Germany’s Dysfunctional and Delusional Pacifism

If Berlin is to develop and sustain a security consciousness and truly become a constructive actor in European security, it must confront the root causes of its security policy failures. Misjudging Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine was just one symptom of a deep-rooted dysfunction that has blinded German citizens, experts, and politicians to geopolitical realities for decades. 

By , a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.

On the fourth day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz presided over an extraordinary session of parliament that appeared to overturn three decades of the country’s meek security policies. Times have changed, the lawmakers agreed, and Germany had to overcome its pacifism and policy of detente toward Russia.

In a show of unity across the mainstream parties, Scholz was applauded for announcing that his government would create a 100 billion euro (around $110 billion) special fund for Germany’s chronically underfunded and underequipped armed forces, which even a government press release described as currently unable to meet its “national and international duties.” The chancellor further promised that Germany would make good on its NATO obligation to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense. (Last year, it didn’t even reach 1.5 percent.)

The day before, Germany permitted the transfer of arms to Ukraine, including anti-tank and air defense systems. A country that was once Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sympathetic ear had transformed overnight into Kyiv’s arms supplier.

If the vision projected by the Bundestag’s extraordinary session were the new face of German security and foreign policy, it would certainly be a revolution. A month and a half later, however, the awoken giant already needs a nap. The promised defense budget has shrunken: Instead of increasing spending to reach the 2 percent GDP target in addition to the 100 billion euro special military fund, that fund will now be used to help reach the target over the next four or five years. Scholz is back to pious bromides that “this conflict can only be solved by diplomatic means.”

Meanwhile, Germany refuses to sanction the Russian gas it has become dependent on. And right after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s March 17 video speech to the Bundestag, in which he requested military support and recalled the massive Western effort to save West Berlin from Moscow’s aggression during the Cold War, the body returned to its regularly scheduled parliamentary business. Ukraine’s request for 100 German tanks was reportedly denied a few weeks later. The revolution lasted as long as a New Year’s resolution.

If Berlin is to develop and sustain a security consciousness and truly become a constructive actor in European security, it must confront the root causes of its security policy failures. Misjudging Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine was just one symptom of a deep-rooted dysfunction that has blinded German citizens, experts, and politicians to geopolitical realities for decades.

In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, Germany ignored persistent warnings from the United StatesPoland, and even the European Parliament about the dangers of consorting with Putin. Conservative politician Markus Söder, defending former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relationship with the Russian president, claimed “Putin fooled us all”—but, in reality, Germans fooled themselves.

One fundamental problem with Germany’s security apparatus is Berlin’s long-standing Russia policies—there’s a reason, after all, that the word Putin-Versteher (“Putin understander”) entered Germany’s political lexicon in the past decade. When Russia first attacked Ukraine in 2014, Germany and France mediated the Minsk II agreement, which would “give the Kremlin a lasting presence” via Russia’s puppet “people’s republics” in the Donbas, abrogating Ukraine’s sovereignty in foreign and domestic politics. In the moribund attempt to implement the agreement, Germany sided with Russia’s interpretation of it under the “Steinmeier formula,” a reference to then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was critical in negotiating the agreement.

The Nord Stream pipeline projects, which began at the end of the tenure of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder—whom Russia now notoriously pays to advocate for its economic interests—have further tied Germany to Russia economically and politically. Schröder’s chief of staff at the time was Steinmeier, who has continued to advocate for the Nord Stream II pipeline, making him unwelcome in Kyiv in his current role as Germany’s president.

Schröder, Steinmeier, and Scholz are Social Democratic Party politicians whose pro-Russian politics are rooted in the party’s nostalgia for Ostpolitik. This West German Cold War policy aimed to improve relations with Soviet bloc states—first and foremost East Germany—through dialogue, commerce, and gas pipelines. (The party is less keen to remember that this conciliatory opening was backed by serious domestic defense investments.) These days, Putin sympathizers are not only an Social Democrat problem, and politicians who privilege Russia’s views over the rest of Eastern Europe span the political spectrum.

Germany is also hindered by its commitment to a supposedly values-based foreign policy, in which Berlin prioritizes trade and diplomacy over the military elements of statecraft. Some believe that that was part of an honest reckoning with the nation’s crimes in World War II, but, in fact, the West German state under NATO had a robust military. It was only after unification that Germany, no longer facing any imminent threats, turned to pacifist statecraft, deemed defense expenditures unnecessary, and began expressing its post-militarism as grating moral superiority toward its allies. Although unified Germany’s military has participated in multilateral missions, it has done so under the banner of humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping, and it has played a cautious, subordinate role.

German Ambassador to the United States Emily Haber wasn’t wrong when she tweeted that Berlin tried “everything” to stop Putin’s invasion—Germany did indeed go through every move in its post-unification playbook. But that playbook is wafer-thin.

German policymakers’ belief that a state can pursue either its values through pacifism or its interests through militarism limits Berlin’s political imagination. This false choice has produced a learned helplessness in which German foreign policy executes the same processes: trade, diplomacy, calls for de-escalation, and appeals for peace. The loop continues, whether or not it makes any progress.

The failure of these processes to achieve desired goals has admittedly led to useful reform ideas. The coalition government plans to write a security strategy by the end of 2022, but a single document will not overcome Germany’s deep-rooted prioritization of means over ends. Germany can only make progress if it abandons the belief that the country must defend its pacifist values in the abstract. For instance, if Germany is against war as “the continuation of policy with other means,” as it claims to be, it must prevent or end wars like the one in Ukraine.

The problem isn’t just one of idealism. The German government is simply not organized for integrated statecraft. Policies lumber through their siloed ministries and committees, making it difficult for the chancellor to steer the government’s strategy. In its coalition agreement, the new government failed to implement an obvious reform: the establishment of a national security council, which has long been debated and could provide a central strategic organizing mechanism across ministries and the chancellery.

A real revolution will only come if Germany can generate and execute security strategies that realize the country’s long-term values and interests. That will require questioning the government’s—and citizens’—firmly held beliefs about security and foreign policy.

One way Germany can do this is by providing greater security policy education to cultivate expertise among its citizens, journalists, analysts, and politicians. To achieve this, universities must invest in the kind of security and strategy programs that are mainstream in other countries. Currently, the dominance of peace studies at Germany’s universities has left the country underequipped with security thinkers, and Germans must go abroad to discover that studying the causes and consequences of war does not promote war.

This process will be difficult. German public opinion, especially among younger generations, has strongly supported the country’s pacifist bent. In 2020, only 47 percent of Germans believed military force is “sometimes necessary,” compared with 78 percent of Americans. Yet it is vital for the public to show their willingness to move beyond symbolic solidarity with Ukraine. Even without additional sanctions, the war’s effects will hit the German economy. If the German people punish politicians who support expensive armament and sanctions measures, the country will continue on its current path.

In the short term, the German government must also refine its military strategy and put its planned defense expenditures to good use. (So far, Berlin has only decided on a budget—not major military procurement choices.) Creating a smart strategy will entail asking—and answering—questions about which domains of warfare to prioritize and whether to invest in weapons for the future or prepare to fight soon. Without rough answers, the money risks being wasted on projects that do not provide a meaningful defense capability.

Beyond the current crisis, Germany has ample reason to develop into a serious security actor. Looking east, it must avoid repeating its Russia policy mistakes with China. Looking west, Germany must bolster its relationship with its allies rather than undermine its own position in NATO and the European Union by serving as a vector of Russian interests while doing little to support common defense. Green party ministers, at least, have shown a willingness to ramp up defense and leave behind their party’s pacifist past. Other politicians would do well to follow suit.

We now know that the apparent unity in the Bundestag’s session on Feb. 27 was a mirage, an expression of shock and shame by politicians who had enabled Putin’s behavior for decades. Will Germany really let this moment of reckoning go to waste?