“Suppose they gave a war, and nobody came?” went a 1960s antiwar slogan. Stell Dir vor, es ist Krieg, und Keiner geht hin is the German version. It’s still popular in Germany, a country of peaceniks. Germans’ defeat in World War II and subsequent reeducation by the Allies stripped them of any enthusiasm for war or military things.
Fine by me. I grew up in Germany and found armies and military spending inherently suspicious: the less of them, the better. If no one funded militaries, there would be no war, right? This sentiment remains widely held in the country and is particularly strong in the Green Party, now a vital coalition member of the Social Democrat-led government. In January, Germany blocked NATO ally Estonia from exporting German-origin weapons to Ukraine. It offered to send 5,000 helmets instead.
Germany is the largest country entirely within Europe by population. It is a key NATO member. Except for a recent minor uptick, however, its military spending has been declining, from nearly 5 percent of GDP in the 1960s to about 1.5 percent now. Retired German generals Egon Ramms and Klaus Wittman recently offered the stark assessment that the Bundeswehr (the German military) is not capable of defending the nation.
Germany is a staunch ally of the United States but also has close economic ties to Russia, from which it currently imports more than 60 percent of its natural gas. Economic ties are a good motive for avoiding war, but that cuts both ways, as we’re finding out.
Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, Europeans are scrambling for an adequate response. This is a particularly challenging problem for Germany. On February 24, German chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the nation, expressing his disgust with Russia, stating his solidarity with Ukraine, and urging the Russians to withdraw. It made for great television but will hardly make Putin rethink his current course of action. Scholz also made it clear that NATO would not intervene (and I agree that it should not) and assured citizens that, while the war was a mere “two flight hours from Berlin,” Germans would not be involved. What a relief—for Germans. Scholz talked about severe sanctions, carefully designed to inflict pain on Russia, but not on Germany. He warned Putin not to underestimate the resolve of NATO, should he decide to attack a NATO country, mentioning Poland and the Baltics in particular.
I’m sure Putin was impressed by all these words—but what, exactly, is Germany prepared to do? The Baltic states fear that they might be the next target. Perhaps these fears will fade; Putin’s war is not popular in Russia, the Ukrainians are fighting back, and the whole episode might even lead to Putin’s downfall. Even if Putin succeeds in Ukraine, it would take time before he could reasonably threaten the Baltics.
Nevertheless, now is the time for Scholz to show that he means what he says. Germany cannot simply point to the U.S. to defend NATO: it and the other European NATO members need to step up to the plate. The German government should immediately and substantially raise its military spending. The Pentagon has deployed an additional 7,000 U.S. troops to Europe. Germany should likewise send troops to NATO’s borders in Eastern Europe and the Baltics (assuming, of course, that these countries would welcome them). Such a move would provide a powerful signal that Scholz’s speech was not just empty words, meant to soothe the population at home. In short, Germany needs to co-lead the NATO response in Europe, rather than being reluctantly dragged along by the United States. But this will require a Nixon-goes-to-China moment for the Greens. They will need to discard their reflexive pacifism and recognize the importance of having a strong defense when conflicts arise.
As for the sanctions and German dependence on Russian gas: the German government has now decertified the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. At first glance, this seems a big step: the pipeline would double the amount of Russian gas flowing directly to Germany, rather than routing it through Ukraine and making Germany pay fees there. Yet, in truth, suspending the pipeline is a rather timid step at this point. Nothing is changing regarding the substantial German purchases of Russian gas while Russia wages war on Ukraine. Berlin should take a bigger step to show Russia that it is perfectly willing to do without that gas. Stop purchasing gas for a day or a week, or longer, as a signal, to show that Germany is serious and that solidarity with Ukraine is for real. There is no doubt that this would lead to severe disruptions in Germany. That is exactly the point. It will show Putin that Germany is willing to stand up to Russia, should it be required.
It will also show that Germany has regained the resolve that once was abused by a repugnant regime and led to the pain and suffering of World War II. This history must not be ignored—a powerful Germany must never again become a threat to its neighbors. But a weak Germany when Russia is aggressive means risking the very war in Europe that such weakness hoped to avoid.
Top photo: Chancellor Scholz records address to the nation following Russian invasion of Ukraine (Photo by Hannibal Hanschke - Pool/Getty Images)