X Close

Germany’s arrogant pacifism They cannot accept that war in Europe is now a reality

Stoppt in the name of love. Hannibal Hanschke via Getty

Stoppt in the name of love. Hannibal Hanschke via Getty


May 12, 2022   6 mins

In Germany, this was a Victory in Europe Day like no other. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Berlin’s entire postwar consensus has crumbled. Previously settled policies and cherished beliefs have dissolved in this new reality: the brutal return of war to Europe. All these confusions were displayed for the world to see on Sunday.

Usually — and appropriately — sombre, this year’s commemorations were agonised and dramatic. They kicked off with Berlin’s mayor banning Russian flags from war memorials. Then the city government banned Ukrainian flags — after all, they thought, violent pro-Russian activists might try and tear them down. Instead, Berlin police were filmed confiscating an enormous Ukrainian flag and it was viewed millions of times on social media.

Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz did not visit Moscow on Victory Day, as German Chancellors often do. But nor did he visit Kyiv, despite being invited to do so by Volodymyr Zelenskyy. By evening, the popular German sociologist Harald Welzer was debating Ukraine’s ambassador on a television chat show. What the ambassador did not understand, Welzer told him, was that the 45% of Germans against delivering heavy weaponry to Ukraine might have family memories of conflict. They simply wanted a negotiated ceasefire. Wouldn’t weapon deliveries merely prolong the agony? The memory of World War Two was being used by a German intellectual to argue for a ceasefire with a dictator. Who could have predicted that in 1945?

Advertisements

The new reality has proved to be an unpleasant one for Germany. Russia’s invasion brought out the worst in some Germans. Heated opposition to weapons shipments to Ukraine mirrors the Querdenker movement that took, hysterically and counterproductively, to the streets during the pandemic. Across the political spectrum, and in nearly every segment of society: church leaders, artists, intellectuals, far-Right Putin fans, old-school peaceniks, trade unionists, and huge numbers of social democrats. What unites them all is a special brand of German navel-gazing. “Lumpen pacifism” is the best way to describe it.

This crowd isn’t bothered that the German peace-through-trade policies of the last few decades have failed. Shortly after the war began, Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed a “new era” in which Germany’s defence budget would increase to a level proportionate to the country’s size. But on the path towards providing ever-more military aid to Ukraine, he’s wobbled through a minefield of national anxieties: from the chilly prospect of Russia turning off the gas pipelines, to worries about nukes, to good old-fashioned queasiness about supporting violence on the battlefield — in eastern Europe of all places, as if the Wehrmacht still had boots on the ground there.

This is not a fringe movement limited to sandal-wearing Easter Marchers. On April 29, a group of intellectuals and artists spoke out against sending arms: they published an open letter to Scholz in Emma, a magazine edited by veteran German feminist Alice Schwarzer. “The delivery of large quantities of heavy weapons could make Germany itself a party in the war. A Russian counter-attack could trigger the collective defence clause under the Nato treaty and thus the immediate danger of a world war.” An online petition supporting the statement has been signed 225,000 times. Whether he realised it or not, Scholz’s initial reluctance to send heavy weapons to Ukraine was in accord with these sentiments.

Many of the names on the list are admirable. But the participation of these ‘Professor Doktor’ types reveals a truth about numerous German public intellectuals: they exude ivory tower arrogance. Too many are out of touch with reality. They dismiss the massive responsibility Germany carries in this war — Europe’s largest economy has spent two decades prioritising lovey-dovey vibes with Putin over the security needs of Ukraine, long seen as a buffer zone between Russian and Western Europe.

One of the signatories was the actor Lars Eidinger, famous for his Hamlet. Unsettled by the backlash, he posted on Instagram (in English): “As an eighteen year old man I refused the so called service with the weapon in front of a jury of the German military, the so-called Bundeswehr. The essential question I had to answer was, when one of my beloved ones is threatened with a gun and I had the chance to kill the aggressor — how would I react? My answer was: I would not shoot, to not service the spiral of aggression. I still believe in this ideal today.” In short: “Blood cannot be washed by blood.” You’d hope a man so familiar Shakespeare might have grasped something about human nature. But no, at 46, Eidinger hasn’t progressed much since his days as a teenage conscientious objector.

He belongs to one of the last age groups to face mandatory military service, which was discontinued in 2011. By the Nineties around 50% of young men were opting out, citing moral reservations, and choosing Zivildienst (civilian service) instead. Which is fine, of course, but that sentiment lives on through today, particularly among West Germans shaped by peace-time entitlement and “never again” convictions. As pathological as it might be to cling to such views today, many share Eidinger’s beliefs.

After reunification in 1990, Germans in West and East, consciously or subconsciously, internalised Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. Perpetual peace, as Immanuel Kant imagined, was now a no-brainer. In the bright capitalist future cleansed of 20th century ideological extremity, a united Germany, cloaked by the EU, would gently spread a soft-power message of trade, democracy, and Eurovision throughout the continent. International law would keep nations in check. Conquest and savagery were relegated to the past.

The entire West fell for this, but the Germans more so than any other nation. It let them finally move on from their war guilt. There was an assumption that geopolitical power struggles had vanished with the Berlin Wall. Cosy trade arrangements would turn Putin into a loveable Euro-softy! But this era is over; it died when Russian paratroopers rained down on Hostomel Airport in February. Yet the peaceniks — like the Lutheran Bishop who said it was a good thing for Germans to be “helpless spectators” — are still getting air-time. Other people’s countries are easy to give away aren’t they?

On April 22, a journalist asked Scholz why he’d been timid about heavy arms. He concluded: “I am doing everything to prevent an escalation leading to a third world war. There must be no nuclear war.” Many Germans agreed. In an ARD TV survey carried out the same day, 40% of Germans favoured restraint so as not to provoke Russia.

Then, at a May Day trade union rally in Düsseldorf, Scholz changed his mind. He delivered an uncharacteristically passionate speech and a new decisiveness: “We will support Ukraine so that it can defend itself. I respect your pacifism but it must seem cynical to a citizen of Ukraine to be told to defend himself against Putin’s aggression without weapons.” He was booed by many in the audience. Other speakers said the money should be ploughed into the German welfare state instead.

Germany’s allies in Nato were bewildered. Scholz changed course a few days later, and announced that about 50 Geopard anti-aircraft tanks would be sent to Ukraine. The decommissioned vehicles are 40-years old and the only ammo that could be found for them has to be shipped in from Brazil, but better than nothing. Things are evolving. In his Victory Day speech, without a crowd to boo him, Scholz promised to send more heavy weapons to Ukraine. If there is a lesson from Germany’s history, it is surely the one he outlined on Sunday: “No more war. No more genocide. No more tyranny.” More tanks and personnel carriers will be delivered to Kyiv.

But intellectual leadership is missing. On the same day the Emma letter was published, the 92-year-old philosopher Jürgen Habermas argued for a slow, deliberative approach to the crisis. As Scholz had previously intimated, Habermas feared potential nuclear war more than the actual bloodletting suffered by Ukrainians. “For thirty years, Germans lectured Ukrainians about fascism,” the American historian Timothy Snyder tweeted in late April. “When fascism actually arrived, Germans funded it, and Ukrainians died fighting it.”

The most resolute support for Ukraine has not come from Germany’s intellectuals, or the chancellor’s office. Surprisingly, it is the German Greens, who partially grew out of the peace movement, who have become the hawks. For years, they drew attention to Germany’s potentially lethal dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The party’s figureheads, economics minister Robert Habeck and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, have been particularly vocal about Germany’s duty to sufficiently help Ukraine drive back the Russian invaders. Baerbock, in a visit to Kyiv, said that Germany aimed to cut its imports of Russian energy to zero, adding “and that will stay that way forever”.

This is the new reality. Germany will be Europe’s most preeminent military power within a decade. It will cut its energy ties with Russia. And it will be supplying Ukraine with powerful weapons in the months to come. Whether Germany’s pacifist lobby can stomach this, and whether they will be able to stop it from happening, is less certain.


Maurice Frank co-founded the English magazine Exberliner and now co-writes the newsletter 20 Percent Berlin. 

mauricetfrank

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

50 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

I love the idea of a German telling a Ukrainian that many Germans ‘might have family memories of conflict.’ Must have been difficult for the Ukrainian ambassador to keep a straight face at that.

David Mayes
David Mayes
1 year ago

The Greens have indeed risen to the call to assist Ukraine’s resistance. But at the same time, historically, they, along with the SPD helped brew the crisis. This interview with Baerbock captures that. It also reveals how much the Greens are driven by ideology. So, is their abandonment of pacifism a refreshing pragmatism or is it because they see in this crisis a window to turbocharge their big ideological objective of closing down fossil fuels (and nuclear) and the deployment of 100% renewables?

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

It almost makes you wish they still had an ounce of Prussian vigour and militarism left in them. The modern German seems to be absolutely whipped.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

Careful what you wish for!

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

Yes – Europe has in the past benefited most when the powers are in balance.
Looking way beyond the World Wars – Waterloo and Blenheim were two major examples of that balance being redressed by force with Germany (ok, Prussia) on the ‘correct’ side.
It’s dysfunctional for all of Europe if its wealthiest, if not its most influential nation gets all squeamish about occasional and necessary use of force where other options have failed.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Haven’t you forgotten the good old Dutch?

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

No of course not 😉 just talking of Germany
Although the Dutch have always played a significant role in Europe – Germany/Prussia unquestionably has had a greater impact in past 300 years

ARNAUD ALMARIC
AA
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Agreed, but for a worldwide impact you would have to give it to the Dutch and the simply splendid VOC.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Like in 1914?

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

They were whipped. “Never again” is the learning point for WWII.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

I think more patience and understanding needs to be displayed in reference to Germany’s dilemma. A decades long, and successful recovery from the ruins of WW2 has been turned on its head almost overnight. They, perhaps more than most, understand the madness that can bring us all down.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

So they adopt a supine position, with all that understanding they have? Really makes sense.

TERRY JESSOP
TERRY JESSOP
1 year ago

I like the title of this article: “Germany’s arrogant pacifism”. It’s really just the flip side of Germany’s past arrogant militarism. I have noticed that it is very difficult to argue with a German whatever point of view he is coming from.

Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
1 year ago

In the 1990’s whilst on business trip to what had been Western Germany I was taken around the local war museum by the boss of the German branch of the company (A Herr Doctor Professor) and had I not known any history I would probably have come away with the impression that Germany had been an innocent victim in WW2. With that in mind it’s quite easy to understand the “don’t get involved” attitude.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
1 year ago

It seemed all was suddenly well between Germany and Russia when the German heavy-metal rock band Scorpions had a great worldwide hit with Wind Of Change and its dreamy lyrics about the winds of change for the better in Russia, in 1991. Indeed, I recall the song was released in the middle of the August coup of that year, and, as the attempted coup quickly evaporated, the song seemed more resonant with meaning. It was played frequently in shops in the latter half of 1991. A German rock band putting out a great song that, had it been Germany’s Eurovision entry (these things are that possible now), no doubt the jury in Moscow would have given Germany douze points. But so many chimeras.

“There is no chimera vainer than the hope that one human heart shall find sympathy in another” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Teşriki H. W. Laulen
Teşriki H. W. Laulen
1 year ago

Querdenker being counterproductive and hysterical? I thought they were the ones who advocated not shutting down the entire society over a disease with a way lower fatality rate than imagined. Is that part of the newspeak fad nowadays?

nigel roberts
NR
nigel roberts
1 year ago

“Germany will be Europe’s most preeminent military power within a decade.”
Most preeminent? Ew.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
1 year ago

The author treats concern about escalation to a potentially nuclear war as just silly. It is not. Where one draws that line should be a subject for discussion, and maybe many Germans get it wrong, but the issue is real.

Sam Sky
SS
Sam Sky
1 year ago

“The entire West fell for this, but the Germans more so than any other nation.” – this makes it sound as if this was the Germans own decision. But in reality politicians as different as Thatcher, Gorbachev and Mitterand were all paranoid about a resurgent German militarism in the early 90s before unification. Even in the last 90s there was a fear of this and a sense it really wasn’t that long ago they were aggressive. The division of Germany into two parts was about the only thing that gave France the security for them to build an army, enter NATO and form a armed bastion at the blunt edge of the iron curtain. A lot of this was based on stereotypes from the war which anyone with familiarity with German culture will realise had been radically warped by the extreme circumstances of Germany’s fall and occupation.
So this historical fear meant that Germans, in many different political, constitutional, cultural and economic ways were pushed towards mercantile pacifism for the ‘good of Europe’ quite deliberately, and it seems rich for the rest of the West to complain now.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sam Sky
Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Sky

And we will see what results when Germany is not as prosperous as it has been since WW2…

Perry de Havilland
PD
Perry de Havilland
1 year ago

And [Germany] will be supplying Ukraine with powerful weapons in the months to come.”
Yeah, I’ll believe that when I actually see it.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
1 year ago

The 1945-2022 Germany says “Nie wieder”. That has translated into “h uptsächlich mir geht’s gut”. Why should that change? Especially when Russia is in the western dock. Gorbymania bit deep. Anti-westernism has been a constant diet since the 1970s. It came from the left-ie the Greens. But an earlier generation agreed.

Iris C
Iris C
1 year ago

I do wish “conquest and savagery were relegated to the past”. There is always a negotiated settlement at the end of the day with friendly and beneficial trade relations soon resuming The dead, dying and maimed citizens on both sides are paid-off and forgotten….until the next time.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

I can see why the “great and good” claim to care about the Ukraine — their useful money laundromat is out of commission. But we average Americans find ourselves unable to care very much about the border security of a small corrupt nation well within Russia’s sphere of influence. We do care a great deal about the lack of integrity of our own borders, and the fact that inflation which was 1% under the former President, is now 11% under the current maladministration. We’d like to see diplomacy and arbitration for the Ukraine, but are unsurprised that yet once again the UN is about as useful as mammaries on a boar.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago
Reply to  E. L. Herndon

If not Ukraine, where would you draw the line?

Michael Cazaly
MC
Michael Cazaly
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

Probably at countries where “the West” actually has vital interests. Ukraine does not qualify.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Ukraine supplies a high proportion of the world’s grain to poor countries that we’d like to support our geopolitics. Ukraine does qualify.

David McDowell
David McDowell
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

It does now. That’s the problem.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  E. L. Herndon

You’re going to disappear soon as Hispanics take over and merge with Mexico.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago

“International law would keep nations in check. Conquest and savagery were relegated to the past.”
Which was never a reality, considered what happened in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, or how countries like Turkey or Saudi happily pummeled Kurdish or Yemeni civilians

In every one of those cases, the weapons were used or provided by those same countries…. that are today attacking Russia (or harassing Russian citizens and athletes) for launching a war. Apparently, non existent WMDs are a valid excuse for utterly destroying a country, but Russia were supposed to meekly allow Ukraine to suppress Russian minorities and language and allow NATO expand all the way to her heartland

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

In what sense are victims of Soviet aggression, from Finland in the north to Ukraine in the south, part of Russia’s heartland?

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

“but Russia were supposed to meekly allow Ukraine to suppress Russian minorities”
Now explain why overwhelmingly Russian speaking Kharkiv has bitterly resisted the Russian advance rather then greet them as liberators. Most of the Ukrainian nationalists I know personally are Russian speakers at home.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 year ago

Your comment does not deny that Russian minorities were suppressed

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

But not shot at random, tortured and raped. Big difference Mr Equivalence.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I know some Eastern Europeans in this country who ain’t too happy. Does that merit a war of annihilation?

Edwin Blake
Edwin Blake
1 year ago

Everyone is so virulent and one sided in their views. It is another Yeats moment “the worst Are full of passionate intensity”.
Can you not see a civil war? They are the worst kind. The US intervened to support a Maidan revolution and the Russians to suppress a Banderite putsch.
To me the invasion is obviously immoral but you have to see where it came from. And those voices supporting moderate Ukraine and not the far right (which is what the US seems to be doing) must be favoured.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago
Reply to  Edwin Blake

No, I cannot see a civil war. I see a vicious invasion of an independent country by a nation with a pathological sense of victimhood led by an individual obsessed with believing that he is the embodiment of his country.

James Helberg
James Helberg
1 year ago

This is the new reality. Germany will be Europe’s most preeminent military power within a decade.” Actually, if you take the Russians out of the equation, they have been since before DeGaulle took France out of the NATO military structure. They still are if you don’t include the Russians.
However, despite the ongoing debacle in Ukraine, Russia remains formidable and will remain Europe’s preeminent military power for the foreseeable future.

James Helberg
James Helberg
1 year ago

Not much has changed in the past 40-50 years. As a political science professor at the University of Kansas once put it: “As long as he/she can get to a warm part of the world for a few weeks in the winter, the average German doesn’t care about the Russians (of course at that time it was the Soviet Union). The German intellectual community and left politicians have always leaned towards pacifism and accommodation with the Russians. It was always a close thing. Why else would there have been controversy over their level of defense spending in NATO – even at the height of the cold war?

D Glover
DG
D Glover
1 year ago

Fine article.

Jerry Carroll
JC
Jerry Carroll
1 year ago

Long story short, the Germans are not dependable. A pity America has had to pivot east because of the far greater Chinese threat.

Francesco Maltoni
Francesco Maltoni
1 year ago

Very biased article. The assumed failure of peace through trade is only relevant to the objectives. The objectives of peace and prosperity have been reached, as the formulation of the Minks agreement, brokered by Merkel show.
The peace through trade brought great wealth to both Europe and Russia, but would have meant a departure from the goal of liberal hegemony, which is pursued mostly by the Anglo-Americans. The Germans had to capitulate to pressure from NATO, but there is luckily some support among both ivory tower doctor professors and among German “deplorables” for the previous fore-sighted policy, and regret for not having enforced effectively the Minsk peace agreement.

In the end many people anknowlege that the interests of Germany diverge from those of the UK

M. M.
MM
M. M.
1 year ago

The United States is undergoing rapid demographic change (due to its “open borders”). By 2040, Western culture will decline to the status of a minority culture, and this country will cease being a Western nation. Hispanic culture will become the dominant culture. (In California, Western culture is already rejected by most residents, and Hispanic culture dominates.)

Germany must replace the United States as the leader of the West. German chancellor Olaf Scholz must begin taking steps in that direction.

The current crisis in Ukraine is an opportunity for the German government to show leadership. Berlin should demand and obtain assurances (from Volodymyr Zelenskyy) that the Ukrainians will modernize their nation. They have been too corrupt and incompetent for too long. The gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of Ukraine in 2019 was actually less than the GDP per capita (at purchasing-power parity) in 1991.

IF President Zelenskyy provides these assurances, then the military strategists in the Bundeswehr should determine the weapons and military strategy that are needed to expel the Russian military from Ukraine. Then, Berlin should provide a financial loan to Kyiv so that it can purchase the necessary weapons, and German military instructors should train Ukrainians on using the weapons.

Ge info about another area in which Berlin can show leadership.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

Is Hispanic Culture not Western Culture? Both Spain & Portugal were an integral part of the Roman Empire for about seven centuries, whilst ‘Germania’ was a barbarian cesspit, or had you forgotten that minor detail?
I admire your confidence in the Bundeswehr but would they really do any better than the Wehrmacht or the Kaiser? *I think not.

(* With apologies of course to the brilliant Max Hoffman.)

Scott C
Scott C
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Arnaud, wish I could give you an extra thumbs up for this post!!

Last edited 1 year ago by Scott C
Linda Hutchinson
LH
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Scott C

I’ve just done it for you.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

“…the military strategists in the Bundeswehr should determine the weapons and military strategy that are needed to expel the Russian military from Ukraine.”
It seems to me that other Western powers are quite capable of providing the necessary support for the Ukrainians to eventually overcome the invasion and send it into reverse. Whilst the financial input of Germany is welcome in this endeavour, it’s not necessary or sufficient on its own.
Once again, sentences like the above, suggesting German military dominance (even of the strategy!!) are not only unwelcome but as far from the reality of what’s needed as it’s possible to think.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

“Berlin should demand and obtain assurances (from Volodymyr Zelenskyy) that the Ukrainians will modernize their nation. They have been too corrupt and incompetent for too long.”
Pure comedy gold. Yes, Ukraine has a corruption problem for sure, but you seem to think a big chunk of the German establishment are *not* compromised by Russian money, which is at best eye wideningly naive.
Given how utterly useless Germany has been in the current crisis, Zelenskyy can safely tell Schotz et al to shove it without risk of much downside for Ukraine. And as for incompetence, in 2022 I’d rate Ukraine’s army over the sclerotic Bundeswehr.

Last edited 1 year ago by Perry de Havilland
Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 year ago

It really isn’t the German establishment being corrupted by Russian money which is the problem..it is the USA’s establishment being corrupted by Ukrainian wealth and the prospect of getting more loot from Russia.

The disastrous geopolitical result is the creation of a Sino-Russian block of immense prospective power and wealth…and far from benign.
Kennan was right all along…

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

U.K. population is younger and due to surpass Germany’s in the next 30-40 years.