While it may not be obvious from the outside, German political and public discourse is currently undergoing tremendous change writes Dr Britta Jung, German Studies, School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures

Britta Jung
The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 received widespread international condemnation and led to comprehensive sanctions against Russia. Yet, one country in particular has faced harsh criticism with regard to its sluggish reaction to the conflict and its Russia policy: Germany, the EU's largest member state and dominant economy. The comparison between British planes delivering defensive weapons to Ukraine and Germany's pledge of 5,000 helmets provoked particular outrage, as did the country's dependency on Russian gas.

But this sluggishness is an expression of a country grappling with its past, present and future. Perhaps not obvious from the outside, German political and public discourse is currently undergoing tremendous change, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz even proclaiming a Zeitenwende – a sea change – that brings an end to long-held political consensus and post-war mentalities.

Almost eight decades have passed since Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces on May 8th 1945. Twelve years of National Socialist rule and warmongering had left Germany and continental Europe in ruins. Millions fell victim to persecution and warfare, and millions more lost their homes and were uprooted. The industrial scale and ruthlessness of the regime’s war of annihilation against the European Jews and others that were classified as Untermenschen shook Europe and the world to its core.

Given the scale of destruction, it comes hardly as a surprise that National Socialism and the Holocaust are deeply embedded in German collective memory, acting as a powerful lens through which political decisions are made. Indeed, for decades, Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which roughly translates as the continuous effort to come to terms with the past, has been widely admired by the international community and often upheld as a model of post-conflict reconciliation.

But as time passes and generations change, the uncomfortable question of whether such a continuous effort and re-enactment of memory turns into a purely performative ritual at some point has been pushed aside. To what extent has memory been frozen in abbreviated, cypher-like phrases and iconic images that are used out of mere reflex rather than reflection? When does such a ritualised past turn from a critical lens to an inhibitor of active engagement with the present and its changed realities?

Romanian-born German-language poet Paul Celan's often-evoked, cypher-like "death is a master from Germany" is a case in point. The phrase has become a shorthand in parliamentary debates and street demonstrations alike in a variety of contexts, from arms production and military deployments to questions of state power and the expansion of Germany’s geopolitical power in Europe. The latter is succinctly demonstrated by the protest against Germany reunification in 1990.

In 1999, then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had to evoke Germany's historic responsibility to make the government’s decision to deploy soldiers to Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping mission palpable to a generally sceptical, often expressly pacifist German public. "Auschwitz is incomparable", Fischer said. "But I stand by two principles, never again war, never again Auschwitz, never again genocide, never again fascism. Both belong together for me."

Kosovo marked the first ground combat of Germany's military on foreign soil since the Second World War. While more deployments followed in the years after, the rhetoric firmly continued to stress the dimension of peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts rather than that of military intervention. The public outrage following then-Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg describing the situation of German soldiers in Afghanistan as "war-like" in 2009 illustrates the necessity to do this.

Naturally, this lingering effect of the past and the resulting reluctance to accept changed geopolitical realities tend to frustrate Germany’s allies and partners. For them, the country’s reunification marked a definitive end to the post-history of the Second World War and they see today’s Germany as a powerful economic and political force in Europe.

Germany’s memory culture has also left a strong mark on its laws and longstanding political consensus across party lines. Following the initial dismantling of Germany’s military and the abolition of all armaments industry upon its surrender in 1945, military structures were re-introduced as the tension between East and West rose in the Cold War, not least on the behest of the former Allied Forces.

However, many Germans remained sceptical. In West Germany, the mood only shifted during the Korean War and an increasing emphasis on terms such as threat, protection and defence. The new German military was to consist of 'citizens in uniform’ who were to protect their fellow citizens – at home. A deployment to foreign soil remained inconceivable for decades to come.

Moreover, the West German government adopted a restrictive policy regarding the export of weapons and other armaments in a written declaration in 1971 (which still stands today). Indeed, Germany has adopted some of the strictest laws regarding the production, transfer and export of war weaponry in Europe. Outside of NATO countries, EU member states and a very limited number of third countries, weaponry can only be exported in exceptional cases and in compliance with the principle that deliveries are not approved to countries "that are involved in armed conflicts" or where "existing tensions and conflicts would be triggered, maintained or exacerbated by export". The final destination and end-use of the weapons and the track record of human rights in those countries is an additional concern.

These codified principles appear hypocritical given Germany’s status as an export champion of technologically advanced weaponry, with increasing exports to countries such as Saudi Arabia. Clashing with public sentiment, the uncomfortable truth is that arms exports are a lucrative business. They're also an attractive foreign and security instrument for the government to further its interests while avoiding direct involvement. As a result, arms exports often decided behind closed doors, with opposition parties and the German public routinely demanding more transparency in the decision-making process.

An important principle also concerns a possible impediment of Germany's relations with other third countries. This includes Russia, with whom Germany has an intricate relationship that spans centuries and entails a complicated legacy in former East Germany. Moreover, it has been a part of Germany’s renowned Ostpolitik since the 1960s.

Striving for a normalisation of the relationship with the countries of the Eastern Bloc, the West German government under then-Chancellor Willy Brandt began to pursue a change through rapprochement which after the Fall of the Iron Curtain turned into change through trade policy. This echoes one of the central tenets of the European Union and its predecessors: countries that are economically (and socially) intertwined do not go to war with one another.

This said, the images of Russian destruction in Ukraine, the courage of the Ukrainian people and the media-savviness of Volodymyr Zelensky have recently shaken Germany's ritualised memory and reignited a discussion about its geopolitical role and responsibilities. The speed of this shift may well have surprised the government, who had long grappled with reconciling the country’s past, present and future. While appearing sluggish from the outside, this year has actually seen long-held political principles being broken like never before. A significant increase of the military budget, the publicly sanctioned export of weapons to conflict zones and an abandonment of Germany’s Ostpolitik: a zeitenwende may be coming.

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm