Germany’s Choices over Ukraine Recall Earlier Cold War Challenges

October 06, 2022
6 min read
Photo credit: mm7 /
The war in Ukraine, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the pending energy crisis this coming winter, and a possible recession are staring Germany in the face all at once.

The country faces many difficult decisions in the coming months. As I watch this unfold, I am reminded of another such moment over four decades ago, during which serious challenges confronted a divided Germany in an environment shaped by the Cold War. That was also the time I took up my job as representative of the German Marshall Fund in Bonn in July 1980.

In the early 1980s, West and East Germany embodied the Cold War. West Germany was home to 60 million living in a rich, democratic, and open society, envied by East Germans, who were well-aware of the deficiencies in their own economic and political environment. Relations between the two German states had evolved during the previous decade but talk of unification was seen at the time by both sides more as rhetoric than the reality of a frozen conflict that threatened to become hot.

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union had worsened significantly. Soviet nuclear-tipped SS20 missiles had been deployed in Eastern Europe, threatening Western Europe, and particularly Germany. NATO responded to that challenge with proposed deployments of Pershing and Cruise missiles.

East Germans had little recourse to protest this surge of Russian threats. In West Germany, however, massive protests emerged against the decision to confront Soviet missile deployments by responding in kind. Throughout the country, demonstrators demanded a stop to the deployment of US missiles in West Germany.

Much of the criticism was aimed at Washington and at President Ronald Reagan for what was seen as escalating the conflict. But the driving force of that anxiety was at its core a fear of nuclear war with Germany as ground zero. In the end, Chancellor Helmut Kohl held firm with the United States and his NATO allies on the deployment, with most West Germans supporting his decision. The demonstrations fizzled out and a decade later the Soviet Union disappeared into history.

This domestic debate draws on arguments that resemble those in the 1980s.

Today I hear echoes of that debate over the war in Ukraine. The arguments for deepening support for Ukraine to help it defend itself and prevent Russia’s President Vladimir Putin from annihilating the country—as he clearly wants to do—are supported by a majority of Germans. Yet a loud minority of voices argues that there must be a cease-fire and negotiations to prevent further bloodshed. This domestic debate draws on arguments that resemble those in the 1980s.

Back then, the leaders in Moscow thought they could blackmail enough Germans with nuclear Armageddon to achieve more leverage in the Cold War with the United States. Putin is duplicating this strategy in his efforts to intimidate with nuclear threats, including the attacks on nuclear power plants in Ukraine. Most saw then and most see now the need to confront Russian brinksmanship and strategic threats to Europe with strong countermeasures.

But, just as fear of nuclear war drove some to lobby for a stop to the deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles and to negotiate with the Soviet leadership, there are those today whose anxiety about a nuclear disaster is especially high.

During the 1981 demonstrations in Bonn, I walked among thousands of protesters. I could feel the emotion and anxiety expressed by leaders and followers. The immediacy and danger of nuclear war was palpable. And the argument was that Germany, among all other nations, had a responsibility to lead the world away from this nuclear precipice—a moral debt incurred by the history of the Third Reich to avoid war at all costs.

There are voices in Germany now, as there were in the early 1980s, arguing that continued warfare is far more dangerous than seeking a cease-fire in the name of saving lives and mitigating the threat of nuclear war.

Over the past 30 years—during the wars after the implosion of Yugoslavia, the efforts to stop the war between Kosovo and Serbia, the post 9/11 war in Afghanistan, the Iraq war, and now a war waged by a Russian dictator desiring to restore an empire—domestic debates in Germany have constantly revolved around the role the country should play in dealing with armed conflict. These debates have always hinged on uncertainty about whether and how it should use military force, given the legacy of the Second World War. During the war in the Balkans in 1999, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer once framed the German debate as “Never again war, but never again Auschwitz.” Germany clearly preferred to be a civilian power and pursued a path that fundamentally restricted its military capacities.

Then came the pronouncement by Chancellor Olaf Scholz last February that Germany should now discard its reluctance and support a country that needs its help to defeat an enemy that also threatens Germany and Europe. The effort to rally public support for this Zeitenwende has so far been successful.

The change in thinking, however, has not resulted in a change of policies as quickly as Ukraine or Germany’s European partners have wanted. But when West Germany came to stand with its NATO allies against the Soviet Union some 40 years ago, this was dependent on steady leadership and clear explanation of the choices facing the country in a very volatile environment. It took time, but West Germany stood strong with its allies against Soviet aggression.

The choices facing Germany four decades ago and those it faces today are linked by the defense of what the country and its allies stand for.

Scholz leads Germany today in no less volatile of an environment and the war in Ukraine is the greatest crisis Europe has faced since the Second World War. He has proclaimed that “Russia must not win this war,” and that helping Ukraine defend itself means defending Europe as well. Just as a divided Germany was the symbol of the Cold War 40 years ago, today the war in Ukraine represents a challenge to the security and stability of Europe as well as a clash between authoritarian powers and those countries that stand for a peaceful global order. When Helmut Kohl became chancellor, his immediate challenge was implementing steps to confront a threatening Soviet Union. Scholz was immediately confronted with the war in Ukraine.

The choices facing Germany four decades ago and those it faces today are linked by the defense of what the country and its allies stand for. Defending peace, liberty, and international law requires the same firm stance against Putin’s Russia as facing the Soviet Union required then. Then and now, Germany has been an anchor in that alliance. Today, it is also expected to be a leader. As did his predecessors at the height of the Cold War, Scholz will need to meet this moment in which the future of Germany, Europe, and the West is again at stake.