Germany’s pacifist rot undermines Nato itself

‘This is a very clear signal: we stand by your side.” Somehow Germany’s defence minister managed to say that without a trace of irony as she announced on Wednesday that 5,000 helmets would be sent to help Ukraine deter an invasion of 100,000 Russian soldiers. The backlash to Christine Lambrecht’s words was as predictable as her inability to foresee it. Germany’s systemic risk-aversion has blinded the country to the expectations others place on it as a Nato member and the fourth largest economy in the world.

Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, was among those left “speechless” by Labrecht’s offer. “Five thousand helmets are a complete joke,” he told a German newspaper. “What is Germany going to send us next for support? Pillows?”

Klitschko’s relationship with Germany makes his anger particularly personal. He lived in the country during his career as a professional boxer and speaks German fluently. Angela Merkel herself lobbied intensely to install him as mayor of Kyiv in 2014, hoping it would help bind Ukraine closer to the West. Now Klitschko says he feels “betrayed by a friend” who shares his vision for Ukraine as a modern, liberal state but refuses to defend this idea.

Much has been made of Germany’s reliance on Russian gas – and there is certainly something in the theory that its reluctance to antagonise Moscow is a cynical policy aimed at economic advancement. The Green economics minister, Robert Habeck, said as much in a recent interview when he admitted that although it would be possible to diversify Germany’s energy sources, the “pipelines” are “so cheap for us”.

However, monetary interests alone are not enough to explain Germany’s reluctance to use its political weight when necessary. What neither Klitschko nor many other external observers understand is how deeply ingrained Germany’s aversion to military conflict is in the collective national psyche.

A YouGov survey released yesterday showed that only one in five Germans would support sending arms to Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock have nothing to fear domestically by ruling out the supply of lethal weapons. While pacifist attitudes are slightly stronger among the voters of Left-leaning parties, it goes right through the political spectrum. More than half of the voters of every major party oppose military support for Ukraine. As a result, there is no thorough parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s ambling security policy.

In understanding these attitudes, history matters – especially when it involves two world wars that caused the deaths of millions. While Germany has stabilised and regained the world’s trust, it has not yet learned to trust itself. The “Never Again” spirit born out of 1945 has left deep marks on the young post-war democracy to the point where not getting involved in armed conflict is seen as taking the moral high ground, often with no regard for the circumstances involved.

Perhaps the strongest recent expression of this mindset was the Syrian crisis, where Germany decided it was better to open its borders to more than a million migrants from a number of different countries than deal with the problem that caused those from Syria to flee their homes.

Even when chemical warfare attacks were carried out in the city of Douma in 2018, Germany did not take part in the air strikes conducted by the US, Britain and France, despite praising the operation as “necessary and appropriate”. Then-chancellor Angela Merkel said that although Germany would “not participate in possible military actions” in Syria, it still wanted to “send a clear signal” – words now repeated almost verbatim by her successors regarding Ukraine.

It is difficult to see where Germany’s red lines are. What would it take for the country to apply force to defend the values it speaks of so highly? Nato rests on collective defence, but could Germany be relied on to answer the call? That neither its allies nor its foes know the answer is undermining the alliance’s approach to deterrence and emboldening Vladimir Putin. An addiction to cheap Russian gas is just the start of its foreign policy malaise.

Katja Hoyer is an Anglo-German historian and Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London

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