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Feb 22, 2023

Germany’s Zeitenwende Zigzags: A View from the United States

Germany’s cultural-historical traumas run deep. In many ways, the country continues to define itself against the past rather than position itself for the future. It needs to prepare itself for the many challenges ahead.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz looks on as he delivers a speech during a budget session of Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, March 23, 2022.
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Germany’s recent chancellors have enriched the world’s vocabulary. Angela Merkel’s calm and cautious style was so distinctive it became a verb. When she was at her best, merkeln came to mean an ability to sell change in the guise of continuity—to manage united Germany’s evolution in a way that reassured others about the Germans and reassured the Germans about themselves.

Merkel’s vice-chancellor and now successor, Olaf Scholz, campaigned successfully as the next steady hand at the helm. Just over a year in office, he has honed a deliberative, understated style that now is also morphing into a verb, albeit one still open to definition. For his fans, scholzen, or “Scholzing,” means decisiveness. His critics call it dithering.

Whether scholzen ultimately comes to mean dithering or decisive matters a lot to a country whose Weltanschauung has been turned on its head.

Enduring Mantras, Deeper Truths

Being careful and cautious has tended to work well for German chancellors conscious of their country’s relative weight, its tumultuous history, and its Central European geography. During the Cold War, West German leaders developed some key precepts that guided their traumatized country’s remarkable evolution from destruction and division to prosperity and unity. Never again war. Never again Auschwitz. Don’t go it alone. Don’t get out in front. Don’t be isolated. Don’t be singularized. Westbindung was complemented by Ostpolitik. Macht (power) became a four-letter word. National interests were advanced in the language of economics, of “Europe,” and of  multilateralism. Checkbook diplomacy, it seemed, could compensate for military reticence, because military power was a declining asset. The future belonged to “civilian” powers.

As the Cold War faded and Germany unified, these precepts were tested and modified, yet largely reaffirmed. Westbindung came to mean surrounding oneself with democratic allies—for the first time in German history. This unprecedented sense of security suggested that Germany could afford to reduce and refocus its military on far-away crisis management and humanitarian operations, rather than collective defense at home. Conflicts in the Western Balkans, across the former Soviet space, and in Africa and the Middle East, while tragic, seemed peripheral, manageable, or amenable to checkbook diplomacy. 

Ostpolitik gradually shrank to Russlandpolitik; “modernization partnerships” with Moscow were privileged over deeper ties with Eastern European capitals. Feelings of guilt driven by Nazi-era crimes against the Soviet Union were largely transposed to Russia, even though millions of Ukrainians and others in the former Soviet space were also prime Nazi victims. Wandel durch Annäherung (change through rapprochement) morphed into Wandel durch Handel (change through trade), with Russian and Chinese variants: German companies could tap into these countries’ vast resources; and as each country developed a greater stake in the international rules-based order, its authoritarian traits would attenuate.

Of course, Germany was not alone in viewing the post-Cold War world in this way. Yet perhaps more than others, the Germans identified their own path with this paradigm. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as such a shock because it was an assault on Germany’s very notion of itself.

The Zeitenwende

That’s why Scholz’ speech to the German Bundestag, three days after Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, was so remarkable. Russia’s attack, Scholz declared, had triggered an epochal tectonic shift—eine Zeitenwende—“in the history of our continent.”

Scholz announced that Berlin would pivot in three areas. First, Germany would wean itself off its Russian energy dependencies and join unprecedented international sanctions against Moscow. “Nothing is off the table,” Scholz said. Second, Germany would give Ukraine weapons to defend itself. Third, Berlin would revitalize its military with a one-off €100 billion fund—twice the annual defense budget. It would invest “more than” 2 percent of its GDP annually on defense. It would help to defend “every square meter of NATO territory.”

At a stroke, Scholz had recast Germany’s debate about its role in Europe and the world. He jettisoned his country’s decades-old principle not to deliver arms to a warring party in an inter-state conflict. He challenged such long-standing precepts as strategic reticence, disdain of hard power, and Wandel durch Handel—at least for Russia, if not yet for China. He justified these changes as the logical consequence of Germany’s Westbindung, its commitment to rules-based order, and its long-standing rule not to be isolated or go it alone.

Scholz’s speech was welcomed enthusiastically across the country and among Germany’s partners and allies. Trembling as he spoke, Scholz was likely not the only member of the Bundestag that day who wondered whether his government could actually realize the aspirations he had just set forth.

By capturing that moment as a Zeitenwende, the chancellor of continuity had conjured a vision of fundamental change. One of his predecessors, Helmut Schmidt, famously said that if you are having visions, you should see a doctor. It’s time for Germany’s annual Zeitenwende checkup.

One Year On, How Has Germany Fared?

Healthy progress has been made on some fronts. Sanctions continue and are being expanded. Germany zeroed out its significant fossil fuel dependencies on Moscow without undermining its economy or unduly derailing its green transition. It is the third largest supplier of military assistance to Ukraine, and the third largest country supplier of combined humanitarian, economic, and financial assistance.  It has taken in around 1 million Ukrainian refugees. Up to 5,000 Ukrainian troops are training on German territory, and more are coming. Together with other partners Berlin has developed a platform of major donors to coordinate long-term reconstruction. Scholz was a vocal proponent of the European Union’s June 2022 decision to make Ukraine and Moldova candidates for eventual accession, and to offer Georgia a European perspective.

Germany’s record is less good on a comparative basis. It has provided only a little more than half the military assistance delivered by the smaller UK economy, and only about one-tenth that supplied by the United States. On a per capita basis it is also contributing less overall aid than the US and UK, and substantially less than smaller and poorer economies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states, Portugal, and Canada.

Perhaps most damaging has been Berlin’s stutter-step on arms deliveries. From helmets to air defense systems to self-propelled howitzers to multiple-rocket launchers to Marder infantry fighting vehicles to Leopard tanks, it’s always the same dance: Berlin initially refuses to meet Kyiv’s requests, or stops others from doing so. Red lines are announced that cannot be crossed—until they are.

Germany is not alone in its caution. Allies want to support Ukraine, but they do not want the war to engulf NATO and Russia in direct conflict. Many are fearful that Putin could resort to nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, Berlin’s red line hesitations are as much about Germany as they are about Ukraine. Its foreign policy corsets pinch and tug. The pacifism of “Never Again War” clashes with the principles behind “Never Again Auschwitz.” The country’s entrenched—some would say encrusted—political culture of military reticence still rewards caution. Scholz regularly justifies his rebuffs of Ukrainian appeals by saying that Germany “cannot be singularized” or “go it alone,” even though in almost all instances NATO was explicit that it ruled nothing out, and other allies were either already delivering or ready to meet Ukrainian requests.

Meanwhile, Scholz’ promise to strengthen the Bundeswehr is faltering and his pledge to meet Germany’s NATO commitments is looking hollow. Berlin affirmed its continued role in nuclear sharing by procuring dual-capable F-35s, but little more than one-tenth of the €100 billion fund has been committed. German military experts say €300 billion will be needed if Scholz is to make good on his pledge to make Germany “the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be.” That money is nowhere to be found. Instead of spending “more” than 2 percent on defense, as Scholz announced, Germany currently spends 1.44 percent. The government has capped the annual defense budget at €50.1 billion, far lower than the €85 billion needed to meet the 2 percent spending target by the end of 2026.

The “Zeitenwende im Kopf”

If Scholz’ pledges are measured against Germany’s own long-standing strictures, then it is clear the country has taken many courageous, if often halting, steps. However, adapting to a true Zeitenwende—literally a turning of the times—demands more.

Immediate challenges await. More NATO allies want to shift away from piecemeal provision of weapons to wholesale supply of capabilities that can help Ukraine not just repel Russian assaults but take back lost territory, so it can engage Moscow from a position of strength. Germany will be pressured to step up.

Berlin also has yet to digest how the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific have become strategically linked, and how Germany’s energy shifts essentially mean that it is trading its fossil-fuel dependencies on Russia for critical-materials dependencies on China. The Wandel durch Handel mentality still largely prevails with regard to China, even though Beijing is challenging Germany’s own industrial model and the rules-based order in which Berlin is so invested.

Having invoked the Zeitenwende, Scholz has been vague about what it means exactly. Initially, he attributed it to Russia’s war. Recently, he has acknowledged that “the tectonic shifts run much deeper.” By and large, however, his view remains narrowly focused on great-power competition. Neither he nor his colleagues have even begun to help their compatriots understand how to navigate the far greater currents of change under way.

Humankind is experiencing a Zeitenwende from the post-Wall world’s trente glorieuses to a more dangerous and volatile “Age of Disruption” that includes, but is not limited to, state-centric rivalries. Power is leaking from state to non-state actors. Emerging technologies are changing the very nature of cooperation and competition. Digital transformations are upending the foundations of diplomacy and defense. Climate change and energy transitions are posing new security dilemmas, generating unfamiliar dependencies, and amplifying crises. Governments accustomed to protecting their territories must also focus more intently on protecting their connectedness—the many economic, environmental, technological, and human flows that keep their societies running.

Addressing these disruptive changes will be challenging for a country whose watchwords have been caution, stability, and “No Experiments!” At the same time, Germany is as well-placed as any country not only to survive, but to thrive, in this new environment—if it is prepared once again to adapt old mantras to new truths, and to understand its centrality less as Europe’s geopolitical middle and more as one of the world’s critical connective hubs. Ultimately, Germany’s response to the Zeitenwende won’t be measured in tank deliveries or energy flows, but in the recesses of its national psyche.

That’s a murky realm. Years after the physical walls dividing East and West Germans had fallen, mental walls—die Mauer im Kopf—remained. Physicians called it Wendekrankheit, turn-about illness, a case of the mental bends caused by rapid change.

Similar challenges await today. Adjustments will take time. Germany’s cultural-historical traumas run deep. In many ways, the country continues to define itself against the past rather than position itself for the future. The Zeitenwende im Kopf will be its hardest test.

Daniel S. Hamilton  is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, president of the Transatlantic Leadership Network, and co-leads “The United States, Europe, and World Order” postdoctoral program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he is a senior fellow in the school’s Foreign Policy Institute.

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