Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood before the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in an emergency gathering to announce the biggest change to German foreign policy since World War II.
“Wir erleben eine Zeitenwende,” he said. “We are experiencing a Zeitenwende.”
The Zeitenwende—a watershed moment, a changing of the times. Germany wants to make a 100 billion euro pledge in military investment, raising Germany’s military budget to 2 percent of its GDP, the highest level since the end of World War II.
Once complete, this watershed moment will make Germany’s military budget the third largest in the world—coming after the United States and China but beating out the rest of the globe including countries like France, the United Kingdom, India, and even Russia.
Only a few months into office, Scholz, routinely described as “boring” (Germany’s Der Spiegel last year called him “Sleepy Scholz”), is reshaping German foreign policy and perhaps world politics as we know it.
This move toward Germany’s militarization has been largely applauded by the Western security establishment and in corporate media. In an Atlantic Council virtual event with German Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht, the attitude toward German militarization was welcoming—even celebratory. “Congratulations,” one former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO told Lambrecht.
Getting Germany to beef up its military and meet NATO’s 2 percent spending level has been a goal of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since the guideline was set in 2006. It has been a constant source of frustration, leading to nagging appeals, in different tones, by Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden.
Germany has also been criticized for its trade dealings with Russia, especially the controversial Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, which was seen as enabling Putin’s aggression.
The Zeitenwende seeks to make amends for these perceived failures. It aims to deter Russian aggression and construct a stronger, more coherent European defense force. The ultimate goal, purportedly, is peace.
But Germany’s militarization and rearmament come with considerable risks.
“Militarization does not guarantee peace,” Axel Ruppert tells The Progressive. Ruppert works as project manager on peace, EU militarization, and security in a global context at the Brussels office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, a foundation for civic education affiliated with Germany’s Die Linke (Left Party). “This is the thing we can learn from history, and I’m afraid it will remain true this time.”
Hawkish proponents of pouring more money into defense to deter Russia fail to acknowledge Europe’s already high level of military spending. Already, the combined defense expenditure of NATO countries is nearly twenty times larger than Russia’s. Even without including the outsized spending by the United States, European Union member states spend about four times more than Russia.
For any country, a military budget hike the size of Germany’s Zeitenwende would raise eyebrows. But, for Germany specifically, the sheer size and ambition of the Zeitenwende is shocking.
“This is a 180-degree turn in German defense and foreign policy,” Ruppert says. “This is abandoning its soft power stance.”
German historical memory and guilt for its own atrocities in World War II weigh heavily in military and defense considerations. Since the end of World War II, Germany has favored a more diplomatic, less militaristic foreign policy.
Compared to the United States and other NATO allies, Germany’s use of military solutions in conflict has been low. It was hesitant to participate in the 1998-99 Kosovo War, loudly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and objected to intervention in Gaddafi’s Libya. This commitment to non-military solutions could change after attaining the highest military capabilities in Europe.
Indeed, the differences between a defensive army and an interventionist army are mostly theoretical. In reality, the line between them is often blurred. With the Zeitenwende, Germany could become a cornerstone of conventional interstate war power in Europe.
The speed of this proposed Zeitenwende —a 50 percent spending increase in 2022 alone—will cause a number of political and logistical headaches, within Germany and beyond. On the other hand, this military buildup is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the current war in Ukraine.
The historic investments of the Zeitenwende, as a response to the Russian invasion and war in Ukraine, will have little or nothing to do with the Russian invasion and the current war in Ukraine. The Zeitenwende does, however, promise a more assertive Germany, a more militarized Europe, and tighter integration with U.S. military dominance for decades to come. The machine behind this: a growing German military-industrial complex.
Already, a burgeoning German arms industry has been busy sending weapons across the world. Over the last decade, Germany consistently ranked as the fourth largest arms exporter in the world. In recent years, this role has continued to grow.
“German arms are used all around the world to kill and cause harm,” Ruppert says. He points to corruption in the German arms industry as an example of danger.
“The rules governing German arms exports only exist on paper,” Ruppert charges. For years, one of Germany’s largest small-arms manufacturers, Heckler & Koch, illegally sold arms to Mexico. German gun maker Sig Sauer’s illegal sales to Colombia fueled the civil war in that country. German arms are also being illegally used by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen Civil War, one of the most brutal modern conflicts and the largest current humanitarian disaster in the world.
“Germany doesn’t care about the consequences of these arms exports,” Ruppert says. The dominant German foreign policy program of Wandel durch Handel—or “change through trade”—becomes dubious when that trade is powered by 100 billion euros of military investment. After all, a larger market and expanded defense systems will need to be met with larger production.
“These projects will only be profitable if these systems are exported as well,” Ruppert says.
A good portion of the Zeitenwende money will be funneled directly to U.S. arms producers, further binding Germany to the U.S. arms industry and U.S. defense policy.
Already, the German government has declared its intentions to purchase U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets and Chinook helicopters. Brinkmanship between Russia and the United States and the possible expansion of NATO cement Europe’s place under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The prevention of nuclear proliferation suffers as a result.
Beyond the arms industry, the move away from Russian oil and gas will preface a turn toward U.S. oil and gas—a critical component of security and the economy, as recent events have demonstrated.
“The strategic autonomy of Europe is greatly weakened,” Ruppert laments. With the Zeitenwende, “the EU’s dependence on NATO increases and that means dependence on the United States. This dependence, also in terms of energy imports, is one of the most effective leverages to demand the EU’s allegiance to the United States’ geopolitical ambitions.”
A better approach, Ruppert feels, would be for Germany, Europe, and the United States to make peace as their top priority. Saving Ukrainian lives and sovereignty, stopping Russian imperialism, and maintaining the dignity of all people must guide every action of outside actors in the war in Ukraine.
A broader concept of security—one inclusive of energy and climate justice, social welfare, and equity—would better serve peace in the future than any army could.
The political left must not abandon the peace movement. The military buildup of any and all countries must be watched to ensure that, in this watershed moment, the world does not drown.
-Michael Makowski is an organizer and writer living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.