News came last week, courtesy of German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, that Germany had completed a delivery of 18 Leopard 2 A6 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Still more, as Reuters reported on April 2, the German defense contractor Rheinmetall will set up a “military maintenance and logistics hub” in Satu Mare, Romania. What some might reasonably see as a major departure from Germany’s postwar foreign and defense posture is also the fulfillment of a promise German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made in his paradigm shifting Zeitenwende (“Turning Point”) speech of February 27, 2022. Speaking in the chamber of the Bundestag, Scholz proclaimed that…
We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before.The issue at the heart of this is…whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.That requires strength of our own.
Scholz went on to pledge €100 billion for “a special fund for the Bundeswehr” and to meet what had heretofore been a mysteriously unattainable target of two percent of German GDP on defense spending.
The Green’s Hawks Take Flight
In an interview with a leading member of Washington’s captive nations lobby, Germany’s ambassador to the US, Emily Haber, made the case for the Zeitenwende’s efficacy, noting that Germany is “…now the EU’s largest [provider] of military support [to] Ukraine and mind you, before the war, we even refused to send military equipment to Ukraine.”
Haber, speaking with the Ukrainian-born CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, also put forward her view that the war in Ukraine, “is not only about borders and security in Europe, the outcome of the war is about the future, the global map of influence. And that’s existential for America too.”
Haber has been a particularly strident supporter of the Scholz policy, relentlessly tweeting about the size and scope of the military and humanitarian aid provide to Ukraine by Germany, to the point where she, taking a page out of former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul’s playbook, has become embroiled in twitter battles with representatives of her host country.
Why Haber feels she has the standing to twit-lecture a sitting US Senator (JD Vance) who was just sent to Washington by 2.2 million Ohio voters is anyone’s guess. But it is indicative of the self-righteous stridency which characterizes the German Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. Perhaps because popular sovereignty doesn’t count for much among the Greens, as witness Baerbock’s pledge that she will put Ukraine first “no matter what my German voters think.”
Withal, the transformation of the Greens into the most militant and slavishly Atlanticist members of the German political establishment is one of the more remarkable transformations in recent European political history and one that was repeatedly remarked upon in conversations I had with parliamentarians, staffers and activists on the left, right and center of the political spectrum in Berlin in March.
Die Linke’s deputy leader, Sevim Dagdelen, MdB, told me that, “The Greens were once the party of peace and demilitarization, but now they are the strongest warmongers in Germany…very linked to the Trans-Atlantic community.”
The power that the Greens now hold in Berlin is partly owed to the influence of a network of transatlantic think tanks which many observers I spoke to believe serve as a kind of beachhead for the US national security establishment. In Dagdelen’s view, “The media landscape in Germany is very much influenced by the trans-Atlantic think tanks. Most of the executive editors, chief editors, are members of transatlantic partnership think tanks, such as Atlantic Council, Atlantic Bridge, German Marshall Fund.” And as if to prove her point, right on cue, the neoconservative Atlantic Council published a piece complaining that Scholz has “routinely missed the mark and gotten in the way of his own big idea.”
Zeitenwende oder Ostpolitik?
A SPD parliamentarian who was in the chamber when Scholz delivered his Zeitenwende address told me that he and his colleagues were shocked – not so much by the content of the speech but by the militant, even joyful reaction of the conservative CDU/CSU members to Scholz’s seeming repudiation of German foreign policy since 1945.
Ostensibly, the Zeitenwende is a 180 degree (not, as Ms. Baerbock recently opined, a 360 degree) turn away from Ostpolitik, the “Eastern Policy” of normalizing relations with the countries of the communist bloc that was crafted by Chancellor Willy Brandt and his advisor Egon Bahr in the late 1960s.
According to Ralf Stegner, MdB, deputy leader of the SPD in the Bundestag, “There is pressure on SPD to change their policy to send more and more weapons combined with an attack on the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt.”
“On foreign policy,” he continued, “some in the CDU/CSU and many in the Green Party have a moralistic view that ‘we must punish the authoritarian regimes,’ but it’s not a smart foreign policy not to speak to them.”
Some don’t see the Scholz policy as that drastic of a change. Joachim Schuster, SPD member of the European Parliament told me that, “Scholz has said we don’t want to become a party to the war. Nor does he say that Ukraine must win the war. He speaks about the fact that Ukraine must not lose the war. In addition, he stressed that further diplomatic efforts are also needed.”
Professor Hajo Funke, professor of politics and culture at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at The Free University of Berlin, told me that in his view, “Formally, at least, the SPD is united behind Scholz but there are signs of an internal split, the Bundestag SPD faction chief Rolf Mutzenich, is a supporter of Ostpolitik. Scholz himself is wavering, being very cautious not only because of the public wave of support for Ukraine, but also because his coalition partners, the Greens and Free Democrats, are pushing it, so it’s a balancing act, and in this situation he is somewhere between Biden and Macron.”
Others on the left and right ends of the political spectrum take a more critical view.
Die Linke’s Dagdelen agrees with Funke that Scholz is “under pressure from a number of different quarters, especially by his coalition partners, the Greens and the Liberals.” Yet she believes that by deciding to get further involved in the war effort, Scholz has “entirely turned his back on the legacy of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.”
Dagdelen said, “The decision of the German government to deliver Leopard 2 battle tanks taken in response to massive pressure from the US, paves the way to making Germany more and more of a party to the conflict and sending it into the line of fire against Russia. The German government is acting as a willing vassal to the US administration and bowing down to the US’s strategy of driving a wedge between Germany and Russia.”
Officials I spoke to on the far-right have also been critical. An AfD politician from Brandenburg told me that in his view “a Cold War mindset still holds power over the Western part of Germany.” “But Germany,” he said, “should be neutral and has no interest in this war.”
Yet it would be a mistake to view the Zeitenwende as burying Ostpolitik once and for all. Indeed, recent months have seen a wave of popular dissent over Germany’s deepening involvement in the war.
In February, at the instigation of the feminist activist Alice Schwarzer and Sarah Wagenkneckt, a leading Die Linke member of the Bundestag, a ‘Manifesto for Peace’ was published which demanded Scholz, “to stop the escalation of arms deliveries, Immediately!” Further, the Manifesto called for Scholz to, “Lead a strong alliance for a ceasefire and peace negotiations at both German and European level.” The Manifesto led, in the weeks that followed, to a demonstration which drew 50,000 to the center of Berlin.
Professor Funke, one of the original signers of the Manifesto, told me that when it was released the signers faced what he described as a series of “McCarthyite smears” from the media. Yet the tide began to turn as the popularity of the Manifesto grew to the hundreds of thousands (as of this writing it has garnered over 775,000 signatures). One positive sign Funke pointed to is the support for negotiations by Wolfgang Ischinger, a former ambassador to the US who served as chairman of the Munich Security Conference from 2008 to 2022. Funke says that “public opinion may be turning and Ischinger is a good indication of this as an important German public intellectual.” A follow up peace appeal spearheaded by the historian Peter Brandt, son of the late Chancellor, was published in Germany this week.
So while it is clear that the German political establishment remains, for now, firmly under the thumb of the US national security establishment, German public opinion is a different matter altogether – and may be at a ‘turning point’ of its own.
James W. Carden is a member of the ACURA Board and a Writing Fellow at Globetrotter Media.