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The truth about Germany’s Zeitenwende

The truth about Germany’s Zeitenwende

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BERLIN — Americans have a weakness for complicated German words, from realpolitik, coined in the 19th century, to the more recent Zeitenwende, the new dawn in Germany’s security policy that Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed a year ago today.

Scholz told a crowded parliament chamber three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that they were “living through a Zeitenwende,” literally a turning point in history.

“That means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before,” Scholz said in his familiar monotone.   

Calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “warmonger,” the German leader pledged to stop starving the battered German military and set aside €100 billion, or about double the annual defense budget, to jumpstart its modernization.  

“So when are the Germans going to actually start spending on procurement for the Zeitenwende?” an American official asked me earlier this month.

I was tempted to cite a favorite New Yorker cartoon (“How about never?”).

Zeitenwende might have entered the transatlantic vernacular, I told the official, but a year in, it’s become clear that the best way to describe Scholz’s much-ballyhooed slogan is with a blunt Americanism: bullshit.

So far, Germany has committed (though not spent) about €30 billion of the €100 billion, the government said last week, adding the money would only be transferred once the ordered aircraft, uniforms and other gear materialized. That said, the earmarked funds include about €13 billion for nuclear-capable fighter aircraft and transport helicopters that Germany had planned to purchase even before the war.

Though Scholz and his ministers continue to pepper their rhetoric with Zeitenwende references when speaking to foreigners, it’s obvious to most observers that the air has gone out of the balloon.  

“Everyone is talking about Zeitenwende, but so far we’ve only seen Zeitlupe,meaning slow motion, Markus Söder, the conservative leader of Bavaria, said last week.

Scholz’s priorities lie elsewhere.

When analysts warned last fall that high inflation would eat away at the €100 billion fund if the government didn’t spend it quickly, for example, the defense ministry, instead of pledging to close the gap, simply pared back its wish list, including two frigates for the German navy. Around the same time, the government passed a €200 billion package to subsidize Germans’ energy bills, an intiative bound to go down well with voters but do nothing for the country’s security.

German defense spending this year is expected to be about €50 billion, falling well short once again of NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

To be fair, the Zeitenwende was as much about shifting Germany’s mindset on security issues as it was about spending on the military. Under former center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin all but invited Putin to invade by signaling there would be no consequences if he did so (see Russian incursions into Georgia, support for separatists in Donbass, the annexation of Crimea, the natural pipelines Nord Stream 1, Nord Stream 2, etc). A year ago, Scholz was keen to prove that Berlin understood the error of its ways.

Yet, here too, Scholz’s rhetoric is completely divorced from reality.

A close look at Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech makes it clear that he feared (as did many in Europe at the time) that Ukraine would collapse within hours and that Russia might soon be stationed on the Ukrainian border with Poland.

Ukraine’s resilience has given Scholz more breathing room on the Zeitenwende front — as well as on the question of sending infantry fighting vehicles and tanks to Ukraine, which he refused to do for nearly a year, fearing “escalation.”

The main force holding Scholz back was the chancellor’s Social Democratic Party. Until Scholz’s surprise success in winning the race (albeit by a hair) to succeed Merkel in 2021, the SPD appeared to be a spent political force, lacking clear direction and plagued by infighting.

The party’s victory, which arguably had more to do with the weakness of its opponents than its own attractiveness, elevated a motley crew of old-school, anti-American leftists. Among them was Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the SPD parliamentary group, whose main political aim (until the Russian invasion of Ukraine) was to rid Germany of U.S. nuclear warheads.  

Scholz’s own political career began on the streets of 1980s West Germany, where he led protests against U.S. plans to station mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe and fantasized of taking Germany out of NATO.

That might explain his jaundiced view of the U.S., which he recently insisted pledge to dispatch M-1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine before Germany would agree to send its own Leopard tanks or even allow others to do so.

U.S. President Joe Biden ultimately bowed to Scholz’s demand in order to get the German tanks moving.

The chancellor’s argument that his tank ploy, which he sold at home as a major political victory, would help ensure continued U.S. engagement with Ukraine and support for NATO is absurd on its face when one considers how much Washington has already committed to helping Kyiv compared to Germany (€73 billion vs. €6 billion).

But he knew Germans — who tend to think the worse of America — would buy it anyway. And they have. An in-depth study released earlier this month by Allensbach, a respected polling institute, found that only 46 percent of Germans consider the U.S. to be a reliable ally. In other words, America’s nearly eight decades of protecting Germans from Russia have not been enough to convince a majority of them that the U.S. is their friend.

A man rides his bike past destroyed buildings in Irpin, Ukraine | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

That was also clear this past weekend in Berlin as thousands of anti-war demonstrators (estimates range from 13,000 to 50,000) took to the streets of central Berlin to protest a war that many of them blame on the U.S. (A common argument among many of the leftist forces behind Saturday’s demonstration holds that the U.S. has two goals in connection with Ukraine: to sell weapons and to destroy Russia.)

Politicians like Scholz, who don’t want Germans to know just how reliant their country is on the U.S. security umbrella, are the biggest reason for the country’s dysfunctional relationship with its most important ally.

Like Merkel before him, Scholz is a politician who prefers to be led by polls instead of leading. When the polls showed Germans were skeptical of sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, for example, he held back instead of making the case as to why such support was in Germany’s own best interest. He only relented once the pressure from outside Germany, especially from the U.S., became so great that he had no choice.

Washington is slowly waking up to the fact that Germany’s Zeitenwende is a mirage. German defense spending this year is expected to be about €50 billion, falling well short once again of NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP. As ever, Scholz and other German politicians are promising to reach the target soon.

The contrast with neighboring Poland, where spending is forecast to jump to 3 percent of GDP this year from 2.2 percent, couldn’t be greater.   

That’s one reason why the U.S. is embracing Poland like never before. Biden’s center-left administration and Poland’s national conservative government are hardly natural allies. But they are united by a common enemy and President Biden has visited the country twice in less than a year.

The U.S. president’s only visit to Germany came because the country was hosting the G7 summit last summer. Scholz is due to meet Biden at the White House on Friday for what a U.S. official described as a “working visit.”

It’s not clear what promises, if any, Scholz will make this time around.

If nothing else, Germany’s half-hearted pursuit of the Zeitenwende is forcing Americans to sharpen their German. One word bound to be making the rounds in Washington this week is fremdschämen, which is feeling shame for the action (or inaction) of others.

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