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Will Ukraine Be the Death of German Pacifism?

Eleven months ago, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Lieutenant General Alfons Mais took to his LinkedIn account. “The Bundeswehr, the army that I have the privilege to lead,” he wrote, “is more or less broke. The options that we can offer the government to use in support of the [NATO] alliance are extremely limited.”

According to press reports, Mais’s pessimistic outlook was based in hard facts. The Bundeswehr had participated in NATO’s long mission in Afghanistan, and German soldiers were still deployed to Mali as part of a UN peacekeeping mission, but the army clearly lacked the resources to confront a nuclear power like Russia. As of last February, the Bundeswehr possessed only forty modern tanks, and some 60 percent of its helicopters were considered unfit for action. The navy, meanwhile, could not confirm that it had enough ships to carry out previously planned operations, let alone take on new missions.

These statistics stand in stark contrast to the rampant defense spending and military might of the United States—evidence of Germany’s turn from aggressive militarism to pacifist restraint in the decades since 1945. What use, after all, are tanks and helicopters for an army that never intends to confront a great power on the battlefield? With war raging in Ukraine, however, the image of a bungling, ill-equipped Bundeswehr suddenly took on a different valence: it became a popular symbol not of Germany’s proud rejection of war but of Western Europe’s apparent inability to defend itself.

German leaders’ vigorous efforts over the last year to better equip the Bundeswehr—and thus prove their commitment to the security of Europe—have been described as a dramatic turning point in postwar German history. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself used such language last February to justify his pledge to take out an unprecedented 100 billion loan, which he referred to as a “special fund” for “necessary investments and armament projects.” Unwilling to leave any doubt about his commitment to strengthening the armed forces, Scholz announced that annual defense budget increases would follow. Speaking to parliament three days after the war began, Scholz justified this orgy of defense spending by arguing that the Russian invasion marked a “watershed in the history of our continent.” The claim must be understood in reference to the elephant in the German historical imagination: World War II. “Many of us,” the chancellor explained, “still remember our parents’ or grandparents’ tales of war. And for younger people it is almost inconceivable—war in Europe.” His arguments were widely accepted. By June parliament had passed the constitutional amendment required to follow through on Scholz’s plan for the huge increase in Bundeswehr funding.

In reality, the actual watershed isn’t the sudden appearance of “war in Europe” for the first time since World War II—a breathtaking instance of historical amnesia, erasing not just the hot wars of the 1990s in Yugoslavia but also decades of militarization during the Cold War. The real, deeper change has elicited little commentary: the culmination of Germany’s transformation over the last three decades from a post-fascist country—which seemed to have overcome its Nazi past on account of its “culture of peace,” as historian Thomas Kühne has put it—to a post-pacifist country eager to ramp up defense spending and convey a posture of readiness to fight back against heavily armed aggressors. To be sure, both East and West Germany rearmed soon after World War II and hosted hundreds of thousands of American and Soviet soldiers during the Cold War, but throughout this period a significant bloc of Germans also advocated passionately for “making peace without weapons” (Frieden schaffen ohne Waffen), as two East German dissidents famously put it. This Cold War pacifism, and its striking transformation beginning in the 1990s in the face of widespread calls in the West for armed self-defense and humanitarian intervention, are erased in Scholz’s rhetoric.

Ignoring the wars of the past seventy-five years may help to convey the severity of Putin’s war of aggression, but it also overlooks significant changes in the way Germans have thought about war and peace in light of their past, especially the lessons of World War II. It also obscures the risks and consequences of Germany’s hawkish response to the war in Ukraine. Where many Germans once took World War II as a reason to oppose all forms of militarization, today it is being deployed in arguments to justify ramped-up defense spending in the name of preventing atrocities.

Read entire article at Boston Review