Germany, more Wende and less Zeit, please


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Back in the early 1950s, the first Secretary General of NATO, Lord Hastings Ismay, famously described the function of the recently born transatlantic alliance as being “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.” Although historians can find no evidence that Ismay actually said this, it has become such a fitting characterisation of Germany’s post-war situation that few pundits bother about its historical authenticity.

The catastrophic defeat of Germany in 1945, its unconditional surrender and subsequent occupation by the armies of four countries – with the Soviet Union continuing its occupation of East Germany until 1991 – enabled the wartime Allies to shape a new and different Germany, divided into two separate states: a capitalist one in the west and a communist one in the east. The economic, political and social systems in these two German states could not have been more different, making any rapprochement, let alone unification between them, improbable and dependent on the goodwill of the Allies. The division of Germany allowed for the broader division of Europe into two rival military and ideological camps with a sufficient power balance between them to make war or any challenge to the territorial status quo unthinkable. It may have been tough on the Germans, but this arrangement suited many of Germany’s neighbours who had long lived under the shadow of Berlin’s military power, expansionist ambitions and quest for continental domination. As the French novelist, François Mauriac quipped: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”

It was also an arrangement that, over time, suited the Germans, whether they lived in the west or the east. For West Germans, the protection of the United States and NATO against the Cold War communist threat meant that denazification didn’t need to be pursued too far or too long. West Germans could concentrate on economic revival rather than military prowess. The Wirtschaftswunder, also known as the Miracle on the Rhine, and the strength of the Deutschmark became the new source of national pride. The beginning of the European Union allowed reconciliation with the old enemy, France, and political leadership to be shared with Paris. The constitution of West Germany committed the country to restraint in military matters and made the use of force abroad a decision as much for the courts as for the government. Year in and year out, opinion polls showed that West Germans wanted their country to be like neutral Switzerland rather than the heavily armed superpower America. The shock of defeat in 1945 and the destruction of their country seemed to turn Germans into born-again pacifists. When the new Bundeswehr was set up in the mid-1950s, a career in the army was so unattractive that the recruitment campaigns stressed the advantages of technical training and job skills rather than the lure of foreign adventures and doing one’s patriotic duty for the Fatherland. In East Germany, by contrast, living in a communist state made it easy for the Moscow-loyal leadership in East Berlin to blame the Nazi regime on the ‘neo-fascists’ and ‘revanchists’ living next door in West Germany. Eastern Germany, after all, had been the pre-war heartland of socialists, communists and the anti-Nazi resistance.

It would be “a European Germany” and not “a German Europe”

After Germany’s unification in October 1990, the leaders in Berlin were anxious to reassure their neighbours to the east and west, as well as the Soviet Union as it pulled its 19 divisions out of the former East Germany, that there would be more continuity than change. Rather than a new German state being created, as had happened with the unification of 1871, the unified Germany of 1990 was an enlarged West Germany, adding six new Länder to its east but with no change to its basic law or constitution. In the words of Chancellor Helmut Kohl: it would be “a European Germany” and not “a German Europe”. The new Germany would remain embedded in NATO, a US condition for the reunification of Germany that even the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, accepted as being in the interests of overall European security.

The peaceful end to the Cold War meant that Germany did not need to worry about its defence. The United Kingdom, France and Canada soon pulled their troops and air forces out of Germany, but the US kept many of its airbases and training centres, the US European Command (EUCOM) remained in Stuttgart and 40,000 US military personnel were still stationed in the country – albeit without the heavy tanks, artillery tubes and short-range nuclear weapons that they had during the Cold War years. With no global defence responsibilities, unlike the US, UK and France with their overseas territories and former colonies, Germans were able to reap the post-Cold War peace dividend more than most. The German news weekly, Der Spiegel, even carried a headline questioning whether Germany still needed an army.

Yet, the ‘end of history’ was a short-lived moment. With violence flaring in the Balkans and Libya, the US intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, and pirates seizing tanker ships in the Gulf of Aden, NATO’s new mantra of ‘out of area or out of business’ was soon put to the test. The alliance found itself running air campaigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia and Kosovo, sending sizeable ground forces to BiH, Kosovo and Afghanistan for years on end, and sending naval task forces to the eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. These expeditionary operations were voluntary but as they were agreed collectively by NATO, individual allies were under pressure to participate. This put Berlin in a difficult position. Its aircrews could not man NATO’s AWACS air monitoring planes over BiH because of a restriction in the German constitution on the Bundeswehr operating beyond alliance territory.

Germany was reluctant to take the lead

It took some years before the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe interpreted the constitution in a more permissive manner to allow the German armed forces to go on foreign missions subject to parliamentary approval. Germany was clearly uncomfortable with the use of force and feared casualties, and preferred peacekeeping on the ground, where the army could work closely together with its civilian counterparts in the police and federal cooperation and development agency, rather than the alliance’s aerial combat operations. It provided reconnaissance aircraft to NATO’s Kosovo air campaign in 1999 but dropped no bombs. When NATO launched another air campaign against Libya in 2011, Germany abstained in the vote to authorise the operation in the United Nations Security Council. Given that Germany’s closest allies, France and the UK, invoked the UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect to justify their intervention against Gaddafi, Berlin’s abstention and subsequent refusal to participate in the NATO air campaign to protect the civilians in Benghazi were all the more surprising. Clearly, Germany was reluctant to take the lead, vastly preferred diplomacy over the use of force, and made its foreign and security policy hostage to coalition politics and public opinion polls at home.

To be fair, the Germans did progressively take on more responsibility. The Bundeswehr was the second largest contributor to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and took charge of nearly the entire northern sector around Kunduz and Mazar el Shariff, even if this was initially the quietest part of the country. Doubling down in Afghanistan was also a way for Berlin to resist US pressures to send troops to Iraq. Germany also sent 1,000 troops and helicopters to assist the French counter-terrorism Barkhane operation in Mali. Closer to home, Germany assumed command of a NATO sector in BiH, sent troops to southern Kosovo and led a NATO naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean, working with the EU Frontex border agency to monitor illegal migration from Turkey into Greece. Germany might be near the bottom of the alliance’s league table when it came to spending 2% of its GDP on defence, averaging around 1.2% each year, and the Bundeswehr was showing increasing signs of lack of investment and training, but if contributions rather than cash or capabilities were to be the yardstick for measuring transatlantic burden-sharing, Berlin would be near the top. Yet, the wear and tear on the Bundeswehr was starting to undermine its operational capability and worry the allies. Four years ago, all of Germany’s navy was in port at the same time due to maintenance and refitting requirements. The Luftwaffe had to ground one-third of its fleet of Eurofighter jets due to a lack of pilot training and spare parts. Bundeswehr readiness levels were near the bottom of the NATO table and German units turning up at live fire exercises had too little ammunition to participate. There were even embarrassing reports of German soldiers using broomsticks on exercises to replace rifles in short supply. The Parliamentary Ombudsman for the Bundeswehr would publish an annual report detailing these equipment and training gaps and point to the 18,000 unfilled positions in the Bundeswehr’s officer ranks.

The military threat to Europe has significantly increased

Beyond the immediate shortcomings of the armed forces, the allies were asking other questions of Germany. Would it pay more attention to global geopolitics and encourage more political debate on security and defence questions in the Bundestag, as well as in civil society and the media more generally? Would it follow France, the UK, the US and other allies in conducting periodic threat assessments and integrated security and defence reviews to adjust defence budgets and programmes to the evolving strategic landscape? Would it reduce its dependency on authoritarian states like Russia and China in fields such as energy, raw materials and trade so as not to hamper the West’s freedom of action, as relations with Russia and China turned increasingly adversarial, particularly after Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea in March 2014? Officials in Paris worried that Berlin was only paying lip service to long-standing French goals for European strategic autonomy and for Europe to become more self-reliant and militarily capable. Former German chancellor, Angela Merkel, concluded a Treaty of Aachen with Paris to set up a joint Security Council and intensify defence cooperation and joint procurement, but when it came to implementation, such as merging the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), Dassault and British Aerospace to form one European champion in military aircraft production or embarking on a Franco-German project to build a sixth generation fighter aircraft, Berlin hesitated, citing national industrial interests. Other major European arms programmes, such as the A400 transport aircraft, were frequently held up by Berlin changing specifications or its order book.

German leaders seemed practised in the art of Sonntagsreden, coming up with inspiring visions of European integration on a Sunday but then backing away from them in the cold light of dawn on a Monday morning. As Russia became more assertive and Europe less secure after 2014, many well-publicised speeches by Merkel and her foreign and defence ministers every February at the Munich Security Conference announced that Germany would assume more responsibility for its own and NATO’s security, put the legacy of World War Two behind it, and become a more ‘normal’ country when it came to accepting the use of military force, where necessary. These promises went down well with the Munich audiences. The former Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, remarked that he was the first Polish foreign minister in history to call for a stronger rather than a weaker Germany. Yet, action rarely followed the fine words. No new contracts were awarded to industry for new equipment for the Bundeswehr and little effort was made to engage German society on what a greater German role and responsibility on the world stage would mean in financial terms or specific commitments. Squeezed between pressures from the allies to raise its game and the constraints of coalition politics and an anxious public opinion, Berlin seemed wedded to a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ policy, doing as little as late as possible.

Putin’s second and much wider invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has made this balancing act much harder for Germany’s leaders. The military threat to Europe has significantly increased and devastating conventional war in Europe with mass casualties is once again a reality. The war in Ukraine has not only demonstrated just how indispensable the US is to security in Europe, but it has also underlined that Washington cannot deal with the twin challenge of Russian and Chinese expansionism all by itself. Previously, allies were there mainly for show or to provide legitimacy or niche capabilities; but in the future, allies will be called upon to provide real and significant capabilities and to be able to take on significant chunks of deterrence and warfighting roles by themselves. This is the sense of the AUKUS pact, which the US and UK have formed with Australia, that will give Canberra access to at least three US nuclear-powered submarines, as well as the most advanced and sensitive US and UK military technology. It is also the sense behind the spending increases and major military modernisation programmes that both Japan and South Korea have unveiled, as well as US efforts to persuade these two Asia-Pacific allies to work more closely together. Similarly in Europe, the US will expect its major allies to take on more of the defence burden and leadership.

Germany is playing its part in NATO’s enhanced forward presence

Immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz understood that life would not return to business as usual. In a remarkable speech to the Bundestag, Scholz announced the Zeitenwende or turning point. He called on Germany to adjust to the new, more dangerous geopolitical realities and said that Germany would henceforth meet the NATO defence spending pledge of 2% of GDP and inject €100bn into the Bundeswehr to remedy its immediate capabilities shortfalls. Coming in a speech to the Bundestag and thus appealing directly to the German public, the Zeitenwende had credibility that previous speeches to groups of international security policy experts in Munich had lacked. Yet, unsurprisingly, given Germany’s zig-zag proclivities, in the 12 months since the Chancellor’s pathbreaking speech, the results have been mixed.

On the plus side, Berlin has greatly reduced its imports of Russian gas and oil from a pre-war level of around 50% to around 15% today. It has built three liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals to be able to access global LNG markets and extended the life of its nuclear power stations. In truth, this particular dimension of the Zeitenwende was imposed on Germany by force of circumstances. Just prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Berlin had decided not to operate the recently constructed Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Moscow soon halted its gas supplies to Germany following the latter’s support for Kyiv. Yet, reducing trade and investment dependency on China has proved far more difficult. The Chancellor went ahead with a controversial trade delegation to Beijing, refusing the offer of President Macron to accompany him and make it more of an EU geopolitical trip. More recently, Berlin has given China permission to buy the third terminal of the port of Hamburg after a heated domestic debate.

In the military field, by contrast, the Zeitenwende has been slow to materialise. Germany is playing its part in NATO’s enhanced forward presence. It commands the NATO multinational battalion in Lithuania and has also taken the rotational lead of the alliance’s very high readiness force (VJTF) this year. Germany has also finally decided on the modernisation of its fighter aircraft by ordering a mixture of upgraded Eurofighters and US F35s. The acquisition of the latter will enable Germany to perform its alliance nuclear tasks by carrying modernised US B61 sub-strategic nuclear weapons. Yet, one high-tech and expensive procurement is not equivalent to the root-and-branch organisational reform that the Bundeswehr needs. Berlin recently revealed that it is still not able to meet its full VJTF commitments due to a lack of sufficient tanks and armoured vehicles. Its new infantry fighting vehicle, the Puma, repeatedly broke down on exercises and had to be withdrawn from service. The issue of supplying weapons to Ukraine has put the spotlight on the shortages of operational Leopard 2 tanks and other equipment, with the result that Germany has been able to transfer only small numbers at a time. The CEOs of the major German defence contractors all say that they are waiting for the Ministry of Defence to decide how to spend the additional €100bn and for government orders before hiring staff, buying new machine tools and reopening production lines. Whether the money will be spent mainly on the army, naval, air force or spare parts for existing equipment rather than investing in new capabilities is still not clear. Moreover, German defence spending has moved no closer to the NATO 2% mark at a time when the alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is calling for this to be the minimum rather than the ceiling. The latest NATO figure for Germany is 1.49%, this puts the country in 18th position out of 30 NATO member states despite the €100bn add-on.

Berlin has been criticised for being slow to respond to Kyiv’s requests

So, what can Germany do to produce more Wende in less Zeit in this second year of the war in Ukraine?

Firstly, Berlin needs to present its much-delayed integrated review of security and defence, and finally establish a national security council to coordinate crisis management across government departments in the same way as the US, the UK and France. A threat assessment, usually a sensitive issue for Germans, should not be too difficult given that Berlin has agreed last year to the threat assessments contained in the EU’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s Strategic Concept.

Second, the new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, has to present a detailed and coherent reform plan for the Bundeswehr to parliament before the summer. It needs to look at structures such as divisions, brigades and battalions, the balance between light, heavy and special forces and the future of the navy and the air force, as well as the army reserve. The plan, moreover, needs to state how the €100bn will be allocated and how Germany will set priorities to re-equip its armed forces, especially through cooperative R&D and joint programmes with its allies. The emphasis has to be on making the Bundeswehr capable of sustaining and winning high-intensity conventional combat. Although Pistorius has no background in defence and security, he seems to have gained the confidence of the troops in a way that his hapless predecessor, Christine Lambrecht, never could. In his first weeks in office, he fired the armed forces chief, Eberhard Zorn, accused of being too sympathetic to Russia, and replaced him with the rising star of the Bundeswehr, Carsten Breuer, who came to public prominence by successfully managing the army’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a sign of the Bundeswehr’s stepped-up role, Pistorius could announce at the forthcoming NATO summit in Vilnius in July that Germany will station a full armoured brigade in Lithuania with equipment, logistics and a headquarters. He could also announce the formation of an armoured division, which could be stationed in Poland, and offer to act as the framework nation for another armoured division to be made up of the smaller allies in central and eastern Europe that could be stationed in Germany as part of NATO’s strategic reserve. Pistorius has already started to lobby hard for an additional 10bn to €20bn to replenish Germany’s depleted stocks of ammunition, as these are not covered by the initial €100bn add-on.

Next would be Germany’s leadership of a consortium of European allies to provide land armour to Ukraine. Berlin has been criticised for being slow to respond to Kyiv’s requests for things like tanks, armoured personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery and air defence systems. Chancellor Scholz has certainly not wanted to be out in front regarding such transfers. He insisted, much to the reluctance of the White House, that the US should provide MI Abrams tanks to Ukraine before Germany would supply its much older Leopard 2 tanks. At each stage, Berlin has wanted the cover of the US and the participation of other allies before digging into its own weapons stocks. From the beginning of Putin’s invasion, the German preference has clearly been to backfill other allies transferring their equipment to Ukraine, as with Leopards to Slovakia to replace Slovak T72 tanks sent to Kyiv, rather than transferring its own equipment directly to Ukraine’s army.

The war in Ukraine has reaffirmed the leading role of NATO in the defence of Europe

Yet, step by step, Germany has become one of the largest suppliers of arms to Ukraine. At the recent Munich Security Conference, it was Chancellor Scholz who criticised Germany’s European allies for dragging their feet on the Leopard 2 transfers after Berlin had committed to offer 14 Leopards immediately, upgrade many others not currently in service and give Ukraine 100 of its older Leopard 1 tanks. Berlin plans to equip two Ukrainian tank battalions with 60 modern Leopard 2 tanks drawn from the 11 European countries that operate this type of tank. It is also offering 40 of its Marder armoured personnel carriers. Ukraine will need hundreds of Western tanks and armoured vehicles if it is to push the Russians back. So, there is a natural role for Berlin to lead a European armaments consortium that can upgrade equipment, produce spare parts, carry out training for the Ukrainian tank crews, repair the tanks and supply ammunition. The EU has agreed to release €2bn from its European Peace Facility to purchase and produce 155mm and other types of munitions for Ukraine’s tanks and artillery. This will need the re-organisation of Europe’s defence industry and bulk purchase contracts to ensure the smallest unit price. Germany has two of the largest land armament companies, Rheinmetall and Kraus-Maffei Wegmann. So, here is an opportunity for Berlin to demonstrate leadership and help to restructure Europe’s defence industry base for increased production and cost efficiency in the process. In a sign that Berlin may indeed be willing to take on this industrial leadership role, Pistorius has told his EU counterparts that Germany will open its national framework contracts with German defence companies to its EU partners.

Finally, the test of the Zeitenwende will be inBerlin’s response to French calls for greater EU defence cooperation, capability and self-reliance. Germany knows that the central and eastern European allies do not like the term ‘European strategic autonomy’. The war in Ukraine has reaffirmed the leading role of NATO in the defence of Europe with the US once more providing the bulk of military assistance to Ukraine and the forces to defend NATO’s eastern flanks. More European responsibility and capabilities are in everyone’s interest and President Macron now speaks of these efforts as being as much to strengthen NATO as to give the EU more autonomy. In a sign of its commitment to the alliance, Paris has assumed command of the new NATO multinational battalion in Romania and has deployed Leclerc tanks and AMX 10 infantry fighting vehicles to support its troops there.

Yet, the Ukraine crisis has shown that there are a number of challenges that the EU in particular has to deal with and that cannot be left to NATO. One is the restructuring of Europe’s defence industries to rapidly resupply military equipment and rebuild stocks. If defence budgets are rising and the EU is now spending its collective funds on military equipment, there is a requirement to spend the money efficiently and avoid the duplication, delays and massive cost overruns that have bedevilled European defence cooperation in the past. There is also the need for the EU to maintain sanctions on Moscow, probably beyond the duration of the war in Ukraine, to deal with Iran’s support to Moscow and to handle a more assertive China giving its backing to Putin and using economic coercion against individual EU member states. The EU needs to look at its resilience and the protection of its critical infrastructure, as well as the integrity of its supply chains and energy supplies. A recent bill proposed by the European Commission to produce 10% of its critical rare earths and precious metals at home, as well as a recent new EU maritime strategy to protect underwater pipelines, cables, and oil and gas drilling platforms, point in the right direction. Finally, the EU needs to debate how it can best handle the non-Ukraine security challenges, for instance, the upsurge in illegal migration across the Mediterranean or the rise of jihadism and intra-state armed gangs across west Africa.

Berlin should now engage London on defence

All these challenges need closer and more systematic cooperation between Paris and Berlin. The Merkel years were very much characterised by the ‘two steps forward, one step back’ approach. Merkel’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, even publicly criticised French plans for European strategic autonomy. A meeting of the Franco-German Security Council at the summit level was recently postponed by Paris because of a lack of progress in bilateral defence cooperation. Berlin was hesitating on moving ahead with the sixth generation fighter aircraft project, citing differences with France over technology exchanges and production sharing. Yet now, the bilateral defence summit has taken place and Berlin has resolved its issues with Paris over the fighter project and approved the next tranche of funding to allow the prototype development to move ahead. Paris would also like to discuss with Berlin the integration of the air and missile defence in the EU area based on Germany’s Sky Shield initiative. Both France and Germany have moved closer to support Ukraine, with Paris even being the first to offer Kyiv heavy armoured vehicles, specifically AMX 10 RC. So, this is the moment for France and Germany to resume their traditional role as the driving force of EU foreign and defence policy coordination, being careful to draw in other member states, like Poland, Italy and Spain as they go along. Macron has also usefully reached out to the UK, holding the first summit with a UK prime minister in five years and discussing maritime cooperation and joint missile production with London as part of that process. Berlin should now engage London on defence as well.

Assessing the revolutions across Europe in 1848, the Oxford historian, A.J.P. Taylor wrote famously that “German history reached its turning point and failed to turn.” It is a salutary reminder that Zeitenwende is not inevitable or automatic forces shaping events beyond human agency, but opportunities that statesmen either seize or do not seize. The number of post-war German chancellors who have abandoned their customary focus on economics and domestic politics and been, in the words of Bismarck, prepared to “[grasp] history by the scruff of the neck” is limited and Helmut Kohl, the father of German unification and the euro stands above all the others in this category. Chancellor Scholz has displayed a traditional caution, preparing the ground carefully before he acts. Yet recently, he has begun to act more boldly and show leadership. It will not be easy. He is at the head of a fractious ‘traffic light’ coalition. Thirty pieces of legislation are currently blocked in the Bundestag because of internal coalition disputes, especially between the SPD and the financially conservative FDP. Germany is also backtracking on some of its commitments to the EU, notably on phasing out the production of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. Still, this is Chancellor Scholz’s historic opportunity to confound the sceptics and pull NATO and the EU forward and help to ensure the survival of an independent, sovereign Ukraine. That would definitely be a Zeitenwende worth having.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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