After just six weeks, Berlin’s new government has been thrown in at the deep end. The pandemic and the very real threat of war on Germany’s doorstep have blasted away the mildew of the late Merkel years.
A new generation of German politicians are being forced to assess anew what the lessons of their country’s terrible past mean for the present.
Seven years ago, after a marathon 16 hours of talks in Minsk, Angela Merkel secured a peace agreement that prevented the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the Donbas spreading into all-out war. Now her successor Olaf Scholz and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock are racing to restart the stalled engine of diplomacy as the shadow of war spreads once more across the continent.
The growing threat has focused attention on the credibility gap between some German politicians' words and actions. On Monday in Kyiv, Baerbock insisted that Germany was morally obliged to do whatever it takes to help Ukraine. Berlin's refusal to deliver weapons was, she said, "rooted in our history" – in particular Nazi Germany's terrible deeds in Ukraine.
Hours later we learned that German arms exports last year jumped 61 per cent to 9.35 billion, with two-thirds of sales to non-Nato countries including Egypt, accused of serious rights abuses in the Libyan and Yemen conflicts.
Even as Russian massed up to 100,000 soldiers and tanks on Ukraine's border, meanwhile, leading figures in Scholz's Social Democratic Party (SPD) warned against "politicising" the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Awaiting a permit to begin pumping gas under the Baltic sea from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream is a policy contradiction.
Berlin has never explained credibly why its energy solo run with Russia is not a betrayal of Ukraine and Poland, whose suffering at the hands of their larger neighbours are, as Baerbock likes to say, rooted in German history. In a welcome, overdue, move Scholz made clear on Tuesday that a Russian push into Ukraine would put "everything" up for discussion. The cost of gas is rising fast, but the price of peace is immeasurable.