14 min read — Opinion | Policy | Germany

German Zeitenwende Proves That Not Everything Looks Better in Slow-Motion

Almost two years after “Zeitenwende”, Germany’s leading role within the European Union is being challenged by internal instability and promises it cannot keep.
Opinion article
Euro Prospects Opinion Article: German Zeitenwende Proves That Not Everything Looks Better in Slow-Motion
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By Damian Elias Wollai

January 11, 2024 | 17:40

Although Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende-speech in February 2022 was seen as a signal that Germany had finally understood the signs of the times, internal problems are now calling into question the unity of the German governing coalition, its ability to shape (European) policy effectively, and its capacity to deliver on its international promises.

As a further challenge, a strengthened far right and a newly forming left are presenting concerning alternatives to Berlin’s current security and foreign policy course. And with European elections just around the corner, this revitalised opposition may be one of the big winners in German politics this year, causing lasting damage to European unity.

In a World full of uncertainty, time may run out for Berlin sooner than expected 

Three days after Russia’s infamous full-scale invasion of Ukraine, German chancellor Olaf Scholz affirmed that the circumstances under which German foreign and security policy was based had changed dramatically and referred to the event as a Zeitenwende (‘turning point’ in German). Scholz himself therefore called for a realignment of strategic and security policy, which would start by viewing Russia as an aggressor and hence a threat to European security. 

Unprecedented shifts in strategic policy were also marked by promises like a special fund for the German military of 100 billion euros, a diversification of supply chains, and a closer armament and security cooperation with European allies.

However, over the last months, it seemed as if these implications were losing momentum. Various security experts are criticising the lack of speed in the reorientation of German security policy and strategic thinking — and they are rightfully concerned because of it. The potential threat of Donald Trump’s re-election has stirred up fears that Europe may be on its own sooner than the German government might have expected.

It is now, if ever, the time for decisive European action backed by a responsible and leading Germany. As is so often the case in German security policy, it will take more pressure from European allies to bring Berlin into this role than initially assumed.

In the hopes of increasing international consciousness on the state of the German Zeitenwende, this article will take a closer look at the points that Scholz called for and see how far they have come almost two years after they were demanded.

A Nation cursed by its Size and History

Ever since the Fall of the Iron Curtain and with the horrible experiences from WW2 in mind, German society developed a certain self-skepticism towards own leadership claims. If one thing was certain, it was that Germany was no longer a military power that pushed for its interest via military means. That’s why Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” was particularly well received in Germany. His thesis that democracy had prevailed as a model of order because it satisfies the human need for social recognition relatively better than all other systems was well in line with Germans self-perception as a liberal-democratic “civilian power“. Berlin only had to contribute to the enforcement of rules in international relations through civilian conflict management and not through military means. After all, democracy had won, hadn’t it?

The concepts of “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade) and New Ostpolitik” that were first established by Chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s generally aimed at rapprochement — a policy of increasing trade and diplomatic interaction with authoritarian regimes in the hopes of bringing about political change. Indeed, for long it was practised with states such as the People’s Republic of China and Russia — even after the fall of the Iron Curtain — with the assumption that it would bring liberal-democratic concepts and values to those respective states.

The pacifist narrative that war and conflict were finally over for good had been far too tempting for a nation that played such inglorious roles in both World Wars and suffered so much from its consequences. Make no mistake, it is a commendable goal to work for world peace and international cooperation, but Germany has the “problem” that it is the wealthiest and largest democracy within the EU, and it is therefore understandably expected to advocate in favour of its smaller and weaker partners when clashes arise between them and, for example, Russia.

But this self-realisation of responsibility was not always the case in the past decade or so, since criticism from (especially) Central and Eastern Europe was often overlooked by German politicians in favour of good (economic) relations with Russia. 

The Slow Start of Zeitenwende and lacking German resilience

February 24th, 2022, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Following the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, several speeches were made by various politicians who spoke of “war returning to Europe”. Yet, this statement alone is misleading and quite revealing about German perception of reality during the last 30 years. Germans suddenly had to admit that their Eastern European allies, that had long warned against Russia and Vladimir Putin, may have been right all along. Suddenly, conflicts such as the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the Chechen Wars, Transnistria, or the War in Donbass had seemingly escaped the shadows of blind conformity and appeared more frequently in the German news and consciousness.

Suddenly, German policymakers realised that war-like conflict had never truly left Europe.

Yet, German responsiveness immediately after the Russian invasion was hesitant. Not only was it due to fear of Russian retaliation but also because of lacking leadership within the government. More than once, the German chancellor said that Berlin would do no solo efforts in helping Ukraine. When more than 100,000 Russian soldiers had already deployed on the Ukrainian border, Germany resisted all pressure from its allies and only supplied a field hospital and ventilators – before the former Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) embarrassed herself by sending 5,000 helmets by the end of January, which was sold as a magnanimous gesture.

Admittedly, Germany has come a long way since then. 

A long way since February 2022, but is it long enough?

Today, the list of German arms deliveries to Ukraine is indeed long. Christine Lambrecht was replaced by the more capable Boris Pistorius (SPD) in January 2023. He has brought much needed hope for the traditionally difficult post of defence minister, and is continuously the most liked politician in Germany, outscoring his social-democratic colleague – and boss – Scholz . In December 2023, Pistorius announced that the Federal Government would help to further strengthen NATO’s eastern flank by permanently stationing 4,000 additional soldiers in Lithuania, thereby doubling the NATO presence in the country and strengthening European defence cooperation. 

Almost two years after Scholz’s speech, a good number of Germans have understood that foreign and domestic policy is interconnected. This can also be seen in the first National Security Strategy in the history of the Federal Republic, released in June 2023, named “Robust. Resilient. Sustainable. Integrated security for Germany”. But while the National Security Strategy shows that Berlin has drawn the right conclusions from February 2022, the lacking allocation of resources, non-existent priority setting, and missing majorities within the public hinder Germany to implement the adequate policies to serve its own — as well as European — interests.

Two years later, Germany’s security policy is still full of contradictions

In the same Zeitenwende speech, Scholz announced that Germany would step up its European armament cooperation, defence against cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns, as well as against attacks on critical infrastructure and communication channels. 

Almost two years later, these promises are in danger of becoming nothing more than lip service. Regardless of whether one talks about the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) or the jointly developed Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), concrete work to materialise the long-promised policy shift has made little progress in recent years due to a lack of political ambition and disagreement between the industry partners involved. 

On a domestic level, uncertainties, and disunity between the three governing parties of social democrats, greens and liberals have disrupted the cohesion of the ruling coalition, which in turn has irritated European allies.

Take the Chinese Hamburg port deal, for instance. While the Green-led Ministry of Economic Affairs was against a 25% stake by the Chinese state-owned company Cosco in a terminal at the Port of Hamburg, the Social Democrat-led Federal Chancellery was in favour of a deal. As the Chancellery prevailed, the deal was made, which in turn angered neighbouring Czech Republic. While Prague itself has hardly any reliance on China, it was suddenly confronted with dependencies on Beijing due to its strong link with the German economy.

The most recent crisis-ridden dispute was the budget crisis for 2024. Following the Federal Constitutional Court’s legal disapproval of the proposed budget, the Ministry of Finance imposed a budget freeze on most Ministries. According to an initial letter from the department of the aforementioned Minister Pistorius, it was perceived that the payment freeze affected not only the regular defence budget, but also the already mentioned special fund of 100 billion Euros. After a lengthy back and forth, it finally emerged that the special assets were not affected.

Domestic opposition and a newly forming left

These confusions not only incite high-level political instability, but also fuel popular discontent. Recent polls show that only one in three Germans would vote for one of the governing parties now, and 65% disagree with Scholz’s overall performance — which have in turn placed the correct ideals expressed in the Zeitenwende speech under a bad light.

The big winner of this dissatisfaction is former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party CDU (31%). Its current party leader Friedrich Merz often criticises the lack of leadership and pace of Scholz’s government and demands faster implementations of concrete policies. Should the CDU return to power in the next parliamentary elections, there would probably not be earth-shattering consequences for Ukraine and the EU. However, this is difficult to predict as it also depends on the coalition partner. Merz continues to rule out a coalition with the strengthened far-right AfD. However, contradictory statements on cooperation at municipal level tarnish the credibility of his stance.  Having achieved almost a quarter of the votes in the latest polls (22%), we will soon be faced with the prospect of almost one in four Germans voting AfD, a pro-Russian, anti-European party into the Bundestag. Even so, eyes are also fixed on the other side of the political spectrum.

With the dissolution of the parliamentary group of Die Linke (Left-Party) at the beginning of December 2023 following the resignation of popular former member Sahra Wagenknecht, the German left is currently in a transitional phase. Wagenknecht’s new party Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW) could form a major left-wing opposition to the politics of the Zeitenwende in the future. Like AfD, Wagenknecht disapproves of the EU’s current stance on Russia, calling the sanctions “nonsensical”, while at the same time calling for a fresh start on buying oil and gas from Russia. Ukraine’s accession to the EU before the end of this decade would be “completely unrealistic” according to her.

It remains to be seen what these trends within the German political landscape will mean for the European elections in June.

Conclusion: Zeitenwende was not a one-off moment but will be an ongoing process

For a long time, the paradigm among Berlin elites was that German prosperity was based on American security, Russian raw materials, and Chinese products. Most certainly, German prosperity was also based on the European Economic Area (EEA) and thus on its European allies. While the accuracy of this statement is debatable, what is certain is that with Zeitenwende proclaimed, Germany will no longer be able to maintain all four factors without upsetting at least one other actor.

At some point in the (possibly near) future, the time may come when Europe will have to rebalance its position vis-à-vis China and America — by then, it would be wise for Germany to have a clearly defined leadership strategy that is coordinated and agreed upon with its European partners. Contrary to what many German allies may have hoped, Zeitenwende was not a singular moment. Instead, it will be a hard ongoing process that still must take place within the mind of the ordinary German.

Disclaimer: While Euro Prospects encourages open and free discourse, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of Euro Prospects or its editorial board.

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