadership in this time of crisis.
The confusion was particularly pronounced within Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, which leads the current government, said Boris Ruge, deputy chairman of the Munich Security Conference.
But politics is also at stake.
Both the Social Democrats and the Greens, the largest members of the governing coalition, are strong pacifist wings that party leaders like Scholz cannot ignore.
“Scholz also has to think about domestic politics,” says Ruge.
“In matters of strategy and politics, many of the Social Democrats are full-blooded pacifists and you should pay attention to them.”
To some extent, Scholz does not lead a tripartite coalition, but a fiveif you count the pacifist wings of the Greens and the Social Democrats.
And the Social Democrats have many voters in the former East Germany, which has been more sympathetic to Moscow.
There is also concern, and not just among Germans, that an escalation of the war with Western tanks will only increase killings without radically altering the course of the war.
German voters want their leaders to “always push the so-called peace option, be the last to move or move in coalition,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
“This shows that you are not a warmonger, that you are not promoting a military agenda.”
The clear pattern for Scholz is move slowlytrying to appeal to his constituents (despite the annoyance of his NATO allies) and finally agreeing to send the tanks once he convinces the German public that he will effectively bring peace closer by pressuring Russia to negotiate.
The approach is an attempt to respect and circumnavigate historical memory in a country where many of the names of Ukrainian battlefields are familiar to older Germans or even to younger ones who grew up hearing about them from their parents.
“Why do we know Azovstal?” asked Kleine-Brockhoff, referring to the huge Mariupol steel plant that the Russians blew up for months during the war.
“Who occupied Azovstal last? It was the Germans,” he said.
“Anyone here who is older knows what the death camps are.
The names are familiar.
Send tanks there? Oh.
Send shells? Well, for a lot of older people, it’s still tough,” she said.
History matters: “You can spin it however you want, but there is memory.”
Those guilty memories refer to the war against the Soviet Union.
But even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Germans blamed Russia, as a successor state, and not other new post-Soviet nations such as Ukraine and Belarus, where the Nazis killed even more peoplesaid Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“We’ve done so much damage to the Soviet Union that we can’t do it again, we say, but let’s get even with Russia and forget that Ukraine suffered the worst.”
Scholz’s Social Democrats were shaped by “Ostpolitik”its reach to the Soviet-occupied Central and Eastern European nations, which also proved very lucrative for German industry and supplied all that cheap Russian energy.
Much of the party is driven by the “conviction that peace cannot be achieved by military means,” as Scholz himself said in a speech in the late 1980s, according to Garton Ash.
“So it is very difficult for him to think about his own Zeitenwende and to believe that under certain circumstances war could be the lesser evil and the shortest way to lasting peace in Ukraine,” he said.
From this point of view, he added,
“Germany has a unique historic responsibility to help defend a free and sovereign Ukraine and shape a broader European response to end Putin’s criminal war on terror.”
Jeffrey Herf, a scholar of German and European history at the University of Maryland, said many Germans suppressed the reality that the Nazis were only defeated by military force, not diplomatic or trade engagements.
“These lessons about appeasement and its dangers are unfashionable in the political world Scholz has emerged into,” he said.
At the same time, Germany’s century-long relationship with Moscow has the quality of a fixation, Garton Ash said, noting “a fascination and fear of Russia, which has created a blindness to Ukraine, and a parallel fear of war nuclear”.
This is an early explanation of Scholz’s desire to supply tanks only if the United States does so too, so that Russia cannot blame Berlin.
He wants to prevent a German decision – not just to ship Leopardi, but to authorize export – from being singled out by a nuclear-armed Russia, a Russia with which many Germans want dignified relations after this conflict inevitably ends.
Scholz and his aides argue that Germany has already done a lot, breaking its taboo on sending arms to a country at war and sending the third-largest tranche of military aid to Ukraine.
In an interview last month, Scholz’s chief of staff Wolfgang Schmidt said the chancellor saw his role as that of ease the transition to a new foreign policy in a population accustomed to decades of pacifism.
“A long-standing tradition of all political parties – not to send weapons to conflict zones, let alone a war – was completely changed by Chancellor Scholz, yet received widespread public support,” said Schmidt.
“We always try to make sure that with all our actions we can keep them, and it’s not just a one-time thing, that we keep our company and the people who support it together.”
Public opinion appears to be changing under pressure from allies and given the horrors of war, said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, which studies social democrats.
“If Scholz goes and says now is the time, I think he can bolster public opinion,” he said.
“The numbers in the polls can change that. It’s called command”.
German politicians in favor of sending tanks say Germany’s reluctance to “go it alone” now threatens to isolate it.
Johann Wadephul, deputy chairman of the opposition Christian Democrats, said Scholz’s solidarity argument was contradicted by pleas from his allies.
“The chancellor’s refusal and Germany’s non-compliance are, in effect, ‘going it alone,'” he said.
Heinrich Brauss, a former German general who now works at the German Council for Foreign Relations, argued that defeating Russia in Ukraine is in Germany’s interest, because Ukrainians are fighting for European security.
If German reluctance turned into German rejection, he warned, it would be disastrous for Germany’s reputation.
“And it will significantly reduce trust in Germany as a NATO ally.”
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Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.