If you had any sense of history and found yourself near the German Bundestag in Berlin on Sunday, you could have heard the sound of an explosion. It wasn’t a physical one, like the blasts of the bombs Russian President Vladimir Putin is lobbing at the brave people of Ukraine. It was instead the detonation of two or more decades of naive, misguided and often hypocritical foreign and defense policy.
In a special session of parliament, Chancellor Olaf Scholz dispatched nearly every dogma Germans — notably including his own party, the Social Democrats — have stubbornly clung to for a generation to the chagrin of their allies in NATO and the European Union.
And it wasn’t just the chancellor. After him, one speaker after another rose to find similarly clear and moving words — from the center-left Greens and center-right Free Democrats in Scholz’s coalition to the Christian Democrats in opposition. Let the world take note: Owing to Putin’s naked aggression, Germany has changed almost overnight.
Here’s a partial list of the reversals announced: A week earlier, Scholz had already nixed the operation of a new gas pipeline called Nord Stream 2, which connects Russia directly to Germany and thereby circumvents Ukraine and eastern Europe. Up to that point, Scholz, his party and many other Germans had maintained the fiction that this project was a private-sector business deal with no geopolitical dimension. That delusion is buried, as is the pipeline.
Next, Scholz got fully behind the West’s decision to exclude several Russian banks from the SWIFT system for international payments — dropping any initial reluctance. The government also signed up to the whole long list of other Western sanctions against Russian institutions and individuals. The goal, several speakers made clear, was the complete economic, financial and political isolation of Putin’s Russia.
But that wasn’t the biggest surprise. That prize goes to the decision to finally send weapons to Ukraine for its self-defense. Throughout this crisis, Germany had stubbornly stuck to its position of not arming parties in war (which it has hypocritically ignored in other conflicts). Invariably, the explanations included lugubrious moral lectures about Germany’s historical responsibility as a former warmonger.
That sanctimoniousness has crumbled, as Germans keep witnessing Ukrainian heroism. Like people across much of the world, they’re agape at the valor of ordinary Ukrainians preparing to fight, and of mothers stoically seeking shelter with their children in subway shafts. And they’re inspired by the laconic courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — who answered American offers to transport him to safety with the reminder: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Even more surprisingly, Scholz and his cabinet announced a pivot in defense policy overall. For years, the country’s allies have berated Germany for skimping on its army, to the point where it could barely defend its own territory or be of much use to allies in a pinch. Now the government wants to set up a special fund worth 100 billion euros ($112.7 billion) to re-equip the military.
It also promises to boost defense budgets going forward, at long last taking aim at the NATO-wide target of spending 2% of GDP. The often infantile German debate on whether to banish American nuclear warheads from German soil appears to be canceled.
But the speakers this Sunday in the Bundestag — too often a venue for windbags venting platitudes — were even clearer than that. In effect, they offered mea culpas for having got wrong many big things, for a long, long time.
The first of these is the peculiarly German tradition — rooted in its Ostpolitik (eastern policy) during the Cold War — that dialogue and rapprochement will inevitably lead to better relations with Russia. This cliche is captured in the rhyme Wandel durch Handel — change through trade. We’ve talked and traded with Putin all these years, a cabinet minister stated frankly, and look where it got us.
A second point of naivete the speakers confessed to is the faux-pacifism that’s pervaded German thinking on world affairs for many decades, but especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Armed conflict, in this narrative, was banished from the continent (with unfortunate exceptions in the Balkans) and from the European zeitgeist. Dialogue and rules had allegedly replaced deterrence and national interests as means and ends of policy.
Bunk, bunk and bunk, Scholz and other orators acknowledged in so many words. The way to stop a bully like Putin is with strength — only then do talks make sense. That used to be an un-German martial notion. It could now become the new mainstream.
Distilling the legacy of Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, I recently concluded that, after her, “the post-heroic age in German history will be over.” Post-heroism is a term Germans have used to describe their postwar turn away from hard power and toward commerce and idealism, whether genuine or staged.
Scholz, who took office only in December, at first seemed an unlikely leader for a return to a more muscular and traditional foreign policy that lives up to the expectations of allies. He’s usually not a man to cause explosions. But that was before the real blasts in the east — before the heroism of a Zelenskiy, and the villainy of a Putin.