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Zeitenwende is a German word we had better get used to seeing. The official translation is “watershed”, though like many German compound words it represents more nuances, such as “turn in the times”, or “change of an era”. It was a word bandied about many times when a delegation of South Africans I was part of visited Berlin in June.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz used it when he addressed the Bundestag (German parliament) on February 24 to describe the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He announced that Germany would be raising its defence expenditure from the usual 1.3% of its budget to more than 2% “year after year”, as well as setting up a €100bn special fund for immediate investment in military capacity.
Also, that his government had committed to nuclear sharing and acquiring armed drones, signalling moves controversial for his Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its Greens allies. This came in the wake of the government sending antitank and other weapons to Ukraine and reversing its traditional policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones.
To appreciate this about-turn one needs to recall that one of the primary lessons of its two world war experiences was that in the years up to 1914 and 1939 military build-up preceded aggression, to be rewarded with crushing defeat. As German Marshall Fund editorial director Rachel Tausendfreund pointed out recently: “The logic of military deterrence — displaying strength and determination to deter aggression — never penetrated beyond small foreign policy circles and the centre-right in Germany.”
The shift to a military-led foreign policy also entailed throwing out of the window a carefully crafted relationship with Russia, based on the old German mantra of “change through trade”, which former chancellor Angela Merkel championed and continues to defend. This long-held approach resulted in a pro-Russia policy, termed Ostpolitik, becoming part of the SDP’s DNA.
The depth of this posture has been evident in many instances this year. In January, before the Russian invasion began, the now dismissed head of the German navy told a think-tank in Delhi that Vladimir Putin wanted respect and “probably also deserves” it, arguing that the West should recruit Russia as an ally against China. This default position came to the fore again when Scholz’s diplomatic adviser, Jens Plötner, warned in June that the “future relationship with Russia” must be considered when Germany decides on its options.
But after weeks of prevarication Scholz drew the line in the sand, saying a relationship with “Putin’s aggressive, imperialist Russia is inconceivable for the foreseeable future”.
These developments do bring several issues to the fore, the most prominent of which is: will the increased militarisation of the situation bring about an end to the conflict? As US psychologist Abraham Maslow put it, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. The recent past is littered with examples of military interventions as in Syria and Libya, which have become frozen conflicts where no one party is able to score a decisive military victory.
How far will Germany be pushed down the path of increased militarisation? Scholz’s preference to visit the African states he was inviting to the Group of Seven summit Germany was hosting, instead of visiting Kyiv, was lampooned by his critics. Germany’s initial reluctance to join the fray against Russia, and the accusation that his party is packed with Putinversteher (Putin sympathisers) could be used to push it to make more military commitments, dragging it further and further into the quagmire of war.
When our delegation raised the question of what the endgame would be for such a conflict, there were no clear answers. Germany’s postwar track record has displayed the importance of focusing on development, making it an economic powerhouse in Europe and the world, as well as a critical contributor to peacekeeping efforts.
It would be important that this source of its strength and impact on global affairs is not compromised in favour of the warmongers. It should use this strength and standing to continue raising the possibility of a peaceful resolution.
• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.