Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed the moment a Zeitenwende, or historic turning point, for his country and the world. Germany, he said on Feb. 27, would abandon decades of pacifism and close relations with Russia. Berlin would send weapons to Ukraine, create a special €100-billion defense fund, and wean itself from Russian energy imports. But Scholz has largely failed to live up to those promises. By July, Germany had only sent a few pieces of heavy artillery. Berlin told NATO countries in Eastern Europe that it would resupply them with modern weapons systems if they sent their Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine, but Scholz has since reneged on these pledges. Meanwhile, as energy prices were rising dramatically across Europe, his cabinet approved €200 billion in subsidies to lower utility costs for German consumers, without consulting its partners in the European Union. Berlin’s disagreements with France on Ukraine, arms deals, and energy are so extensive that the two countries postponed a major bilateral conference planned for October until January. In Berlin, in mid-October, Latvia’s defense minister asked, “Can we trust Germany?” What happened to the promise of the Zeitenwende?
Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Germany’s Role in European Russia Policy. As Fix sees it, Scholz didn’t follow through on the big promises of the Zeitenwende largely because he’s afraid that the war might expand beyond Ukraine, and he doesn’t want Germany to contribute to escalating the conflict. This reluctance has damaged Berlin’s credibility among fellow EU members to the east and west. In the meantime, Fix says, the meaning of Zeitenwende has also changed since February. Scholz originally announced a transformation of German foreign policy, yet many inside and outside Germany now understand Zeitenwende as the goal of transforming the country from an economic power into a global political leader. And whether Scholz will be able to achieve this transformation remains highly uncertain.
Michael Bluhm: Other countries have complained that Germany wasn’t sending weapons quickly enough and that they weren’t sending their best weapons, particularly the Marder tank. But Scholz says that Germany is providing more support than anyone except the U.K. and U.S., which isn’t sending its most sophisticated tanks or weaponry, either. What’s going on here?
Liana Fix: There are two perspectives on Germany’s performance in Ukraine. The first sees how far Germany has come since before the war, when it wasn’t at all considering sending weapons to Ukraine. Germany said then that it didn’t export weapons to war zones. Now, the first German air-defense system has arrived in Ukraine, and so far, it’s been very successful in helping Ukrainians protect their cities and infrastructure.
From that perspective, Germany is being helpful: It’s trying to raise defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, as NATO is demanding of its member states. It’s changing its policies on energy security, after going in the wrong direction for many years.
But from the second perspective, Germany is only doing what was overdue. For years, allies had criticized its energy dependence on Russia and its refusal to support Ukraine militarily. Germany has delivered weapons only under massive internal and external pressure. That created a sense of frustration and lacking leadership: A leader should be sending weapons first, not after everyone else has.
The crucial question is, what should Germany’s role be? Is it just to be part of an alliance and a reliable follower of U.S. leadership in this war? Or should Germany take a leadership role itself?
If the goal is to take a leadership role itself, then just doing your homework isn’t enough. For instance, Germany could be putting together European initiatives on battle-tank deliveries for Ukraine. Germany could be leading together with the United States, to regain the trust it’s lost among its Central and Eastern European neighbors.
From the first perspective, Germany started from a low level and is doing a good job as one member of an alliance. From the second, this is a historic opportunity, and Germany needs to step up and assume a military leadership role—and it’s not doing enough.
Bluhm: You mention the defense budget. The government has released annual budget projections through 2026, and none of them allocates 2 percent to defense. Why isn’t Scholz following through on his pledge?
Fix: When it comes to Germany’s defense budget, the question is, do they increase the defense budget by cutting the budget elsewhere? They avoided that question with the special fund of €100 billion, which can be spent over the next few years. But where do you cut the budget, if you need to increase your defense budget permanently?
Meanwhile, there’s the challenge that 2 percent was nice before the war, but now other countries are heading toward 3 percent. So where would that come from?
Germany has delivered weapons only under massive internal and external pressure. That created a sense of frustration and lacking leadership: A leader should be sending weapons first, not after everyone else has.
Bluhm: You make it clear that, while Germany has made major changes since the invasion, Scholz isn’t acting as though he wants Germany to take a leadership role. Why not?
Fix: The main motive to slow-walk assistance, and not to assume the leadership role we’re talking about, is a fear of escalation—which we’ve seen since the beginning of the war. This fear that the war might escalate into a NATO-Russia confrontation was prominent in Scholz’s speeches, and the fear has never disappeared. Which also explains why Germany is hesitant to send its battle tanks to Ukraine.
Olaf Scholz has argued that he’s very close with the U.S. president in thinking about what to do, what not to do, and escalation. That is not entirely true, because the assistance that the U.S. provides to Ukraine is on a completely different dimension than what EU member states such as Germany provide.
Even with its smaller capabilities, Germany is definitely not assuming the same leadership role as the U.S. And by slow-walking everything, German policy has become a disappointment for its European neighbors. It’s less of a disappointment to the United States, where there’s still a very positive attitude toward Germany and its contributions. But Germany’s neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe expected more. So they’ve lost some trust in Germany—trust that Germany would be there for them if the war broadens.
Bluhm: Some observers have written that Scholz is reluctant to lead the fight against Russia because his Social Democratic Party has a substantial pacificist wing, and some on the party’s left still have some sympathy for Russia. How much of Scholz’s behavior, do you think, can be attributed to partisan considerations?
Fix: Scholz is ahead of some on his party’s left. He has a clear understanding of the threat that Russia poses. He has spoken openly about the risk that giving Russia the opportunity to advance in Ukraine could lead to Russia threatening other European countries, such as Moldova.
There are also attempts within his party to reassess Germany’s past policy toward Russia. There’s less nostalgia for this policy, but some still believe that dialogue and diplomacy should be the main instruments of German foreign policy—though they don’t explain how that would prevent Russia from going any further.
At the same time, Scholz is confronted with government-coalition partners—the Green Party and the Liberals—who are much more forward-leaning than elements of his own party. Scholz doesn’t belong to the left, pacifist-leaning wing of the Social Democrats, but he has to take it into consideration and balance that with the pressure he gets from the Greens and the Liberals to do more.
But no respected figure in the Social Democratic Party is demanding a return to past Russia policies. That’s gone. Nord Stream 2, the undersea natural-gas pipeline direct from Russia to Germany, is also gone and will never be revived.
Germany’s neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe expected more. So they’ve lost some trust in Germany—trust that Germany would be there for them if the war broadens.
Bluhm: You mention how some in Scholz’s party want dialogue and diplomacy above all. Another possible explanation for his behavior is that he still hopes for some imminent negotiated solution to the war. How much of a role might that be playing in his decision-making?
Fix: This was more of a topic in German and French politics in May and June. At the time, Scholz would not say that Ukraine should win this war. He always said that Russia should not win, and Ukraine should not lose, but he never explicitly said that Ukraine should win. He was not too far from France’s position, but there was concern that Germany would accept an agreement that gave Russia the territories in Ukraine it had occupied before the war—and maybe more.
These concerns are gone. Both Scholz and French President Emanuel Macron have been very explicit in saying that Russia must withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s territory and that a just peace can be achieved only by restoring Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. This phrase, “a just peace,” is important because it hints that the German leadership wouldn’t be satisfied with peace at any cost—but that it needs to be a peace where Russia withdraws, and Ukraine can uphold as much of its territorial integrity as possible. The reason is Russia’s escalation in the past month, which has shown everyone who argued for a quick diplomatic solution that Russia seems unwilling to find one.
Bluhm: How does German public support for Ukraine look today?
Fix: It looks very good. Opinion polls say that the majority of Germans support Ukraine and sanctions on Russia even if that leads to increases in German living costs. We do see a divide between East and West Germany, which we’ve seen in the past on Russia policy. East Germans tend to be closer to Russian positions.
The German population is divided on the question of battle-tank deliveries. We’ll see how that changes throughout the winter.
But it seems that opinions on energy aren’t connected to Ukraine anymore. There is no direct link, like, If we reduce our support for Ukraine, then our energy problem might be resolved. It’s clear that the energy relationship with Russia is damaged for the foreseeable future, regardless of what happens in Ukraine.
Bluhm: In the same speech where Scholz declared the Zeitenwende, he also said that Germany needed to wean itself off Russian natural gas. Gas prices have risen dramatically, and the German government recently approved an energy subsidy of €200 billion to lower people’s utility bills. On the other hand, Germany led the opposition to a campaign by France, Spain, Belgium, and other EU states to create a cap on the purchase price of natural gas in the EU—a position that also earned criticism for Berlin. What’s going on there?
It’s clear that the energy relationship with Russia is damaged for the foreseeable future, regardless of what happens in Ukraine.
Fix: That was a big controversy in the European Union because of the impression that Germany was once again going it alone with a massive bailout for itself. Putting in €200 billion is double the amount of the special defense fund approved after the invasion. The impression was that Germany wasn’t paying attention to the distortions that such a bailout could lead to within the EU single market, where member states can’t just decide whatever they want, because their decisions have an impact on other member states.
Other EU countries were angry at Germany because they felt it was looking after its own population and undermining European solidarity. It’s telling that Macron said during price-cap negotiations that Germany was isolating itself. It shows how disappointed other EU member states were by Germany going it alone in tackling the energy crisis.
Bluhm: Macron and Scholz disagree on so many things that they had to postpone until January a conference scheduled for early November. Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks asked at a forum in Berlin in October, “Can we trust Germany?” How bad are relations between Germany and other EU members now?
Fix: Germany’s most difficult relationship now is with Poland; it’s really at a low point. The government in Poland uses anger or disappointment with Germany for its own political gains. Warsaw is demanding reparations from Germany for World War II, which has soured relations. Germany and the broader EU have disagreements with Poland about the strength of the rule of law in Poland.
It’s unfortunate that this relationship is difficult now, because one would imagine that at a time of war, when Poland is the western border of Ukraine and the main hub for Ukrainian support, a close German-Polish relationship would be in the interest of all sides—but that is not the case.
Meanwhile, the German-French relationship is staggering. France was disappointed by Germany’s decisions in defense policy because France was hoping for European defense projects—and that Germany would buy French weapons instead of U.S. arms.
But there’s also a feeling of impatience in France that Germany isn’t taking the German-French relationship to the next level. The Social Democrats criticized former Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, for not responding to Macron’s big policy idea of a new European Union. But so far, Paris hasn’t seen any response from Scholz, either.
It’s problematic if Germany has difficult relationships with its biggest neighbors to the east and west. In a time of war, that’s deeply problematic.
Bluhm: How has Scholz’s cautious approach to the Zeitenwende affected these relationships?
Fix: The debate about the Zeitenwende has changed. The original discussion was about Germany increasing its defense spending and sending military aid to Ukraine. But for Germany’s EU neighbors, Zeitenwende has become about a broader geopolitical transformation of Germany into an actor that assumes a leadership role and isn’t naive about Russia anymore.
It’s problematic if Germany has difficult relationships with its biggest neighbors to the east and west. In a time of war, that’s deeply problematic.
Germany’s policy toward China, for example, is part of that. Scholz recently went to Beijing, and he took a large business delegation. That fueled skepticism among Germany’s European neighbors as to whether Zeitenwende is the geopolitical awakening of a sleeping giant or just some policy changes.
On China, the government still struggled to convey a sense of urgency about its transformation. It struggled to apply the lessons from its Russia policy. It struggled to convince Europeans that they can trust Germany and follow Germany’s leadership. That’s a big question.
It’s not really about what Olaf Scholz specifically said on February 27. It’s really about the greater ambition to be a geopolitical actor—this awakening of a sleeping giant in Europe. In the end, Zeitenwende is just a word, but it plays a role in the imagination of Germany’s allies. Their hopes for the Zeitenwende are bigger now.
Bluhm: You mention China. Scholz recently approved the Chinese corporation Cosco’s investment in the Hamburg port terminal, despite opposition from six ministers in his own cabinet. Critics said he was making the same mistake with China that German leaders had long made with Russia—believing that close economic relations would somehow improve these countries’ behavior. Why did he approve the deal?
Fix: He argued that Germany shouldn’t usher in a systemic confrontation with China—that decoupling from China is not on the agenda. He said that China shouldn’t be completely isolated. That’s a bit of a straw-man argument, though, because no one wants to completely isolate China.
But if there is a security crisis over Taiwan, it’s an open question whether Germany will be faced with the same problems as in its Russia policy, when suddenly it becomes a major foreign-policy disaster that Germany isn’t prepared for.
The compromise that Scholz found—China will buy only 25 percent of the terminal instead of 35 percent—is like trying to find a middle way when it soon might not be appropriate to find a middle way. Finding a middle way with China was appropriate five or 10 years ago. Now it’s becoming increasingly difficult, and Germany’s approach to have its cake and eat it angers many Europeans.
Bluhm: So, what does Zeitenwende mean in Germany now?
Fix: At the beginning of the war, the Zeitenwende was more of an emergency brake, because Germany was heading in the wrong direction on Russia policy, defense policy, and energy policy. Those policies had to be changed—with a U-turn. Three days after the war broke out, when Scholz spoke, there was a concern that Russia might occupy all of Ukraine and threaten NATO member states.
But now it has a much larger meaning, which raises a much larger question—a question about German leadership, and German military leadership, in Europe.
The outside world sees Zeitenwende as a change that affects Germany’s entire foreign policy, including Germany’s economic model, which was based on trading with Russia and China. That model was the main source of Germany’s increasing prosperity, apart from basic trade with the European Union. Zeitenwende now includes all German policy; it’s not limited to the war anymore.