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Germany’s reluctance on tanks stems from its history and its politics

Russia’s war in Ukraine is now forcing Germany to rethink decades-old ideas about its place in Europe, its relationship to Russia and the use of military force

Germany has self-consciously devoted itself to promoting “peace” and integrating into a European and trans-Atlantic security order where consensus has been the byword.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is now forcing Germany to rethink decades-old ideas about its place in Europe, its relationship to Russia and the use of military force.

Germany built its postwar economy on cheap Russian energy and supposedly apolitical trade with Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China, believing that trade produces change, somehow moderating authoritarian regimes.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has challenged all of that. It has been as much a psychological shock to Germany as a political one, undercutting many of its assumptions about Russia; its president, Vladimir Putin; and the role of Germany in a Europe suddenly at war.

Nowhere is the disorientation more apparent than in Germany’s reluctance, for now, to send Ukraine its excellent main battle tank, the Leopard 2, or to allow other countries to do so. The stance has risked isolating Germany and exasperating its allies. Most important, the Ukrainians say, Germany’s hesitance threatens to hamper their ability to hold off or turn around an anticipated Russian offensive this spring.

Although Germans overwhelmingly support Ukraine in its fight, the hesitation on sending tanks reflects the deep ambivalence in a nation with a catastrophic history of aggression during World War II and that remains profoundly divided about being a military leader and risking a direct confrontation with Russia.

Opinion polls show that half of Germans do not want to send tanks.

“German reluctance here can be summed up in one word, and that’s ‘history,’” said Steven Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany.

“Germans want to be seen as a partner, not an aggressor, and they have a particular sensitivity to delivering arms in regions where German arms were historically used to kill millions of people,” he said, citing Russia, Poland and Ukraine.

“People do not want German weapons on the front lines being used to kill people in those regions.”

But Germans risk misinterpreting the lessons of their history, said Timothy Garton Ash, a historian of Germany and Europe at St Antony’s College at Oxford.

“The German position is profoundly confused, with the old thinking dead and the new not yet born,” he said.

Indeed, despite German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s declaration early last year of a 'Zeitenwende,' or historical turning point, for Germany, his government and his country have struggled to follow through in building up its military. Although the Ukraine war has prompted a serious debate in democratic Germany, it is hardly finished, Garton Ash said.

The result has been what Scholz’s critics see as his overly tentative leadership at this moment of crisis. The confusion has been especially pronounced within Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, which heads the current government, said Boris Ruge, a vice chair of the Munich Security Conference.

But politics are at play, too. Both the Social Democrats and the Greens, the largest members of the governing coalition, have strong pacifist wings that party leaders, such as Scholz, cannot ignore.

“Scholz has to think of domestic politics, too,” Ruge said.

“On issues of strategy and politics, many of the Social Democrats are dyed-in-the-wool pacifists, and he must pay attention to them.”

To some degree, Scholz is leading not a three-party coalition but a five-party one, if one counts the pacifist wings of the Greens and Social Democrats. And the Social Democrats have many voters in the former East Germany, which has been more sympathetic to Moscow.

There is also concern, and not only among Germans, that escalating the war with Western tanks will just increase the killing without fundamentally altering the course of the war.

German voters want their leaders always “to push the so-called peace option, to be last to move or to move in a coalition,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “That shows that you’re not warmongering, you’re not pushing a military agenda.”

The clear pattern for Scholz is to move slowly, to try to bring his voters along (despite the annoyance of his Nato allies) and to finally agree to send in the tanks once he convinces the German public that it will actually bring peace closer by pushing Russia to negotiate.

Scholz and his aides argue that Germany has done a lot already, breaking its own taboo on sending weapons to a country at war, and sending the third-largest tranche of military aid to Ukraine.

In an interview last month, Scholz’s chief of staff, Wolfgang Schmidt, said the chancellor saw his role as easing the transition to a new foreign policy in a population used to decades of pacifism.

“A long-lasting tradition of all political parties — no weapons to conflict zones, let alone to a war — was completely shifted by Chancellor Scholz, and yet it received broad public support,” Schmidt said. “We always try to make sure that with all our actions, we can sustain them, and it’s not just a one-off — that we keep our society together and the people behind it.” - The New York Times

Steven Erlanger

The writer is the chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe for NYT

Erika Solomon

The writer is NYT's Berlin correspondent

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