Will Germany's foreign policy 'Zeitenwende' last?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Lena Loch
Lena Loch

Programme Executive at Friends of Europe

On 27 February, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a historic speech to parliament, declaring an epochal change – or Zeitenwende – in foreign and security policy. The centrepiece was the announcement of a €100bn fund to modernise and equip the armed forces and meet NATO’s target of spending 2% of GDP on defence.

Scholz acknowledged Germany had been naive about security threats to the democratic world and announced that Berlin would join other Western capitals in supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine, reversing a longstanding policy of refusing to deliver arms to crisis regions.   

Berlin’s international behaviour has shifted drastically since that moment. Politicians – especially from the Greens, which hold both the Federal Foreign Office and Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action– were forced to reconsider fundamental beliefs and adapt quickly to the strategic changes.

Almost half of Germans surveyed for the magazine Der Spiegel said the invasion of Ukraine had changed their political beliefs. Politicians are no exception

There is no doubt that a genuine Zeitenwende is under way, with key policy changes implemented within days. Long a pacifist society, Germany is now widely supporting a government sending weapons to a war zone and investing heavily in defence, according to opinion polls. Voters also overwhelmingly backed the decision to cancel the completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, previously defended as a purely commercial energy project.

Almost half of Germans surveyed for the magazine Der Spiegel said the invasion of Ukraine had changed their political beliefs. Politicians are no exception. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democratic and former federal minister of foreign affairs, was a long-time supporter of Nord Stream 2. He made a stunning apology for his past positions, admitting he had been naive and misjudged Putin’s imperial intentions.

How durable the radical policy shift initiated by Scholz proves to be will depend crucially on the Social Democratic chancellor’s willingness to invest his political capital in continuing to explain the Zeitenwende. Since his landmark speech, he has reverted to caution rather than seizing opportunities to build public support for a tougher approach.

The reasons behind the sudden huge investment in the Bundeswehr are not clear to many Germans

On the day of his speech, more than 100,000 people joined a ‘stop the war’ protest rally in Berlin against the Russian invasion. Five weeks after the war began, tens of thousands of people are still turning out regularly on the streets of big cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart or Frankfurt. ‘Anti-war’ pacifists rub shoulders with activists supporting Ukraine’s fight to drive out Russia in those demonstrations. But Germany is mostly made up of smaller provincial towns and the change of epoch has not yet arrived everywhere.

Whereas in Berlin, movements like the climate action group Fridays for Future strongly support the protests, and others have organised a peace concert that raised €12mn for humanitarian aid, people are less active in other regions. There have been smaller anti-war protests but, especially in places that experienced anti-vaccination and anti-system demonstrations during the COVID-19 pandemic, many citizens are cautious and don’t want to get involved.

The reasons behind the sudden huge investment in the Bundeswehr are not clear to many Germans, some of whom fear military entanglement in the war. The Der Spiegel survey found more than half of participants fear the Ukraine conflict could escalate into a third world war and that Russia could use nuclear weapons. Alongside support for the large investment in the military and fear of what that means for Germany’s role in this war, there is also growing incomprehension.

Putin’s invasion has narrowed those generational and east-west gaps

Many people are asking where the money will come from and why is it possible to suddenly take on so much debt for the military when investments are urgently needed in so many other areas. The pandemic showed how poorly equipped German schools are with computers and how inadequate the national digital infrastructure is. Health authorities are still working partly with fax machines. Air filters for all schools were considered too expensive or not feasible because buildings were too old. Despite much public discussion during the pandemic, pay and working conditions for healthcare workers and nursing staff shortages have not yet improved significantly. Activist groups have been demanding investment of far less than €100bn in the green energy transition for years – a move that would have made Germany less dependent on Russian energy by now.

Perceptions of Russia have varied between the remnants of the World War Two generation, who witnessed devastation and reconstruction on their own soil, those whose outlook was shaped by a divided Germany for 40 years, and those who grew up after reunification in 1990. The younger generation never experienced war or its consequences. To them, war in Europe seemed to be an impossibility.

But Putin’s invasion has narrowed those generational and east-west gaps, creating a broad potential support base for the new foreign policy. We now witness people of all generations providing support in various ways, from welcoming refugees at train stations to offering them a room in their own house. Modern Germany is known for this humane society, but just like after the influx of Syrian refugees in 2015, support can wear thin when domestic problems become too pressing.

Scholz must take full ownership of his new policy to ensure its lasting acceptance in Germany

Next to the grievances caused by lack of investments in areas such as education, healthcare or the energy transition; higher prices for food, heating and driving will over time increase discontent.

To maintain societal support – not only for refugees but also for the new direction in foreign and security policy – people need a visible leader they trust to implement the changes.

Scholz is not currently playing that role. While his strong stance against Russia won praise in foreign media, the chancellor remains reserved when addressing the domestic consequences or giving the public an explanation. He has missed opportunities to press home the Zeitenwende, notably after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s excoriating video address to the Bundestag in mid-March.

Scholz must take full ownership of his new policy to ensure its lasting acceptance in Germany.

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