The “special military operation,” launched on 24th February by the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, did not go as planned. It also had unexpected consequences.
For instance, Ukraine defended itself fiercely, indeed heroically, against the unprovoked, brutal attack. It inflicted gigantic losses in life and equipment on the Russian invaders. The European Union accepted millions of displaced Ukrainian women and children. It also provided generous financial assistance to Ukraine and imposed painful sanctions on Russia, as well as restricting the importation of their fossil fuels. NATO, declared brain dead not so long ago by French President Macron,1 perked up, delivered game-changing weapons and intelligence to Ukraine and, stunningly, received applications to join from Sweden (neutral for over 200 years, since the Napoleonic wars) and Finland (neutral for almost 100 years, since World War II). The maxim “might is right,” long thought an anachronism, proved to have life in it after all. Much to the incredulity of those who like to believe that the long arc of history bends toward reason, it turns out that the value of international agreements, norms and treaties is once again called into question. Putin’s war also upended German politics.
For the past fifty or so years, beginning with Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, rapprochement with first the Soviet Union and subsequently Russia, but also China, has been an article of faith for German society and the country’s mainstream parties. Pacifist hopefulness linked up with capitalist resourcefulness. Trade would induce stability, reciprocal trust and all manner of positive change. Authoritarian systems would soften and human rights would be boosted. Even better: mutual economic dependence – selling cars to and buying oil and gas from Russia – would create mutual economic dependence, build confidence and ensure peace. Transformation through economic exchange (‘Wandel durch Handel’) and structural barriers to bellicosity (‘strukturelle Nichtangriffsfähigkeit’) were the upbeat, authoritative sounding terms that bolstered a pacifist swing that was broadly supported by society, business and politics. After all, it underpinned the country’s business model which, in essence, is based on cheap energy from Russia and vast exports to China.
Hiccups, such as Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the bombing of Syrian hospitals in 2015 did not make a dent in this consensus. Quite the contrary. While imports from Russia, in 2009, accounted for 34 percent of Germany’s gas consumption, in 2014, when little green men marched into Crimea, it was 41 percent, rising to 66 percent in 2020.2 Despite Russia’s fanning a war in the Donbas – and over the objections of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, the U.S. and the EU Commission – Angela Merkel’s government in 2015 approved the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine, as an unpolitical “purely commercial” project.3 It was at last cancelled a few hours before the Russian attack on Ukraine.4 The Gazprom-funded, Orwellian named Climate Foundation, that was established in 2021,5 essentially to circumvent US sanctions, also will be dissolved. Grudgingly.6
Cashing in the peace dividend after the end of the Cold War, the military draft was abolished by Angela Merkel’s centre-right government in 2011. Military expenditure was four percent of GDP in the 1950s and1960s, and over three percent in the 1970s as well as 1980s. It dropped to just above one percent in the 2000s.7 The result is a rudderless, emaciated Bundeswehr with planes that cannot fly, ships that cannot sail and tanks that vanished: in 2022, only 266 battle tanks remain, a puny number compared with Turkey’s 3,022, Greece’s 1,243, Poland’s 863 and – hold your breath – Romania’s 451.8
With Russian forces menacingly encircling Ukraine in January, the German government reiterated its policy of not delivering lethal weapons to potential conflict zones and, instead, offered Ukraine, to much ridicule, 5,000 helmets.9 However, three days after Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a watershed moment (Zeitenwende) in security policy. Germany will raise military expenditures to 2 percent of GDP and invest a staggering €100 billion euros to kick-start the upgrading process.10 It will also send tanks to Ukraine.
The reaction was ferocious. A veritable struggle for the German soul ensued between two positions – pacifists and bellicists – that drew different lessons from the country’s history and battled it out in open letters to the Federal Chancellor. Pacifists, so as not to enrage Putin, warned against meaningfully arming Ukraine and all but advocated the country’s surrender, both to avoid more suffering and to reduce the risk of World War III. Bellicists, in contrast, demanded sending whatever weapons were needed to repulse the Russian invaders.
The pacifists, two dozen or so intellectuals, most in their seventies, published the first letter in the feminist magazine Emma in early April.11 They asked Chancellor Scholz not to deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine, to work towards a cease fire and to facilitate a compromise between the belligerents. Such moderation – better: appeasing the aggressor and sacrificing the victim – would reduce the risk of the war’s spinning out of control into a nuclear holocaust. The responsibility for such an escalation would lie not only with the original aggressor “but also with those who willfully offer him a motive for potentially criminal acts.” Also, the moral responsibility regarding the sacrifices borne by the Ukrainian population did not rest with the government in Kyiv, but were based on universal norms which, so the implication, decreed that the suffering had to stop, and since Russia was not going to halt its attacks, Ukraine had to accept defeat in the interest of preventing worse. The letter has been endorsed by some 300,000 supporters.12
The bellicists, most in their forties, published the second letter a week later in the liberal weekly Die Zeit.13 They pleaded for the delivery of more military support to strengthen Ukraine’s negotiation position vis-à-vis Putin, to deny him a victory on the battlefield, and to prevent further Russian aggression. For them, the moral obligation emanating from Germany’s history, namely to ensure that “never again” is not actually happening again and again, necessitates wholeheartedly and tangibly supporting the embattled Ukrainian defenders. Whatever it takes, whatever the risks.
One of the lessons of German history has to be that you cannot defeat fascism with appeasement.
Daniel Kehlmann is a novelist and a signatory of the second letter, whose grandparents were Jewish: “it is noticeable that the argument for a strictly pacifist foreign policy is rarely brought forward by Germans whose relatives died in the Holocaust.”14 The letter has been endorsed by some 70,000 supporters.15
Public sentiment in Germany initially favoured the government’s middle-of-the-road policies neither to disgrace Russia nor to nudge Ukraine to surrender, and being content with other countries giving more money and sending more arms.16 The mood seems to be shifting, worrying less about humiliating Putin and more about Ukraine’s survival and dignity. In two regional elections in May, the Greens – hawkish on reducing the dependence on Russian fossil fuels and on empowering Ukraine – tripled their votes. The more cautious SPD suffered historic defeats.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken captured the mood well: “the decision to wage this war is the Kremlin’s and the Kremlin’s alone. If Russia stopped fighting tomorrow, the war will end. If Ukraine stopped fighting, there will be no more Ukraine.”17
The lesson from Germany’s history must be that aggression does not pay, and that the alternative is not war or peace, but justice, dignity and a sustainable order in Europe and the world.
1 Nato alliance experiencing brain death, says Macron. BBC, 7 November 2019.
2 Imports of Natural Gas. Germany: 2020.” Eurostat.
3 Patrick Wintour. Nord Stream 2: how Putin’s Pipeline paralysed the West. The Guardian, 23 December 2021.
4 Felicitas Wilke. Rohrkapierer: Die 1.220 Kilometer lange Pipeline Nord Stream 2 ist fast fertig. Ob sie je in Betrieb geht, ist aber offen. Wer will die Pipeline? Und wem schadet sie? Fluter, 5. April 2021.
5 Landtag Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. ANTRAG der Landesregierung: Zustimmung des Landtages gemäß § 63 Absatz 1 LHO hier: Errichtung der Stiftung Klima- und Umweltschutz MV. Drucksache 7/5696, 6. Januar 2021.
6 Mecklenburg-Vorpommern: Vorstand der umstrittenen Klimastiftung tritt zurück. Tagesschau, 18. Mai 2022.
7 Entwicklung der Militärausgaben in Deutschland von 1925 bis 1944 und in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland von 1950 bis 2015 im Verhältnis zur gesamtwirtschaftlichen Leistung. Deutscher Bundestag, Wissenschaftliche Dienste, WD 4 – 3000 – 025/17, 2017.
8 Anzahl der Kampfpanzer der einzelnen Mitgliedsstaaten 2022. Statista.
9 Christopher F. Schuetze, Germany draws mockery for promising 5,000 helmets to help Ukraine defend itself. The New York Times, January 27th 2022.
10 Rachel Tausendfreund, Zeitenwende – The Dawn of the Deterrence Era in Germany. German Marshall Fund, 28 February 2022.
11 Offener Brief an Kanzler Olaf Scholz. Emma, 29. April 2022.
12Offener Brief an Bundeskanzler Scholz. Change.org.
13 Offener Brief an Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz. "Intellektuelle um den Publizisten Ralf Fücks plädieren für die kontinuierliche Lieferung von Waffen an die Ukraine – nachdem eine Gruppe um Alice Schwarzer davor gewarnt hatte.“ Zeit Online, 4. Mai 2022.
14 Phillip Oltermann, German thinkers’ war of words over Ukraine exposes generational divide. The Guardian, 6 May 2022.
15 Die Sache der Ukraine ist auch unsere Sache!.
16 Mark Schieritz, Sind wir wirklich so knausrig?. Zeit Online, 11. Mai 2022.
17 Damilola Banjo, US Tells Russia: Stop Weaponizing Food in your War on Ukraine. PassBlue, May 20th 2022.