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Zeitenwende—The Dawn of the Deterrence Era in Germany

February 28, 2022
4 min read
Photo credit: photocosmos1 / Shutterstock.com
Germany’s foreign policy took a dramatic turn on Sunday.

In a special address to the Bundestag, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced measures that are being called “a revolution.” Scholz began by calling the February 24 invasion of Ukraine a Zeitenwende in the history of the continent. The government’s official translation for that term is “watershed,” but, like with many German compound nouns, the original is a bit richer: it is a turn in the times, the change of an era.

What Scholz announced constitutes a dramatic shift in defense posture and spending. Germany, which has not spent 2 percent of GDP on defense since 1990, has now committed to “invest more than 2 percent” in defense “year after year.” For the past 20 years, it has usually spent around 1.3 percent, so this is a hefty shift. Additionally, for 2022 the government has set up a 100 billion special fund for immediate investments in military capacity. Scholz also announced that Germany will make new deployments to NATO’s eastern flank. The government has committed itself to nuclear sharing and acquiring armed drones, which had thus far been controversial among his Social Democrats and their Green Party coalition partners.

The historic speeches by the chancellor and others in the Bundestag on Sunday followed other significant reversals in Germany. One day earlier, the government announced that it would send anti-tank and other weapons to Ukraine, abandoning a long-standing policy of blocking weapons from being delivered to conflict zones.

The shock of Russia’s war against Ukraine seems to have turned the geopolitical times for Germany. Until Thursday, it was unique in the West for having a strategic logic still shaped primarily by the lessons of the First World War. From the German perspective, this makes sense. In the years up to 1914 and 1939, military buildups preceded aggression by the country and then devastating defeat. And, while the 1938 Munich Agreement has been formative to generations since, Germans have had a hard time absorbing lessons from it despite their country having been on the wrong side of the 1930s appeasement experiment.

The logic of military deterrence—displaying strength and determination to deter aggression—never penetrated beyond small foreign policy circles and the center-right in Germany.

As a result, the logic of military deterrence—displaying strength and determination to deter aggression—that has formed the backbone of Western military posture since the Second World War never penetrated beyond small foreign-policy circles and the center-right in Germany. While successive governments recognized that NATO made Germany more secure, the public understood the commitment to NATO to be a matter of Bündnistreue (loyalty to partners) rather than of strategic security. As a result, military spending has always been a contentious political issue and the country’s military capabilities are woefully inadequate.  

With Scholz’s visit to Moscow two weeks ago, the German public had its “Munich” moment. As Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated during the special Bundestag session on Sunday, “We tried diplomacy up to the last minute. The Kremlin strung us along, lied to us…Putin wanted this war.”

Traditionally Russia-friendly and in its recent election platform still calling itself a “peace party,” the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) are a changed institution this week. Social Democrat Heiko Maas, foreign minister in the previous government, called Scholz’s speech “a watershed for German foreign and security policy. And for the SPD.” For the Greens, too, it is a new perspective. The party had already internalized the lesson of Auschwitz enough to support humanitarian intervention and a firmer stance on human rights, but until this weekend it did not buy in to deterrence.

If the logic of deterrence gains currency across the mainstream party spectrum in Germany, the path to a completely different European security order could be open. First signs of this are already visible. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (formerly Germany’s defense minister) announced also on Sunday that the EU will, for the first time, “finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and equipment to a country under attack.” The old Berlin likely would have prevented such a measure.

France has long been pushing for a more militarily capable, less dependent Europe—and for more EU financing of defense—but it failed to bring partners on board. Germany’s strength in the EU (when it is not itself blocking a policy) is to drive inclusive approaches that bring partners along. If Germany now joins France’s push, but in a manner that can bring along Poland and other EU members that have been skeptical of Paris’s efforts, we could see a Zeitenwende for Europe and transatlantic security cooperation emerge from this.