In announcing Germany’s sudden decision to build a modern army after war broke out in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz used a wonderful German word: Zeitenwende. It means the turn of an era, a rupture in time, an epochal change. Germany’s dramatic break with its last 77 years of history is all of those. “We should be careful using the word ‘historic,’ but that’s what we can call this,” one newscaster said hours after Scholz spoke.
Support for Ukraine is widespread in Germany. Fear of Russia is growing. That set the stage for Scholz’s speech. “We must invest much more in the security of our country,” he said. “There is no other answer to Putin’s aggression.”
Scholz announced that Germany will immediately pump more than $100 billion into its military and will permanently increase its defense budget. According to opinion surveys, most Germans approve. This marks a radical change of consciousness. Since the end of World War II, Germans have recoiled from anything that smacks of war. No more.
Germany’s decision to reinvigorate its military was a direct response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet the specter of a newly martial Germany naturally arouses discomfort. Twice in the 20th century, German militarism exploded to wreak havoc on Europe. Both times, that included war against Russia. Today Germany is once again Europe’s leading power. Will history repeat itself?
In the weeks since Scholz’s shattering announcement, prominent politicians have taken pains to promise that Germany will never become a military aggressor and that German soldiers will not be sent to fight Russians in Ukraine or anywhere else. Germany’s new military ambition, though, reflects a profound evolution in the national psyche. The generation now moving into power does not share the “never again” peacemongering mentality that led many of their parents and grandparents to shun all things military.
For more than half a century, Germany has been what security analysts call a “free rider.” Safely under the American umbrella as part of the NATO alliance, it has done only the bare minimum to maintain its army, navy, and air force.
The trauma of World War II led many Germans to become quasi-pacifists. Their children were further alienated from militarism by watching imperial misadventures from Vietnam to Nicaragua. In today’s Germany, veterans are rarely honored, many schools forbid cooperation with the military, and studying military science is considered odd. While most Americans associate the idea of war with victory, most Germans associate it with defeat and devastation. Until now, they preferred to engage the world through peaceful projects like strengthening the European Union and sending development aid to poor countries.
Younger Germans, however, are largely divorced from those experiences and impulses. They feel culturally and emotionally tied to the United States and want their country to play a robust role in NATO. For them, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a defining moment. One of its longest-lasting effects may be that it provoked Germany back into the military business.
Germany’s new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, personifies this perspective. Born in 1980, she grew up without any of the embedded shame and anti-militarism that shaped previous German generations. She is unabashedly pro-American; has declared herself ready to “ruin Russia” as punishment for waging a war “based on lies”; and advocates a “180-degree turn” away from traditional German security policy including “a massive buildup of our army.” No German foreign minister in living memory has spoken like that.
Germany’s newly committed military aid to Ukraine won’t nearly match what the United States is sending. Germany has no great stocks of weaponry and little airlift capacity. Nor will its military culture quickly reemerge and transform the country. Nonetheless, this year’s shift is tectonic. If it ultimately produces a world-class German army, that will permanently rebalance European geopolitics. Some in Paris and other European capitals must now be pondering what this might mean for them. Rivalries have shaken the continent for centuries. That won’t change.
For decades Germany has been a bit player in European security. It has just announced its determination to assume a greater and perhaps leading military role. This will not cause Germans, however, to forget what has brought them their remarkable post-war prosperity. They do business with everyone. Even now, as Germany joins harsh sanctions against Russia, it continues to buy Russian gas. Not even the Zeitenwende has changed that.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.