They grew up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. In Communist East Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht learned as a child that Russia was an ally and the United States a threat to peace, while 250 miles away, Gerd Bauz lived near an American military base that he was told was there to protect West Germany from a feared Warsaw Pact invasion.
Despite those different upbringings, the pair agree on one thing: Germany today should be trying to stop the war in Ukraine, not helping to keep the fighting going by arming Kyiv with more sophisticated weapons, tanks and other materiel. It’s a view shared by millions of Germans vociferously opposed to war.
“Germany started two catastrophic world wars, and that’s why war scares us stiff,” said Wagenknecht, 53, a member of Parliament for the opposition Left party. “It makes me sick to think that German tanks could be used to attack Russians again.”
Bauz, 72, believes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be halted quickly if only the U.S. had the will to take the lead in peace talks.
“It’s completely absurd that there’s war in Europe in the 21st century,” said Bauz, whose parents’ families were decimated in World War II and who became a conscientious objector. “We need to be beyond warfare in Europe. It’s all wrong.”
That historical memory — of two global conflicts Germany instigated, first under their kaiser in 1914 and then under the Nazis in 1939, that led to widespread destruction and the deaths of tens of millions — helps explain why the country has been so reluctant to send arms to Ukraine to support its defense against Russia’s invasion. Although Berlin has so far gone along with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries and gradually become a major supplier of military hardware to Kyiv, including howitzers and antiaircraft systems, it has often been slow in doing so, to the exasperation of its allies.
The recent dust-up over whether to send combat tanks, which Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally agreed to this week only after the U.S. signaled its intention to do the same, offered the latest example of German hesitancy. But it won’t be the last, analysts say, warning that Berlin will continue to need persuading and pressuring even as the war spins on and as Russian President Vladimir Putin looks for divisions to exploit among Ukraine’s backers.
“It’s Germany’s signature on foreign policy since Feb. 24, 2022,” the day of Russia’s invasion, said Soenke Neitzel, an author and military historian at Potsdam University. “Act together with your alliance partners — but only in the middle or at the rear of the NATO convoy.”
Scholz announced Wednesday that Berlin would send 14 of its highly regarded Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, which is bracing for a renewed offensive by Russian forces after the winter. Just as important, Scholz also agreed to grant the export permission that other NATO countries, such as Poland and Spain, need before they can dip into their own stocks of the German-made 60-ton combat tanks and transfer them to Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to lawmakers in Parliament about his decision to send tanks to Ukraine.
(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)
But Scholz acknowledged many Germans’ opposition to or unease with his decision. He pleaded for their confidence in a solemn speech to Parliament and tried to impress upon them the threat in their backyard.
“There really is a war in Europe, and it’s not far from Berlin,” he said. “A lot of people are fearful. I urge you to have trust in me. … We’ll make sure that our support is possible without raising risks to our country.”
He assured them that Germany would never put boots on the ground in the current conflict: “We won’t send troops to Ukraine, and there won’t be any NATO involvement. You have my word on that.”
For its part, the Biden administration has agreed to furnish Kyiv with powerful U.S. M1 Abrams tanks, a move that gave Scholz the political cover to follow suit.
A recent poll showed Germans to be fairly evenly divided over whether to provide Ukraine with tanks, with 46% in favor and 43% opposed. A majority of those opposed are supporters of Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party, which has made things awkward for the chancellor.
Germany’s weapons deliveries to Ukraine have marked the end to one of its self-imposed postwar limits on arms: a ban on exporting military equipment to conflict zones.
The tectonic shift is part of what Scholz, in a landmark speech a few days after Russian troops barreled into Ukraine, called a Zeitenwende in Berlin’s military policy — a new era dawning. He pledged to set up a special fund worth about $109 billion to re-equip Germany’s armed forces, though none of it has so far been spent on weaponry. Germany’s military spending has long been below NATO’s target of 2% of gross domestic product and is currently just 1.3%.
Bolstering the war machine of another, non-NATO nation — Ukraine — is a step too far for many Germans, who are especially frightened by Putin‘s threats to use nuclear weapons.
“A lot of people in Germany are duly worried that we’re going to get dragged into the war in Ukraine,” said Wagenknecht, one of Germany’s leading antiwar voices. “I think it’s irresponsible to follow a logic that there can only be military solutions. The Ukraine government doesn’t want to negotiate — its strategy is to draw NATO into the war. It’s understandable from their point of view, but I don’t see how German tanks will make a difference. It’s just going to increase the numbers killed.”
She scoffed at the idea that Ukraine can defeat Russia, echoing a sentiment that is more prevalent in the eastern part of Germany, which once had 500,000 Soviet soldiers stationed on its soil during the Cold War.
Ukrainian soldiers on captured Russian tanks train close to the Ukraine-Belarus border in October.
(Aleksandr Shulman / Associated Press)
“Russia is a nuclear power, and sending more weapons will contribute to a dangerous escalation of the war, with the outcome uncertain,” Wagenknecht said. “That’s why I’m so scared, and so many others in Germany are too. If Germany sends combat tanks to Ukraine, Germany could become a target. We’re a lot closer to Ukraine than the United States.”
Just a few days after the war started, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner reportedly told the then-ambassador from Ukraine, Andriy Melnyk, that there was no point in Germany helping his country because it would be only a few hours before Russia vanquished it. Melnyk, who is now deputy foreign minister, later said he had tears in his eyes after being told that Ukraine had no chance.
For Germans such as Dagmar Grass, a physiotherapist who grew up in the East and lives in Cologne, opposition to the war and arms shipments from Germany remains deep.
Scenes at the hospital where she works have hardened her hatred of war, but she also realizes there are no easy solutions to the Ukraine conflict. She hopes peace talks can become part of the conversation soon.