Last February, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood up in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, and made a remarkable speech. Scholz, a Social Democrat without much of a track record on military issues, told his country—conditioned since the 1990s to believe that it no longer needed a real army—that he would add 100 billion euro to the defense budget this year. Germany, he said, needed “airplanes that fly, ships that can set out to sea and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions.” He declared that decades of increasing dependence on Russian energy would cease and that Germany would begin preparing alternatives. And after weeks of refusing to send weapons to Ukraine, he declared that Germany would now be sending anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles.
Scholz called this a Zeitenwende, or historical turning point, and not everybody was ready for it. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the chair of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee (and a Liberal Democrat, part of the government coalition) watched the faces of politicians from Scholz’s own party. She could see that many were stunned. Still, she thought that the “turning point” would begin right away. Instead, she told me, it was as if Scholz “said these big words and then had to sit down and rest.”
And this is where we are now: Ever since the speech, Germans have been arguing over what helping Ukraine really means, which weapons can be sent and which cannot, which might provoke some kind of extreme reaction from Russia and which might help win the war. Even as more and more German weapons have flowed to Ukraine, the argument about them remains far more contentious in Germany than anywhere else. It’s hard to imagine a major American talk show spending an hour talking about whether or not to send tanks to Ukraine, but one German talk show recently did (I know, because I was on it). Opposition politicians have been loudly critical of the government on this as many other things, but Strack-Zimmermann and other politicians within the ruling coalition have criticized the pace and nature of the assistance too. Anton Hofreiter, a Bundestag member from the Green Party, which is also in the coalition, told me that heavy-weapons deliveries only happened because so many people “pushed and pushed” for them. I had a glimpse of the emotion in these arguments during a series of meetings in Berlin last week, in which I watched people throw questions at Wolfgang Schmidt, Scholz’s chief of staff. More than once, he was asked about tanks.
Some background: Germany has tanks that it could offer to Ukraine, but it doesn’t. The German government has prevented other European countries that own German-made tanks from sending theirs as well. Yet Germany has sent many other heavy weapons, including some that look like tanks (the anti-aircraft Flakpanzer Gepard has gun barrels and the heavy metal treads that most people associate with tanks, and is already in Ukraine). Thanks to these deliveries, as well as other air-defense systems that were knocking missiles out of the sky over Kyiv this week, Germany has become the third-largest supplier of weapons to Ukraine, after the U.S. and the U.K. Meanwhile, Poland and other countries have given Ukraine Soviet-style tanks that they had in their stocks (and Ukraine has picked up quite a few more of these, left behind by the Russian army). Large, modern, Western “main battle tanks” that can be used to attack Russian forces could give Ukraine an advantage. But none are on the way. Quite a few Germans think this refusal is a form of dithering or hair-splitting, and when they talk about it, they get angry quite quickly.