It’s enough to make you rub your eyes in astonishment: Germany has committed to invest €100 billion in its military forces – and will spend more than 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defense per year. Weapons are being supplied to Ukraine, and the economics minister, Robert Habeck of the Greens, is even weighing up extending the operating lives of nuclear power plants in Germany. All of this would have been unthinkable just 10 days ago.
Germany’s politicians and media claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a historic turning point, and that these radical changes in German foreign and security policy are therefore necessary. I disagree: No, the turning point happened at least eight years ago, when Putin invaded Crimea. Russia has been waging a war in Ukraine ever since. Germany’s leaders simply didn’t notice.
The political class and many of Germany’s media outlets preferred to deal with issues such as “gender-appropriate language” and new ideas for socio-political wealth redistribution. They also wanted to save the world – from climate change, for example. Admittedly, the world did not want to listen to Germany, because Germany’s energy policy, as the Wall Street Journal observed, is the “dumbest in the world”.
While Germany set its sights on saving the world, it still refused to support Ukraine, a country, whose capital is only two hours away from Berlin by plane, with weapons as Russia launched its invasion. Germany did not want to acknowledge the danger of Russian imperialism. Within the ranks of the SPD (the party of chancellor Olaf Scholz), the far-left Die Linke and the far-right AfD there were and are many friends of Vladimir Putin. Soon after leaving office, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), who earned praise for his free-market reforms in the early 2000s, was quickly appointed to the boards of Russian energy companies by his close friend Putin. And he used his contacts throughout the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to make sure that the party charted a pro-Russian course.
But Schröder was by no means alone. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor for 16 years, blocked George W. Bush’s plan for Ukraine to become a NATO member in 2008. Moreover, there were years of chronic underinvestment in Germany’s armed forces during Merkel’s tenure. The Chief of the German Army, Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, recently offered a sharp criticism: “The army that I am privileged to lead is more or less empty handed … This does not feel good! I’m pissed off!”
Angela Merkel installed her friend Ursula von der Leyen – EU Commission president since December 2019 – as defense minister in 2013. The Bundeswehr was already in a pitiful state, but von der Leyen took it to the extreme. She gave precedence to issues such as “creating special uniforms for pregnant female soldiers” (she organised a fashion show especially for this purpose). Her main concern was that “diversity management” and “intercultural competence and multilingualism” should be at the top of the agenda at all levels of the Bundeswehr. She prioritised the inclusion of women, people with migrant backgrounds and those with different sexual orientations, along with older people, those with different religions or with disabilities. She specifically commissioned seminars for the troops on “Dealing with Sexual Identity and Orientation in the Bundeswehr.”
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Meanwhile, the functionality of the military’s weapons systems was rapidly deteriorating, with hardly any equipment still fit for purpose. For the international NATO exercise “Noble Ledger” in Norway, a unit of the German Army arrived in September 2014 with Boxer infantry fighting vehicles. Yet there were no weapon systems available for these vehicles. The soldiers used broomsticks painted black to simulate the on-board weapons.
And now everything is supposedly going to be different. But will anything really change? Money alone will not be enough. Germany’s current defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, knows absolutely nothing about the military, and it is even said that military affairs are not “her thing.” She only got the post because she is a woman: Chancellor Scholz had promised to fill half his cabinet with women. She embarrassed herself when she called a press conference to explain that Germany was going to supply Ukraine with 5,000 military helmets – and claimed that was a “very clear signal” of solidarity. Ukrainians, as well as many people across Germany, took this as a bad joke. Can there really be a turning point while politicians such as Lambrecht are governing Germany?
Rainer Zitelmann is a historian and sociologist and the author of the recently published book Hitler’s National Socialism.