External Shocks or Domestic Pressures: What Led to Germany's Zeitenwende?

This Argument appears in Vol. 75, No. 2, "War in Ukraine: The World Responds" (Spring/Summer 2023).

By Julia Ganter


We are living through a watershed era. And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before. … What is needed to secure peace in Europe will be done. Germany will contribute its share to these efforts in a spirit of solidarity.[1]

More than a year ago, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued using these words for what has since been discussed as Zeitenwende, a major shift in German foreign and security policy in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

When Scholz delivered his policy statement to the German Bundestag on February 27, 2022, very few in the audience were aware of the magnitude of changes he would announce several minutes later in the speech: a special fund of 100 billion euros for the German military, annual investments in defense of more than two percent of GDP, the supply of defensive weapons for Ukraine, and additional packages of sanctions against Russia. Scholz had only discussed the details of this package reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a small circle of people—even some members of the Chancellor’s Social Democratic Party seemed surprised during his statement.

From an international perspective, increasing military spending and assuming a more active leadership position in defense policy were long overdue steps that Germany’s allies had been requesting for many years. Therefore, Germany’s Zeitenwende might seem like measures of a country finally catching up to reality and meeting the expectations of its partners. However, for Germany itself, the announced changes were epochal—even if the government has, more recently, tried to manage expectations, such as in the recently-launched, first-ever National Security Strategy.

Although there was some movement in the way German officials talked about their country’s role and responsibilities in the past decade—one example is the Munich Security Conference of 2014, when Federal President Joachim Gauck called for a stronger German foreign policy commitment[2]—a new foreign policy approach was never put into practice.

With this 100 billion euro special fund, the German parliament approved in June 2022 an additional military spending that is the equivalent of doubling Germany’s current annual defense budget. Consequently, Germany is set to have the largest defense expenditure in Europe and the third largest on earth.

To understand the extent of these changes from a German perspective and why they could only take place at such a specific moment in European history, one must consider Germany’s foreign and security policy traditions, the party lines and principles of the three governing parties, and most importantly the perspective of the German public and how Germans view their country’s international role.

A closer examination of German public opinion also helps to understand why—without such a far-reaching event as the invasion of a country on the European continent—a Zeitenwende in German foreign and security policy would not have been announced any time soon. It was rather the external security threat due to Russia’s full-fledged aggression that made German decision makers rethink and adapt, leading political parties to abandon their long-held principles, than the fact that the German public was now finally ready for such a massive foreign and security policy turnaround. In fact, as survey results of the annual public opinion survey “The Berlin Pulse,” commissioned by the German foundation Körber-Stiftung, show since 2017, they were not ready at all.

Germany's Foreign and Security Policy Traditions

The atrocities committed by Germans during the First and Second World Wars led to a deeply entrenched pacifist attitude in German foreign policymaking. The claim “Never Again” was one of the reasons for Germany’s longstanding policy of not sending weapons into conflict zones.

As argued by Maull and Kirste, internal learning processes and active encouragement by the U.S. resulted in Germany’s development as a Civilian Power in the post-war period,[3] after having caused a fracture point in civilization: the Holocaust. Civilian powers are defined by Maull as “states which are willing and able to advance the civilization of the international system.”[4] Therefore, one of their characteristics is to reduce and contain the use of force organized by individual states.[5] 

The reduction of Germany’s troop size after the end of the Cold War indicates that Germany even reduced its ability to use force. The reunification was taken as further proof that civilian—and not military power—mattered.[6] The German Bundeswehr, the country’s armed services, focused mainly on international crisis management rather than deterrence and defense of German territory; the Bundeswehr was active in the UN peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, Somalia, and especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the Cold War, Germany’s military was one of the largest within NATO, with almost 500,000 soldiers. However, its size and equipment decreased after the fall of the Iron Curtain, culminating in the end of conscription in 2011.

The underlying understanding of this development can be described by the predominant feeling of being surrounded by friends and partners only.[7] Why invest in defense and define a strategic foreign policy approach when there was no visible threat, and one could build international relations solely on trade?

This perception also led to a certain degree of provinciality in the way German policymakers—and the public—looked at the world. In contrast to its neighbor France, Germany was able to look inward and avoid assuming a more global perspective. It is neither a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council nor a nuclear power, nor has it any territory outside of Europe.

Over the past 30 years, Germany has followed the path of a Civilian Power and a trading state, thereby increasingly living the contradiction of being an economic heavyweight in Europe that depends on the U.S. for its security.

Although some analysts consider the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 as a “turning point” that signaled Germany’s failure to achieve what Bagger calls “gradual convergence,”[8] the real wake-up call came in 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. One notable example is the rapid diversification of Germany’s energy suppliers in the past year. Despite numerous warnings, the government under former Chancellor Angela Merkel and later under Olaf Scholz persisted with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project even after the annexation of Crimea. The German interest to import cheap Russian gas and its concerns regarding energy security were simply too great to stop the project, which was only halted on February 22, 2022, two days before Vladimir Putin launched his full-fledged war against Ukraine.

This brief retrospective of German foreign and security policy traditions aims to explain why the announcements by the German Chancellor on February 27 signify a true Zeitenwende for German security and defense policy. It also supports the argument that external shocks—rather than a slowly emerging rethinking in the German foreign policy mindset—led to these massive changes. Given Germany’s self-perception as a civilian power and trading state in the post-war period, the dominant feeling to be surrounded by friends, and the extreme dependence on Russian energy resulting from a lack of strategic thinking, Germany’s Zeitenwende was unthinkable a little over a year ago.

Another example that supports this argument is the stance taken by the three coalition partners: the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the liberal Free Democratic Part (FDP), and the Greens, and how they each adapted their respective principles.

Zeitenwende for the Three Governing Parties

Germany’s Zeitenwende has disrupted not only its foreign and security policy traditions but also the political lines and principles of the three parties forming the German government since 2021. The invasion has overturned the priority list formulated by the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats for their government in their coalition treaty. They initially aimed to “seek more progress” and considered themselves a “coalition for freedom, justice and sustainability” with several benchmarks, especially regarding Germany’s green transformation and digitalization.[9]

A significant transformation of Germany’s foreign and security policy was not a priority. The coalition, rather, agreed to aim for a values-based and more “European” foreign policy. To formulate a German feminist foreign policy and a national security strategy were probably the most transformative objectives the three parties included in the foreign and security policy chapter.[10] The two percent defense spending goal for NATO was not even mentioned, as two of the three coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the Greens, had been fighting against this benchmark for years. Given the amount of money that will soon be spent on arms and military equipment, the commitment to engage in the revival of international disarmament in the same chapter reads like a phrase from a long-forgotten time.

Each of the coalition parties has also made significant changes to their party’s traditional positions. Given the additional budget Germany will spend on its Zeitenwende, it is a curious fact that the finance minister Christian Lindner is a Free Democrat. Respecting the debt brake is part of his party’s DNA, emphasizing the importance of intergenerational justice. This is why the 100 billion euro spending package for Germany’s military is provided through a special fund. Thereby, Lindner circumvents the debt brake—but he still runs up debts.

Also surprising was the Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s policy statement on February 27. He made clear that European security will need to be achieved without Russia for the foreseeable future. His party had previously invented Ostpolitik, the normalization of politics with Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and later had stuck to this rapprochement policy with Russia until recently, despite Putin’s increasingly autocratic leadership.

High-ranking members of the Greens in the government similarly had to pivot. To ensure the energy supply during over the winter, the Green Party’s minister for energy and the economy, Robert Habeck, had to make deals with autocrats, extend the duration of nuclear power plants, and connect decommissioned coal plants to the grid. The foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, is one of the fiercest supporters of delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine, even though her party, the Greens, were originally anchored in the peace movement.

Despite their various party principles and lines, all three coalition partners made various concessions. Due to its Zeitenwende, German foreign and security policy has developed in a direction that was neither foreseeable based on its tradition nor the course the three-party coalition had planned to chart.

The German Public's View

Germany’s decision makers were forced to chart a new course for their country’s foreign and security policy, marking a complete break from tradition. However, there is a significant gap between how the public perceives Germany’s international role and how German officials have described it more recently.

In an essay, Scholz wrote about Germany’s intentions to become a guarantor of European security.[11] Yet, according to the annual public opinion survey “The Berlin Pulse,” seven out of ten Germans do not want their country to assume any military leadership role in Europe.[12]

Since the first survey in 2017, a slight majority of Germans have preferred restraint over stronger German international engagement. This attitude has not changed sustainably due to the Russian aggression. In August 2022, when the invasion had already lasted for six months, 52 percent of Germans preferred restrained over a more active international role, compared to 50 percent in 2021. Nonetheless, the German defense minister, Boris Pistorius, mentioned in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2022 that “Germany stands ready to take on even more responsibility.”[13] In this case, responsibility must be understood as military responsibility. However, even among the 41 percent of Germans in favor of a stronger international engagement, only 14 percent want this engagement to primarily be in the military sphere. The majority of this group prefers a stronger international engagement in the diplomatic sphere. These numbers indicate that the pacifist mindset that has characterized post-war Germany persists among the public.

The Berlin Pulse also includes additional examples demonstrating Germany’s preference to pursue a foreign policy of a remote island rather than that of an economic heavyweight in the heart of Europe. For instance, when asked if Germany should take part in naval missions to protect freedom of navigation and maritime trade routes, 90 percent of Germans responded negatively in 2019.[14] Similarly, 82 percent of Germans believed Germany should assume a neutral position in case of a new Cold War in 2020.[15]

Despite the full-fledged Russian war, one out of four Germans in August 2022 did not perceive Russia as a military threat to their country’s security at all. In contrast, only one out of 20 Americans shared this view. A certain degree of public naivety regarding their threat perception continues to exist, as Germans still feel that they are surrounded by friends.

One explanation for the low threat perception is because of high trust in American security guarantees. When asked if they perceive the U.S. as a partner, 81 percent of Germans responded positively when it comes to the protection of European security. This issue ranks highest among those tested, compared to other issues such as "dealing with China" (48% partner) or protecting the environment (40% partner). 

To assume that the Russian invasion and the announcement of a Zeitenwende for German foreign and security policy, and all subsequent public debates, had no effect on the public perception would be wrong. On a second glance, the Zeitenwende does take place within the public, as six out of ten Germans think that Germany should durably invest more money in defense—a 20 percentage-point increase since 2019, when a comparable question was asked.

Zeitenwende and the German Public's View: One Year On

It can be argued that the German public is highly realistic. The extensive debate about the capability gaps of the German Bundeswehr, which began shortly after the invasion and continues to this day, has not gone unnoticed. It raises questions about how Germany can assume a military leadership role in Europe when its own munition stockpiles can only last for two days of fighting[16] (compared to NATO’s recommended 30-day stockpile) and even senior officials from the German military claim that “the army that I am privileged to lead, is more or less bare.”[17]

If the announced measures are implemented as planned, and if Germany improves its military capability and assumes a leadership role in Europe, one should closely monitor the impact of these developments on German public opinion. However, given the fact that Germany was unable to meet NATO’s two percent spending goal in 2022 and is likely to fail again in 2023, there is still a long way to go. The obstacles that Scholz and his government have encountered in implementing the Zeitenwende so far have already resulted in an adaptation of wording. While Scholz frequently talked about Germany becoming “the best equipped armed force in Europe”[18] in 2022, in the National Security Strategy, published by the German government in mid-June 2023, the ambition has changed to becoming “one of the most capable armed forces in Europe.” In addition, attentive readers of the strategy will have noticed that the special fund is supposed to be used to reach the two percent goal of NATO at least on average over the next few years, a goal that Germany has been aiming for since 2014.[19]

This is another indicator that Germany’s Zeitenwende is a long-term project and not a flash in the pan. Not only the German government, but also the German public, is capable of reevaluating its principles and views. A good example of this is the shift in opinion regarding the question of whether Germany should send Leopard tanks to Ukraine. On January 13, 2023, both the German public as well as the German government were divided on whether German battle tanks should be sent to Ukraine. According to various surveys, 43 percent of Germans were in favor, while 46 percent were not.[20] Two weeks and numerous debates later, after the German Chancellor had announced the decision to send tanks in line with a group of allies, 52 percent of Germans believed that this was the right decision, while 39 percent claimed it was wrong.[21]

This is a prime example of the underlying processes of the German Zeitenwende as a whole. In the past year, it was not the public who pushed the government to make foreign policy changes, but external threats and pressures. On the contrary, the famous German restraint manifested itself in the public view on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, when faced with such changes, the German public has been willing to adapt on various occasions, such as on the issue of long-term defense spending.

German decision makers should therefore have more faith in their electorate. That said, the fact that Germans remain more cautious in other areas, such as assuming a military leadership role, should be seen as a reminder of the need to stay grounded in reality.

The gaps between the position of policymakers and the public that occur from time to time as a result of this approach should not prevent the German Chancellor, his ministers, or parliamentarians from making courageous foreign and security policy decisions. Instead, they should explain why it is the right decision to be courageous. If they do so successfully, Germany’s Zeitenwende will also be fully reflected in the public’s opinion over time.

[1] Olaf Scholz, “Policy statement by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and Member of the German Bundestag,” February 27, 2022, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/ news/policy-statement-by-olaf-scholz-chancellor-of-the-federal-republic-of-germany-and-member-of-thegerman-bundestag-27-february-2022-in-berlin-2008378.

[2] Joachim Gauck, “Speech to the 50th Munich Security Conference,” January 31, 2014, https://www. bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/EN/JoachimGauck/Reden/2014/140131-Munich-SecurityConference.html.

[3] Hanns W. Maull and Knut Kirste, “Zivilmacht und Rollentheorie,” Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen 2 (1996).

[4] Hanns W. Maull, “Civilian Power: The Concept and Its Relevance for Security Issues,” in Mapping the Unknown: Towards a New World Order (The Yearbook of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs 1992-93), Lidija Babic and Bo Huldt, eds. (London: Hurst, 1993), 126.

[5] Maull and Kirste, “Zivilmacht und Rollentheorie.”

[6] See Thomas Bagger, “The World According to Germany: Reassessing 1989,” The Washington Quarterly 41, no. 4 (January 2019), 53-63.

[7] Roger Cohen, “Germany tries to adjust as all its neighbors become friends,” The New York Times, March 14, 1999, https://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/14/world/germany-tries-to-adjust-as-all-its-neighbors-become-friends.html.

[8] Bagger, “The World According to Germany.”

[9] Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands (SPD) and Freie Demokraten (FDP), “Mehr Fortschritt wagen. Bündnis für Freiheit, Gerechtigkeit und Nachhaltigkeit,” BÜNDNIS 90 / DIE GRÜNEN, November 24, 2021, 144, https://www.bundesregierung.de/resource/blob/974430/1990812/1f422c6050 5b6a88f8f3b3b5b8720bd4/2021-12-10-koav2021-data.pdf?download=1.

[10] SPD and FDP, “Mehr Fortschritt wagen.”

[11] Olaf Scholz, “The Global Zeitenwende,” Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs. com/germany/olaf-scholz-global-zeitenwende-how-avoid-new-cold-war.

[12] Körber-Stiftung, “The Berlin Pulse 2022/23,” https://koerber-stiftung.de/site/assets/files/25632/theberlinpulse2022_2023.pdf.

[13] Boris Pistorius, “Rede von Boris Pistorius bei der Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz 2023,” February 20, 2023, https://www.bmvg.de/de/presse/rede-von-boris-pistorius-bei-sicherheitskonferenz-2023-5586772.

[14] Körber-Stiftung, “The Berlin Pulse 2019/20,” https://koerber-stiftung.de/site/assets/files/18598/theberlinpulse_2019_final.pdf.

[15] Körber-Stiftung, “The Berlin Pulse 2020/21,” https://koerber-stiftung.de/site/assets/files/18573/ koerber_theberlinpulse_web_20201118.pdf.

[16] Tobias Heimbach, “Munition für maximal zwei Tage Krieg: Bundeswehr muss ihre Arsenale auffüllen – doch bislang bestellt sie nur wenig,” Business Insider (Germany), October 10, 2022, https://www. businessinsider.de/politik/deutschland/munition-fuer-maximal-zwei-tage-krieg-bundeswehr-muss-ihrearsenale-auffuellen-doch-bislang-bestellt-sie-nur-wenig-c/.

[17] Nette Nöstlinger, “‘I am pissed off!’ German army official bemoans ‘bare’ forces as Russia invades Ukraine,” Politico EU, February 24, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/i-am-pissed-off-chief-of-thegerman-army-alfons-mais-states/.

[18] Olaf Scholz, “Rede von Bundeskanzler Scholz bei der Bundeswehrtagung am,” Bundesregierung, September 16, 2022, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/suche/rede-von-bundeskanzler-scholz-beider-bundeswehrtagung-am-16-september-2022-2127078.

[19] Bundesregierung, “Nationale Sicherheitsstrategie,” https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/aktuelles/national-security-strategy-2196356.

[20] “Deutsche beim Thema ,Leopard’ gespalten,” tagesschau.de, January 19, 2023, https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend/deutschlandtrend-3277.html.

[21] Ellen Ehni, “Zustimmung zu ,Leopard’ - Lieferung,” tagesschau.de, February 2, 2023, https://www. tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend/deutschlandtrend-3287.html.