After decades of pacifist politics, Germany embraces new ‘war-ready’ reality

Two years on from chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ‘watershed’ speech, the country’s policy on defence has pivoted dramatically

A century ago German artist Käthe Kollwitz sketched a wide-eyed young man with two fingers aloft, swearing an oath: “Nie wieder Krieg”, no more war.

A decade after she lost her 18-year-old son Peter after a week fighting in Flanders, the Kollwitz anti-war poster was displayed at a gathering of leftist and pacifist youth groups in August 1924 – an event the activist artist declared a flop.

“Just one spark is needed for them to forget their pacifism,” she noted in her diary, just two years before the formation of the Hitler Youth.

After a 20th century of hot wars, cold wars and bitter division, modern Germany’s anti-war identity appeared fixed in the 21st. Yet Käthe Kollwitz would despair at just how little fuss followed a recent speech by federal defence minister Boris Pistorius.


In just one word – “kriegstüchtig”, war-ready – he redefined the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for Germany.

“It’s about being able to go to war so we don’t have to go to war,” he said, “that is what “kriegstüchtig” means.”

Two years ago such an offhand remark would have caused uproar in Germany. Today it is further vocabulary to describe what the government sees as Germany’s new reality. The first such term came on February 27th, 2022, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when chancellor Olaf Scholz coined the phrase “Zeitenwende”. Watershed, era-shift, turn-of-the-times: the translations are many but the meaning is the same. Old German certainties in the post-unification era – about Russia and its own strategic interests and security – no longer apply.

Life in Germany in the two years since his Zeitenwende speech has seen a jerky political ballet with short- and medium-term pivots. First, a rapid retreat from cheap Russian gas, as pushed by chancellors Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schröder. The latter remains a pariah over his continued professional and personal ties to Vladimir Putin.

In a hasty few months, Berlin succeeded in sourcing new energy to heat homes and keep factories working. Today attention is focused on the Zeitenwende’s main forward-facing ambition: a €100 billion special fund intended to reverse decades of neglect at Germany’s Bundeswehr armed forces and replace equipment handed over to Ukraine.

The latter shattered a taboo and, in its first months, was marked by a slow pace and mocking headlines. After building up momentum, Germany’s total value of arms and aid handed over to date has reached €27.8 billion, including €7 billion this year.

On top of 381 military vehicles shipped east, including 48 battle tanks, Berlin has provided five full air defence systems with parts and rockets; 3,200 portable air defence systems; 350 reconnaissance drones; and more than 50,000 rounds of ammunition as well as protective and mine-clearing equipment.

On top of this, with 153 categories of supplies from helmets to field hospital beds, Germany has committed to far more equipment this year, including 105 more battle tanks. Demands for further weapons continue to reach Berlin from Kyiv, but chancellor Scholz appears now more on the offensive than defensive. Asked at the recent Munich Security Conference about Germany’s sizeable military contribution to Ukraine, he said: “I can only wish for similar decisions in all EU capitals.”

Along with arms deliveries to a war party, another German taboo shattered in the last 24 months has been the chancellor’s regular visits to arms factories. Previously unthinkable for a centre-left leader, Scholz used a recent tour of a tank and missile factory to warn that “our world has become more rough and is changing at breathtaking speed – and we have to change, too”.

“We are not living in peacetime,” he said. “Whoever wants peace has to deter successfully any potential aggressors.”

Untouched by the wider recession, German arms companies are having a good war. With bulging order books, major supplier Rheinmetall alone has tripled production in Germany and is expanding its facilities in Spain and Hungary.

“All in all we want to produce 700,000 artillery bullets annually by 2025,” said Rheinmetall chairman Armin Papperger, accompanying the chancellor on his recent factory tour.

The flip side of the rush to supply Ukraine has been Bundeswehr armouries emptying far quicker than they can be replenished, thanks to complicated procurement policies and long manufacturer delivery times.

Despite these challenges, Scholz has promised that, this year, Germany will meet the Nato requirement to spend 2 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defence.

After years of falling short, government officials call it a clear vote of confidence in the alliance – and a firm response to Donald Trump’s recent threats to Nato “delinquents”.

But German military experts say Berlin is only meeting its spending requirements due to “trickery”: a zero-growth recession lowers the spending bar while dipping into the one-off €100 billion special Zeitenwende defence fund provides ready cash, but is not financially sustainable.

Alongside Germany’s wider defence pivot, the last two years have prompted much soul-searching in the chancellor’s ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) over its “blind-spots in our relationship with Russia”.

“In our search for common ground with Russia we often overlooked the differences, that was a mistake,” said Lars Klingbeil, SPD co-leader. He used a recent party conference speech to officially bury a three-decade SPD pursuit of what it called “transformation-through-trade”, a profitable policy for German business in Russia.

Where the SPD once viewed good relations with Russia as “indispensable” for peace in Europe, Berlin’s ruling party now sees its priority as helping “secure peace in Europe from Russia”.

Not all of Germany’s neighbours are sure Berlin has learned the lessons of its rude Russian awakening. Two weeks ago on his inaugural visit to the chancellery, new Polish prime minister Donald Tusk castigated – without naming Germany – countries who, on Russia, “chose wishful thinking as geopolitical strategy”.

The price of German wishful thinking was on the mind, too, of Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas when she spoke on February 20th in Hamburg’s historic city hall.

In her address she recalled the prescient words of modern Estonia’s first president, Lennart Meri, 30 years previously in the same hall.

He warned that any country that “tolerated, financed and, in the short term, possibly even profited from” close ties to Moscow would “unwittingly become an accomplice of imperialist forces in Russia who believe that they can solve their country’s immense problems by outward expansion and by threatening their neighbours”.

Kallas noted how the speech prompted an angry walkout from one audience member: then deputy mayor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin.

Some 30 years on, the Estonian prime minister asked her black-tie German audience – including Scholz – if they had been listening to Putin’s footsteps as he stormed out back then. And now?

“Really listen,” she urged. “Are we now going to let him walk all across Ukraine? Are we going to let dictators call the shots? Or are we going to finally learn from history? For that, we need to not be afraid of our own power.”

As Germany makes painful concessions and taboo-breaking decisions, the scale of its Zeitenwende watershed was clear in a recent television interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Despite differences with Berlin, he described Scholz and Germany – the continent’s largest military donor to his country in absolute terms – as a “leader in Europe”.

History has taught Germans to be wary of leading in Europe, though, so how is public opinion holding up on this second anniversary?

After decades of “no more war” pacifist politics and, in this century, cautious military deployments, German public opinion appears stable in some questions and ambivalent in others.

Some 64 per cent of respondents in a recent representative survey agreed that Russia represents a security threat to Germany, up from 30 per cent in 2020. Though public support for investing in Germany’s armed forces has jumped from 19 per cent a decade ago, just 57 per cent now support greater spending.

After two years of radical change in Germany, focused on boosting defence spending and arms deliveries to Ukraine, Prof Carlo Masala of Munich’s Bundeswehr military university sees his country now at a “decisive phase”.

Maintaining stability on the road ahead will, he says, require greater political honesty about the real threat of war Germany faces from Russia.

“If society does not share this view,” he said, “then it does not matter what the Bundeswehr does. We will not be able to defend our society in an alliance case of collective defence.”

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