If you want to know how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed Germany, and how Germany is helping Ukraine’s fightback, it’s worth heading to a military town like Munster.
Hidden in a brown, marshy woodland midway between Hanover and Hamburg, Munster is home to Germany’s largest army base; nearly half of the 15,000 residents here are soldiers.
At the town’s main intersection, a bronze embracing couple beneath a lantern recreates the longing and parting of military life immortalised in the wartime anthem Lili Marleen. Opposite, a sniper rifle with accessories is for sale in the window of a “Nato Shop” selling fatigues, flasks and helmets.
When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Germany’s first offer of assistance to Kyiv was 5,000 helmets. For Vitali Klitschko, the ex-boxer and mayor of the Ukrainian capital, the offer was a “bad joke”.
A year on in the drizzle of the Munster army base, his brother Volodymyr seems much happier. As his eyes run approvingly over the sharp lines of a Leopard 2 battle tank, a half-smile plays on his lips.
After a slow start, Klitschko says, Berlin is now “one of our greatest supporters”. Germany is ranked third – behind the United States and the UK – in military and humanitarian supplies to Ukraine. In its greatest leap yet, Germany agreed last month to deliver 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks.
Klitschko lived for years in Germany and speaks the language. What does he think changed minds here? He thinks for a moment, then says that many Germans have overcome their history, their instinctive postwar fears.
“Weapons were a difficult topic in the German mentality. More and more I think they accept that sometimes supplying weapons can save more lives than not,” he tells The Irish Times. “Hopefully these tanks are going to be on the front lines in Ukraine sooner rather than later.”
In a landmark post-invasion speech last year, Chancellor Olaf Scholz – barely two months in the job – described Moscow’s war on Ukraine as a Zeitenwende – a watershed or turning point in history.
That was an understatement, in particular for his own country.
In the months since, Germany has broken with decades-old certainties – in particular any lingering respect for Russia and an addiction to cheap Russian energy – and embraced far-reaching new realities at speed. First came a €100 billion defence fund aimed at rectifying years of military underinvestment. Then came floating LNG terminals and other deals to fill energy needs. Berlin took in more than a million Ukrainians and passed two inflation-fighting packages worth €300 billion.
Beyond material and technical concerns, the Ukraine war has sparked a lively, emotional and soul-searching debate in Germany over its role and responsibilities in Europe given its size, location – and its past.
Do 22 million Soviet Russian war dead preclude it from acting? Or is Germany, of all countries, morally obliged to defend the postwar, rules-based democratic order that rose from the ruins of the Nazi dictatorship?
Overnight, Germany’s postwar pacifist culture ban on weapons exports to war zones went out the window. Berlin insists it will not be dragged into the conflict; it has supplied Ukraine with ammunition, missiles, air defence systems with training for 1,200 soldiers so far.
Many on Germany’s left are increasingly uneasy with this shift, demanding more is done to push for peace talks. But the 93-year-old philosopher Jürgen Habermas attracted considerable blowback for warning that, unchecked, German support for Ukraine could “drive us more or less unnoticed beyond the threshold for a third World War”.
German economics minister Robert Habeck, who has to sign off on all tank and arms exports, says it is not something “done lightly”.
“Sometimes I have the feeling that the whole thing is seen by some as a game,” he told Die Zeit weekly. “We are talking about weapons of war, produced and maintained in Germany ... yet at the same time it’s also true that we cannot leave Ukraine alone just because of our own fears.”
A year on, Russia’s war on Ukraine has ended Germany’s three-decade post-Cold War era with a bang. Forced to face down its historical demons, Germany is now driving by sight and hoping for the best
In the chilly drizzle of the Munster army base, Ukrainian soldiers Vitalii and Anatolii are among those taking a tank crash course.
The fatigue from the last year of battle is written in their tired eyes and lined faces, obscured with ski masks and orange visors to protect their identity.
“We’re not on holiday here,” said 33-year-old Vitalii. “Hopefully this will help a Ukraine victory, or at least bring us a little closer to that goal.”
Both men are used to ageing Soviet-era equipment and praise the modern Marder 1 A3 and Leopard 2 A6 on which they are training as “incredible”.
“It’s like the difference between a Mercedes and a Zhiguli,” says fiftysomething Anatolii, name-checking the Soviet-era Lada rival.
Anatolii says his family is praying for his safe return, though he knows safety is relative given that his training means that the eastern front beckons.
“We are all afraid but it’s about how you deal with it,” he adds. “How, despite fear, you fight.”
Their tank-training programme in Munster has been compressed into five weeks of 12-hour days: six days a week of technical and tactical instruction, regular recaps, simulator work and practical war games with real tanks and live ammunition.
This is Germany’s contribution to the European Union military assistance mission (EUMAM), established last October with 24 participating countries. By March some 15,000 Ukrainians will have completed their training across Europe; that target has now been doubled to 30,000 and Germany – ahead of schedule in training 9,000 people this year – is ready to take on more if necessary.
German army officials in Munster say just one in five of the Ukrainians here to date have had any sort of military background, but all are highly motivated and anxious to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
“They suck up everything like a dry sponge,” says first lieutenant Peter, who would rather not give his surname. “It’s shocking sometimes to hear their stories but emotion is part of being a soldier and it gives an extra motivational push.”
Though cautious about details, German army officials say they have trained 16 tank crews so far. The current Ukrainian trainees will be sent back east with 14 Leopard 2 tanks and 40 Marder armed transport vehicles. In addition, Germany is ready to hand over 80 older, decommissioned Leopard 1s to Ukraine, once it finds trainers still familiar with the older tanks.
After months of tensions – and very public squabbles – the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion has seen a Zeitenwende in often tense relations between Kyiv and Berlin.
Visiting the Munster base, Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin Oleksii Makeiev says “Germany’s leadership role in the tank coalition should not be underestimated”. For him the key figure – “a man of his word” – is defence minister Boris Pistorius.
A month after replacing his luckless predecessor, Pistorius has hit the ground running.
“We have cleared the way now but see that not all who made demands then are acting now,” he said in Munster, a dig at those who demanded Germany deliver tanks and accused Berlin of blocking deliveries from others.
Asked last Friday about this sudden role reversal, with Germany now leading on battle tanks while waiting for others to catch up, Chancellor Scholz exhaled loudly and said: “Tja” – which translated roughly as: “Ah, sure.”
After a year-long baptism of fire, Scholz is now performing at least three balancing acts simultaneously: co-ordinating supplies with EU Nato partners to avoid solo runs; ensuring backing of German voters who – according to opinion polls – remain deeply sceptical that arms supplies will help secure Ukraine victory; and balancing a three-way coalition that has held together far beyond its comfort zone.
While many in Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) still struggle with their shattered illusions over Russia, the Greens, who once tore themselves apart over Nato’s Kosovo war, have pushed the SPD to act faster and further in arming Ukraine. The war has seen painful compromises on Green climate promises to voters, just as the liberal Free Democratic (FDP) finance minister Christian Lindner is struggling to square massive defence spending and other statist interventions with his supporters’ economic liberal expectations.
A year on, Russia’s war on Ukraine has ended Germany’s three-decade post-Cold War era with a bang. Forced to face down its historical demons, Germany is now driving by sight and hoping for the best.
“It’s one thing to talk about war,” argued Pistorius in Munster on Monday, “and something else entirely to look into faces of people who have come from war for training and will be going back to war.”
Words like that chime with Ukraine trainees and their German trainers. They are effectively embedded together: they eat breakfast and dinner together, discuss what has happened in the last year and what is to come when the Ukrainians return to the front.
“We can only wish them well, knowing we are making an important contribution here,” said Captain Stefan, a 30-year-old German trainer. As old certainties slip away, he senses a shift in German society towards its armed forces.
“When times are peaceful people don’t want to think about us,” he said, “but the need for us has been made clear – in a shocking way – with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.”
War in Europe, One Year On:
- Bucha rises from the ashes: ‘We have to fight and rebuild at the same time. You can’t keep it like a war museum’
- Biden faces challenge as US support for Ukraine increasingly comes under siege
- Lara Marlowe on Macron’s pirouettes on Russia and Ukraine
Tomorrow: Mark Paul on Britain’s curious dual role as Ukraine’s champion and Russia’s top destination for stashing the wealth of its oligarchs