Derek Scally: Scholz tells Germany it’s time to grow up

Leader follows in footsteps of Schmidt and Schröder in challenging postwar pacifism

As Russia tightens its grip on Ukraine, historical certainties are collapsing, like bits of rotten ceiling, around Germany’s ears.

One piece is Nie wieder Krieg – never again war – the post-1945 mantra that Germany must never again be involved in war in Europe. The other is the post-cold war idea of Wandel durch Handel – that a united Germany, once again straddling central Europe, could talk Russia into the democracy camp while German companies earned handsome profits.

The common thread in both eras was a curious, and troubling, psychological phenomenon I call the “Rebroff Effect”.

Until his death in 2008, Ivan Rebroff was a Cossack fur-hatted stalwart of German television and concert halls: a singer with piercing eyes and a four-octave voice.


That Ivan Rebroff was, in fact, Hans-Rolf Rippert born in Spandau, west of Berlin, was unimportant. Even at the height of the cold war, with a divided Germany teetering on the fault-line, Rebroff’s sentimental Russian repertoire could reduce grown German men to tears. He was selling a Russia – romantic, wild and authentic – that Germans needed to exist, no matter how much evidence to the contrary the Soviets provided.

Like the Ireland of Heinrich Böll’s 1957 Irish Journal, the Rebroff effect sustained an imagined Russia as a vessel for postwar Germans’ emotional homelessness. Rebroff Russia was a surrogate for 19th-century German romantic longings, exploited ruthlessly by the Nazis and left, contaminated, in the postwar rubble. Even Germans with less romantic ideas about Moscow could not escape the guilt over Russia’s 20 million war dead, keeping the illusion alive.

This is why last Sunday’s Bundestag address by chancellor Olaf Scholz – already dubbed his Zeitenwende or watershed speech, was so historic.

In a 30-minute tour de force, Scholz said Vladimir Putin had “demolished the European security order that has prevailed for almost half a century”. The German leader called time on naive diplomacy – “talking simply for the sake of talking” – and effectively announced it was time for Germany to grow up.

With war in Europe now a reality, Scholz tossed aside his country’s postwar culture of military – and budgetary – caution and announced a €100 billion off-balance sheet fund to rebuild Germany’s armed forces.

On top of this one-off fund, Scholz vowed to raise Berlin’s military spending from about 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product to beyond the two per cent minimum required of all Nato members.

With these bold – if overdue – steps, Scholz is building on fateful decisions of his two Social Democratic Party predecessors as chancellor.

Helmut Schmidt’s embrace of Nato mid-range missiles as a cold war nuclear deterrent, on German territory, attracted huge pushback in 1979 – including, among the protesters, a youthful Scholz.

Some 20 years later, similar protest accompanied Gerhard Schröder’s historic decision to allow German troops participate in the Nato-led war against Yugoslavia, the Bundeswehr’s first postwar foreign military mission.

Like Schmidt and Schröder, Scholz is challenging German postwar pacifism as a synonym for moral high-ground passivism. This is most clear in calling time on a postwar tradition – a ban on lethal weapon exports to European neighbours, often victims of Nazi terror – to support Ukraine’s defence.

Amid the applause at home, and the relief of allies abroad, there are several devils in the “Zeitenwende” detail.

The first is political: only a handful of Scholz allies were privy to the full details of his speech and most backbenchers even his own SPD parliamentary party leader – were kept in the dark. The growing war may silence the political debate for now, indeed 78 per cent of Germans back weapons exports, but leftist SPD and Green politicians will not forget being duped.

Meanwhile, critical voices are emerging on other fronts. Some wonder whether €100 billion – less than two years of German military spending – can reverse two decades of military neglect. In the mid-1990s, Germany’s military had 2,100 tanks, now it has 220. The country’s former head Nato general, when asked last week on live television if Germany could defend itself, replied: “No.”

Others say Germany’s biggest problem with its military is not money but bureacracy. For seven years the Bundeswehr has been struggling to find, order and deploy a new standard-issue rifle. Of the four frigates it ordered in 2019, none are ready for their first marine mission. The list of procurement woes is long.

Finally, doubts remain over how serious Germany is about delivering defensive weapons to Ukraine. After months of emotive refusals, Berlin made a big deal this week of sending arms east or, in line with its tight export rules, allowing other European countries pass to Kyiv German-made arms.

But much of this inventory is old East German stock. So old and mouldy, in fact, that crates had to be excavated from storage bunkers by German soldiers in protective gear.

Of the 2,700 East German “Strela” missiles earmarked for Ukraine, Der Spiegel reports, most are 35 years old and one third were, a decade ago, classified unusable due to corrosion.

In spite of these uncertainties, Europe’s week-old war has triggered the unthinkable in Europe: German troops on Nato’s eastern flank, German planes patrolling Polish airspace and red-faced German politicians backing away from Moscow. After decades of vodka-soaked delusion, Putin has neutralised Germany’s Rebroff effect.

Derek Scally is Berlin Correspondent