Germany was Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in Western Europe, until Russia invaded Ukraine. Since the Cold War, German leaders worked to build trade ties with Moscow—and good relations with Vladimir Putin himself. In keeping with this tradition, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, elected in 2021, resisted the strong sanctions that his country’s allies were preparing to deter Putin from attacking Ukraine—and pushed to keep any action against energy supplies out of the sanctions package. Scholz had declared Nord Stream 2, the nearly completed undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, a purely commercial project outside of political interference. But three days after the invasion, Scholz reversed decades of policy. He not only suspended the approval of Nord Stream 2 and said Germany must wean itself from Russian energy; he agreed to send weapons to Ukraine and announced that his government would set aside 100 billion euros for immediate military upgrades and commit 2 percent of the federal budget to defense spending annually. These changes mark a historic departure from the legacy of World War II: For more than 70 years, Germany had been devoted to pacifism and avoided militarization. What does this shift mean for its place in Europe?

Jana Puglierin is the head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, where she’s a senior fellow, and has previously advised the Bundestag, the German legislature, on defense issues. Puglierin says that Germany has undergone a transformation in how it sees itself and its relationship with Europe. After years of debate about whether the state should invest more in security, German leaders have had to admit finally that robust trade ties don’t guarantee peace, and Europe isn’t forever immune from war. Pacifism remains a strong current among Germans, Puglierin says, as it does among some officials in Scholz’s Social Democrats and in the Green Party, one of their governing-coalition partners. But Berlin’s new defense spending will give it a military to match its standing as Europe’s leading economic and political power. The imperative from the German public is that it will be a military that stays embedded clearly within the EU and NATO, focused on collective security.

Michael Bluhm: How has the war in Ukraine changed Germany?

Jana Puglierin: It’s very tough to overstate the change that Germany’s undergone. The government admitted that it was wrong, not just in its assessment of Putin’s goal and means, but also in its broader judgment about European security.

It’s sunken in that what’s required isn’t a minor course correction but a readjustment of long-held principles that Germany didn’t want to give up and that are closely connected to the question of what kind of state Germany is. The shift is that Germany needs to let go of some really dear thoughts about European security and its relationship with Russia.

In 1989, we Germans came to the conclusion that we’d overcome war in Europe. Of course, there were the Balkan Wars, but that was seen as a legacy of the Cold War. For a lot of Germans, the scenario in Ukraine was unthinkable.

In German foreign policy, whenever a crisis occurs, you have this standard phrase: There is no military solution. We need to realize that just because we don’t see a military solution to achieving our goals, others—including in Europe—think it’s completely plausible to use military power to achieve theirs.

It’s the end of our holiday from history. We really haven’t fully overcome it; Chancellor Scholz said Putin is trying to bring back the means of the 19th century and take us back to a time that’s long gone. It shows how Germans think we’ve overcome 19th-century power politics and military means. I think they never ended—and that Germans need to realize it.

Dan V.

Bluhm: What beliefs about European security are changing?

Puglierin: A deep-rooted belief for a long time was that creating networks with other countries and making yourself mutually dependent was a way to achieve peace, stability, and security. The idea was that others would become like us.

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