Countries, unlike leopards, can change their spots.
The Germany of today is not the Germany of 1941. That’s apparent to the whole world — except to Germans, who until Wednesday seemed reluctant to imagine that their country could be a protector of democracy and human rights, rather than a threat to them.
But on Wednesday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Germany’s Parliament that the country would break a longstanding taboo and allow the export of German-made tanks to Ukraine, where they are desperately needed to fight off a brutal Russian invasion.
Berlin will initially send 14 tanks. More importantly, Scholz will also give the green light to other countries like Poland, Spain, Finland, and Norway that want to donate their own German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Kyiv. The tanks are considered much more capable than the outdated ex-Soviet equipment used by both Ukraine and Russia.
This welcome shift caps off a startling transformation of German defense policy since Vladimir Putin’s troops rolled into democratic Ukraine on Feb. 24 in a bald effort to grab territory.
Putin’s invasion was a threat not just to Ukraine but to the rest of Eastern Europe. If he’s successful, Moldova or the Baltic states — all former Soviet republics — could be next. And the indiscriminate Russian attacks on civilians, atrocities in towns like Bucha and Irpin, and efforts to eradicate Ukrainian culture evoked Europe’s worst 20th-century horrors. It would be unthinkable for Europe’s largest economic power — and the perpetrator of those 20th-century atrocities in Ukraine and elsewhere — to hide behind pacifist platitudes now.
Still, war guilt in Germany had fed into a broader discomfort with the military that missed an essential point: It was military force that defeated the Nazis and ended the Holocaust, not diplomacy or trade.
Naturally, Germany’s new outlook has a name: Zeitenwende, roughly meaning turning point. And it has skeptics, especially in Eastern European countries that distrust Germany because of its previously accommodating policy toward Russia and those who have been enraged by Scholz’s slow deliberations on the tanks.
Indeed, it took too much poking and prodding to unleash the Leopards, and Scholz appeared to be unwilling for Germany to go first. France announced earlier in the month it would send a contingent of its tank-like AMX-10 RC vehicles to Kyiv, and Britain agreed to supply some of its Challenger 2 tanks. The United States said Wednesday it would provide Ukraine with 31 American-built Abrams M1 tanks, a transfer the Germans are said to have insisted on as a condition of sending theirs.
According to military analysts, though, it’s the German Leopards that are the best suited for Ukraine’s immediate needs, in part because there are so many already located in Europe. All told, European countries are expected to donate 80 or more Leopards to Ukraine, enough to make a meaningful military difference, fight off an expected spring offensive by the Russians, and recapture territory now occupied by Putin’s troops.
The Biden administration deserves credit for pledging the Abrams tanks — even though those vehicles may not be a good fit for Ukraine’s immediate needs — since that political decision was apparently what it took to unblock Germany’s tanks.
As acrimonious as the debate over sending German tanks to Ukraine became at times, critics of Germany’s hesitation — Poland and the Baltic states — ought to focus on the outcome. Not only will Ukraine get the weapons it needs, but Germany’s shift raises hope for a brighter future for the NATO alliance that’s been the bedrock of American and European security since its founding in 1949.
Recent American presidents, especially Barack Obama and Donald Trump, tried and failed to convince Germany to increase its military spending. As a member of NATO, Germany is obliged to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its military — a target it has consistently failed to meet. That’s led to some resentment from Americans, who have accused Germany and Europe more broadly of freeloading off the security umbrella provided by American taxpayers.
The war in Ukraine has changed all that by providing a sobering reminder of why NATO exists in the first place. European countries have recommitted to the alliance, and Germany now promises to meet the 2 percent spending target (when exactly that will happen is unclear).
The alliance will emerge stronger after the Ukraine war. For now, though, its focus must be on helping Ukraine to win it, an outcome that’s a step closer after Germany’s decision on Wednesday.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.