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Germany Is Still Adjusting to the New European Reality

And it continues to lag in its defense measures.
April 12, 2023
Germany Is Still Adjusting to the New European Reality
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks in the Bundestag one year on since his "Zeitenwende" speech, the term he used following Russia's military invasion of Ukraine to describe a new era in the European political landscape, on March 02, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. Scholz said today that Germany stands resolutely behind Ukraine and that Putin has miscalculated if he thinks time is on his side in Russia's ongoing war. A crucial part of Scholz's speech one year ago was the announcement of a special EUR 100 billion fund to modernize Germany's under-funded military, though critics charge too little of the fund has so far been spent. Overall Scholz has again and again been perceived as failing to show determined leadership when it comes to Germany's military and its military support for Ukraine. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Each U.S. president of the twenty-first century—Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden—voiced concern about the lack of seriousness with which Europe treated its own security in the years preceding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The European Union is an economic behemoth, but for far too long it has been allowed to outsource its protection to an increasingly frustrated United States. This dependency has now led French President Emmanuel Macron to controversially warn of Europeans becoming “vassals” amid escalating tensions between the world’s great military powers.

While Macron’s statement was hyperbolic, from a European perspective, one bitter positive emerging from the war in Ukraine is a belated realization of the need for greater military self-sufficiency. This is most clearly visible in Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s lauded announcement of a Zeitenwende—a major turning point—in German defense policy just days after Russian tanks first rolled in Ukraine promised to reinvent the country’s military capabilities. The creation of a €100 billion fund for defense renewal suggested Germany’s reluctance to take responsibility for security would soon become a thing of the past.

But a year on, the results look underwhelming. Last month, Eva Högl, Germany’s parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, said “not a single euro or cent of this special fund has been spent,” lamenting that the armed forces have “too little of everything.” Barracks are reportedly “pitiful,” with some lacking functioning toilets or other basic amenities. Högl’s scathing assessment brings to mind past embarrassments, such as the famous participation of German soldiers in a 2015 NATO training exercise wielding broomsticks.

Scholz’s Zeitenwende was supposed to fix things, making Germany a central player in a more proactive Europe. But Högl’s criticisms suggest the requisite sense of urgency is missing, and further embarrassment was caused last week by Defense Minister Boris Pistorius’s admission that gaps in the German military won’t be plugged until at least 2030. This, he admits, will effectively put a stopper on arms deliveries for Ukraine, as Germany can’t “give everything away.”

A leaked memo from military top brass has raised the possibility that new divisions promised by Germany to NATO won’t be ready on time, suggesting that the way things are progressing, the German army would “not be able to hold its own in high-intensity combat, and will only be able to fulfil its obligations to NATO to a limited extent.” Högl has meanwhile criticized recruitment goals set by the Defense Ministry as “unattainable.” She said “the challenge with personnel is even greater than with materiel.”

These shortcomings are painful given the optimism that greeted Scholz’s Zeitenwende announcement, but they’re thrown into even sharper relief by the ambitious military program being pursued just over the border in Poland. When it comes to new defense targets, Warsaw makes Berlin look like a penny-pincher: Poland is aiming to grow its troop numbers to 400,000, almost double that of Germany’s target of 203,000, while ramping up defense spending to a whopping 5 percent of GDP—Germany’s current level is roughly 1.5 percent, still way below the NATO spending target of 2 percent. And Poland is already planning the disbursement of those new funds, announcing procurements for tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, combat aircraft, howitzers, HIMARS rocket launchers, and more.

Allowances should be made to Germany for the massive administrative burden of military tenders that, under normal circumstances, take years to complete, as well as the compromises necessary to keep together its fragile coalition government. Germany should also be given more credit for the hefty contribution it has already made to Ukraine’s defense; whatever critics say, approving deliveries of Leopard tanks was a huge leap—not least in psychological terms for the German public—from Berlin’s previous non-interventionist attitude to conflict.

Yet this longstanding opposition to militarization still imposes limitations on any deeper shift in the country’s military capabilities. In Eastern European countries such as Poland, the Ukraine war has clarified and confirmed long-held beliefs about international security. In Germany, on the other hand, the old ways of viewing geopolitics have been destroyed, but there is still resistance to the demands of the new era. Germans still have deeply ingrained doubts regarding the idea that military strength could provide a shield for democratic values rather than a sword to cut them down.

A significant portion of the German public remains deeply hesitant about attempts to re-establish the country as a military power, and many are similarly hesitant about the provision of military support for Ukraine. Tomáš Kafka, the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Germany, told me that Germany’s struggle to reconcile new militarization with a troubled history is a source of concern for its allies to the east. “For some, fear has become a justification for abandoning Germany’s principle of learning lessons from the past, forgetting who is the culprit and who is the victim here,” he said about antiwar movements in Germany calling for an end to support for Ukraine.

Public reservations about military strength were for decades reflected in a political establishment that operated on the assumption that economic interdependencies would render military might irrelevant. This perception was also linked to German history; as Kafka puts it, “throughout the seven decades since World War II, peace has been something which Germans have been educated about, and it still resonates.” Yet this tradition is now “heavily under question. It’s necessary for all of us to realize that conflict won’t vanish, and to learn how to deal with it.”

A true Zeitenwende would require not just on a shift in policy, but a deeper shift in the national psyche. And while all of Europe re-evaluates its military preparedness in light of the invasion of Ukraine, Germany will be decisive for attempts to foster the kind of European self-sufficiency that would allow the United States to focus its attention in the Pacific while giving Europeans a firmer sense of control over their own destiny. But the evidence so far suggests that for Berlin, that sort of substantive change may still be a bridge too far.

William Nattrass

William Nattrass is a British journalist and commentator based in Prague.