Over the course of the war in Ukraine, in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regular video addresses to national legislatures around the world, he has made a habit of referencing key moments or themes from those countries’ histories: to Congress, he invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement; in his address to the British parliament, Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War II. When he addressed the German Bundestag on March 17, there was little surprise about the theme he chose. “I appeal to you on behalf of everyone who has heard politicians say: ‘Never again,’” Zelenskyy said, “and who saw that these words are worthless. Because again in Europe they are trying to destroy the whole nation. Destroy everything we live by and live for.”
It was a pointed message to a country where a reckoning with the legacies of World War II and the Holocaust — and “never again” — have been part of the political discourse for nearly eight decades. Zelenskyy’s point was that Germany had a particular obligation to act to stop the sort of scenes not witnessed in Europe since the 1940s.
Since the war began, Germany has been the key country to watch in terms of how the West would respond — and not only because of its history. As Europe’s largest economy and arguably its dominant political actor, Germany is in a unique position to bring pressure to bear on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government. And Germany sends $220 million a day to Moscow in the form of payments for Russian oil and gas. That is sparking a fierce debate within and outside Germany about what more the country should be doing to punish Putin and his war machine.
A zeitenwende — turning point — for Berlin
Some of Germany’s allies have long been frustrated with its reluctance, under multiple governments, to more directly confront the Kremlin. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Germany had been derided as the “weak link” in the Western alliance and mocked for sending Ukraine helmets while other countries were providing anti-tank missiles.
All that seemed to change when Putin sent his forces into Ukraine. On Feb. 27, three days into the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a speech in which he called the invasion a zeitenwende — translated as “turning point” or “revolution” — in German foreign policy. While Germany was still open to negotiations with Russia, he said, “not being naive also means not talking simply for the sake of talking.” And some of the steps taken by Germany in the early days of the war really were revolutionary. The government canceled the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would have doubled exports of Russian gas to Germany. Scholz boosted defense spending to 2 percent of GDP, in line with NATO’s target for members, and added 100 billion euros in new spending on military investments — more than double its entire defense budget for 2021. Germany also began supplying anti-tank and air defense missiles to Ukraine, overturning a long-standing policy of not sending weapons into conflict zones.
“It would have been hard to imagine Germany doing these things and saying these things even two months prior,” Steven Keil, a fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund, told Grid. “But what was a significant shift for Germany wasn’t necessarily enough for the rest of the trans-Atlantic community.”
Indeed, it appears the zeitenwende has its limits. One crucial limit in particular: It will not stop sending all those oil and gas payments to Moscow. Germany has opposed proposals to impose an embargo against Russian gas exports, which Finance Minister Christian Lindner said would “inflict more damage on ourselves than on [Russia.]” The Germans did agree to a plan to phase out imports of Russian coal but pushed to extend the wind-down period by a month. For all its strong rhetoric, Germany is still effectively subsidizing Russia’s war with energy payments.
“Germany takes two steps forward and then at least one step back. That is what’s so confusing to its partners,” Liana Fix, program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung, a German think tank, told Grid.
The German behavior that so frustrates some of its allies in this conflict is rooted in both cold economic logic and history, and breaking those patterns won’t be easy.
There’s no shortage of historical bad blood between Russia and Germany, going back several centuries, but in the years following the end of the Cold War, relations between the two grew steadily warmer. Moscow, after some coaxing, supported the reunification of East and West Germany, and Berlin generally backed post-Soviet Russia’s reintegration into the global economy. That reintegration seemed nearly complete in 2001 when the newly minted President Vladimir Putin, who had served as a KGB agent in Dresden during the fall of the Berlin Wall, gave a speech to the Bundestag in nearly flawless German, declaring Russia a “friendly, European nation.” Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was the most enthusiastic cheerleader for German-Russian ties, inking a series of lucrative energy deals between the countries and describing Putin in a 2004 interview as a “flawless democrat.” Schröder was rewarded after his chancellorship with lucrative executive positions at several Russian state-owned energy companies.
Things weren’t quite so chummy with Angela Merkel, who took office in 2005. Putin famously brought his Labrador retriever, Konni, to his first meeting with the new chancellor, who had a well-known fear of dogs. But the two developed a businesslike rapport, and Merkel, who had grown up in Communist East Germany, developed a reputation as Europe’s “Putin-whisperer.” German-Russian relations soured in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the imposition of EU sanctions on Moscow, but even in that year, Putin spoke with Merkel 35 times, far more than with any other world leader. According to the Russian investigative journalist Mikhail Zygar in a New York Times op-ed, Merkel was “the only Western leader that Mr. Putin took seriously.”
Now, the Putin-whisperer is gone, replaced last December by Scholz. And though he hails from a party — the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — which has traditionally favored closer relations with Russia, the war has scrambled traditional party attitudes. Germany’s current president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, another Social Democrat and longtime advocate for engagement with Moscow, recently made headlines by admitting that he had gotten Putin wrong and that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline had been a mistake.
Another dynamic to keep in mind: Scholz governs in coalition with the Green Party, which opposed Nord Stream on both geopolitical and environmentalist grounds and has been far more skeptical of Russia. The German Marshall Fund’s Keil said the Greens’ role in formulating Germany’s response to the crisis should not be underestimated: “They’re traditionally more pacifist on a lot of issues, but they’re extremely forward-leaning on Russia. They’ve clearly understood and thought of Russia in a way that allows them to be pretty outspoken about this.” Case in point: Green Party leaders are reportedly pushing a plan to provide Ukraine with 100 tanks, which Scholz is slow-walking.
Keeping the lights on
Zelenskyy’s message to Germany married the historical theme with a very current reality: What Ukraine needs right now, much more than tanks or even fighter jets, is for Germany and other Western governments to stop sending Russia the money it needs to keep fighting.
Energy sales account for about a third of the Russian government’s budget. But energy is a weapon that cuts both ways. Before the war, Germany relied on Russia for 55 percent of the natural gas, 52 percent of the coal and 34 percent of the oil used to power its economy. In the country’s energy equation, it doesn’t help that Merkel made the decision to phase out the country’s nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Scholz has warned that an immediate cutoff of these imports would mean “plunging our country and all of Europe into a recession.” Economists’ estimates of the potential impact vary. A Goldman Sachs assessment predicted that a complete Russian pipeline cutoff would cut German GDP growth by more than three percentage points.
The government claims to be working to alter its dependence on Russian energy sources. According to Economy Minister Robert Habeck, Germany has cut Russian oil imports to 25 percent of the total and gas imports to 40 percent, but under current targets, it will wean itself off Russian imports only by mid-2024. “This timeline just does not fit the time that Ukraine has,” Fix told Grid.
To some Europeans who put up with years of lectures from Germany’s government about the need for austerity and belt-tightening during the worst years of last decade’s financial crisis, the notion that Germany can’t sacrifice a few percentage points of growth in response to a major land war on its doorstep doesn’t elicit much sympathy. Especially when the Baltic states, which imported nearly all their gas from Russia before the start of the war, have moved to cut those imports entirely. “Do you prefer peace, or the air conditioning on? That’s the question we should ask ourselves,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
German voters appear to be divided on the question. According to a recent opinion poll, 50 percent favor boycotting Russian energy imports with 42 percent opposed. Even that level of support is a sign of how much the war has shifted public opinion. But it’s also not the kind of support most politicians would be willing to take into an election cycle.
The “never again” factor
To some observers, inside and outside the country, Germany’s history makes economic questions beside the point. “The country that proudly proclaims that Europe will ‘never again’ see the likes of Auschwitz is pumping 200 million euros each day into Putin’s war chest,” wrote the financial newspaper Handelsblatt in an editorial.
But “never again” has two meanings in Germany, and the question of which takes precedence has been running for some time. In 1998, when Germany was debating whether to use military force alongside NATO allies against Serbia during the war in Kosovo, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer drew a distinction between the two lessons the country had learned from World War II: One was “never again war”; the other was “never again Auschwitz.” The first suggests that Germany should never again become a military power and must defer, whenever possible, to diplomatic or economic means to accomplish its foreign policy objectives. The second suggests that at times it’s necessary to use military force to stop a leader who, as Fischer put it then and others argue now, is “ready to act like Stalin and Hitler did in the ’40s.” Fischer, who entered politics as a left-wing anti-war activist, made the case for military action, and in 1998, Germany launched its first offensive military action since World War II.
There’s another way that World War II plays into Germany’s thinking about this conflict. Julia Friedrich, a research fellow focused on Russia and Ukraine at Germany’s Global Public Policy Institute, told Grid that “a lot of German remembrance has equated the Soviet Union with Russia. And given German atrocities against the Soviet Union, a lot of people were against supplying weapons to shoot at Russians. They were saying, ‘How can we do this again?’” That perception, she said, has only recently started to shift in the face of Russian human rights abuses in Ukraine.
Given how frequently Nazism, the Holocaust and World War II have been invoked on both sides of this conflict, it can seem at times like Europe is still mired in the battles fought 80 years ago. And sadly, this is unlikely to be the last conflict that forces Germany’s leaders to debate the true meaning of “never again.”
But this time around, the question for Germany is less about whether it should be willing to use military force to prevent mass killing than whether it should be willing to use its economic might, imposing economic pain on its own citizens in the process.
Friedrich told Grid that in Germany, there’s a tendency by politicians to treat foreign policy as “something that is supposed to go unnoticed by the German population. They shouldn’t feel bothered with it or feel any detrimental effects from our foreign policy.”
Given the daily scenes coming out of Ukraine, that kind of insulation from the world may no longer be a luxury the country can afford.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.