The limits of Germany’s Zeitenwende

Opinion piece (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)
07 December 2023

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did change how Germany thinks about its own security and its relationship with Russia, says Christina Keßler. But the country is still wary of playing a major role in European defence. With Russia unlikely to attack NATO territory soon, Britain should not assume that Germany will take on a leadership role on European security.

As the relationship between the UK and the EU slowly recovers from its Brexit bruising, policymakers on both sides of the channel are searching for possible avenues of cooperation. One of them is the area of security and defence. While the UK might no longer be a member of the EU, it remains a committed member of NATO. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown that the UK and the EU share many foreign and security policy interests. Both have been strong supporters of Ukraine since February 2022.

The German Zeitenwende, when the country committed to dramatically stepping up its contribution to European security, raised hopes for potentially fruitful defence cooperation between London and Berlin. But while there is space for mutually beneficial cooperation, UK policymakers should remain realistic about the Zeitenwende and its limits.

Germany and military power: a difficult relationship

The German attitude to military power is complex. Over recent decades, Germany paid less attention to the military, as the country was shielded from the reality of geopolitics. The memory of the world wars has also made German society sceptical of the Bundeswehr. Recurring scandals linking groups inside the Bundeswehr to the far right exacerbated this sentiment. Consequently, it was rarely seen as a political priority until recently. The Bundeswehr was ill-equipped in weapons and personnel and suffered from too much bureaucracy, but this was not considered an urgent problem.

Things changed after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Three days later, Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed the Bundestag to outline the Federal Government's reaction to the invasion. In his speech, Scholz described the situation as a Zeitenwende — a turning of the times, a watershed moment. He announced several policy shifts. Germany would support Ukraine in fighting off Russia, including through the delivery of weapons. (Delivering arms to an active conflict zone broke a longstanding taboo in German politics.) Germany would implement sanctions against Russia. And to make sure that the war would not spread further, Germany would commit to reaching the NATO goal of allocating at least 2 percent of GDP to defence — another issue which had been controversial in Germany.

To that end, Scholz announced massive investments in the Bundeswehr through a special off-budget fund of €100 billion. His speech called on Germany to ditch its naiveté towards Russia in its foreign policy and strive to become independent from Russian energy imports.

On 27 November 2022, Scholz described the Zeitenwende as something that was happening to Germany. But in the following weeks and months, it became a buzzword to describe a fundamental rethink of German foreign and security policy.

Often, analysts used the term to refer to a new embrace of military power and the adoption of a tougher worldview. Sometimes, it was expanded to other areas like the German economy and its market and resource dependencies on other states, particularly China. Long before February 2022, there had been calls on Germany to take up more of a leadership role in Europe, including on security. With the Zeitenwende, some hoped this leadership role would finally materialise.

Whatever happened to the Zeitenwende?

These hopes may be dashed. Some disappointment was probably inevitable: too many expectations were projected onto the Zeitenwende. Arguably, some sort of mindset shift on foreign and security issues has taken place. However, it is much smaller than is often assumed, and its staying power is uncertain.

Many of the policy shifts announced by Scholz in his Zeitenwende speech were swiftly implemented. Germany, alongside its EU partners, enacted far-reaching sanctions on Russia, including freezing Russian central bank reserves held in Europe. Despite a spike in energy prices, Berlin managed to wean itself off Russian gas. Germany also supported — and continues to support — Ukraine, through financial, humanitarian, and military commitments. As of today, Germany is the second largest provider of military support to Ukraine in absolute terms, surpassed only by the United States. While Germany will not reach NATO’s 2 percent of GDP spending target in 2023, Bundeswehr reforms and massive investments are underway.

However, when it comes to a larger mindset shift, the signs are so far mixed. Last June, Germany adopted its first National Security Strategy. The document clearly identified the heightened risk to European security posed by revisionist military powers like Russia and called for strengthening the European pillar of NATO. The strategy was praised for taking a comprehensive view of security that includes more than traditional ‘hard security‘ challenges. On the issue of defence spending, however, the strategy lacked clarity. Instead of a clear commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence every year, the document merely said that the target would be reached “as an average over a multi-year period”. No additional funds were allocated to reach the goals of the National Security Strategy.

The strategy also failed to outline a narrative for a German leadership role in Europe. While this has been criticised by some analysts, this omission fits with the preferences of the German public. Opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of German citizens do not want their country to play a military leadership role in Europe. While a majority of the German public supports the German increase in defence spending, taking on a military leadership role is seen as something altogether different.

In November 2023, the Bundeswehr released new defence policy guidelines. This document calls for the Bundeswehr to be fit for war, or kriegstüchtig. Boris Pistorius, the German minister of defence, has used the term on multiple occasions. But it has proven controversial. Criticism of Pistorius was immediate — including from colleagues in his own party, the Social Democrats. While Germans might support military aid to Ukraine and investing in the Bundeswehr, this rhetoric goes too far. Pistorius is not swayed by the objections and has continued to use the term, but his stance on the issue is far from a consensus.

Additionally, for many, the sense of urgency which accompanied the Russian invasion of Ukraine has faded. While Ukraine seems unlikely to win the war in the foreseeable future, there seems to be little immediate threat of the conflict expanding to NATO territory. As other security crises are flaring up around the globe, Ukraine is becoming only one headline among others.

While some sort of mindset change has occurred in Germany after February 2022, it would be a mistake to overestimate the staying power and scope of the Zeitenwende. The UK should be cautious in its assessment of the role Germany intends to play in European security.

That does not mean there is no space for UK-German defence cooperation. While there are some important disagreements between the two countries, such as on whether to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, they share many interests. The UK-Germany joint declaration of June 2021 names several issues on which both countries are united by a shared strategic vision: the transatlantic relationship and NATO, Russia’s challenge to European security, China and the Indo-Pacific region, but also climate change and biodiversity loss. Security and defence cooperation between the UK and Germany can and should increase. However, such cooperation should not be built on false expectations.

Christina Keßler is the Clara Marina O’Donnell fellow (2023-24).