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The Ukraine war and Germany's paradigm shift

Matthias von Hein
August 24, 2022

The war in Ukraine has been raging for six months. It has also changed Germany — shattering conventions and forcing politicians to impose new measures.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a working session of G7 leaders via video link
As the current leader of the G7 Germany has taken a leading roleImage: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via REUTERS

Sometimes big changes can be seen in small things. Take, for example, a 30-second clip on YouTube, the Bundeswehr's first promotional video in five years, released at the beginning of August. The first 17 seconds show soldiers in uniform in everyday situations: Playing with their children, buying a newspaper at the kiosk, and going about their business. It is not until the last 13 seconds that the action aspect of a soldier's life is highlighted, "Top Gun"-style, with images of fighter jets in breakneck maneuvers, warships on the high seas, soldiers rappelling from helicopters — under the motto: "We protect Germany."

Two World Wars and two dictatorships in the 20th century have caused a deep mistrust of all things military in Germany. The fact that uniformed soldiers can be portrayed as a normal occurrence in everyday life can be read as a tectonic shift: In the wake of the Ukraine war, Germany is making its peace with the military — and possibly gearing up for future conflicts.


The ground for this was prepared by Chancellor Olaf Scholz three days after Russia invaded Ukraine. On February 27, the chancellor not only declared a "turning of the times" in a highly acclaimed speech in the German parliament. The Bundeswehr, which had been struggling for decades, was to be revitalized.

A special €100 billion fund was set up to finance urgent acquisitions. NATO's goal of investing at least 2% of its GDP into the military (set in 2014 in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea) is to be met on a permanent basis. This would make Germany's arms budget the largest in Europe. And the chancellor promised to defend every inch of NATO territory.

Six months later, US analyst at the Trilateral Commission think-tank Josef Braml told DW: "The word 'turning point' made Washington sit up and take notice — and the German government has also delivered. What may have particularly pleased the Americans: Germany is investing a large part of the money in Lockheed Martin and buying F-35 fighter jets, which is a very expensive solution. This means we are technologically locked in for decades to come and also technologically dependent on America."

How the war in Ukraine has changed Germany

Sacred cows in the slaughterhouse of realpolitik

Scholz's government has only been in office since December, ambitiously launching its plans under the title "dare more progress." But war and crises imposed their own agenda on the politicians of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), ecological Greens, and business-oriented Free Democrats (FDP). And since then, they have been forced to lead a whole herd of sacred cows from the temples of party headquarters to the slaughterhouses of realpolitik.

Robert Habeck, the Green Party's Economy and Climate Protection Minister, has had to restart coal-fired power plants that have been shut down because of restricted energy supplies from Russia — a break with Green taboos.

Habeck may even have to extend the operating lives of nuclear power plants. The last three reactors are supposed to be shut down at the end of the year as part of Germany's nuclear phase-out — an issue close to the heart of the Greens.

The SPD has also been asking its members to countenance the unthinkable. In a speech at the end of June, party co-leader Lars Klingbeil not only formulated Germany's claim to leadership in Europe. He also declared, "For me, peace policy also means seeing military force as a legitimate tool of politics." Those are hard words for a party whose DNA traditionally tends to include disarmament.

 Panzerhaubitze 2000 in the field in Germany
Germany has begun delivering modern weapons to UkraineImage: Sven Eckelkamp/IMAGO

Suddenly, arms export into war zones — a German taboo for many decades — are now also possible. The Greens in particular had previously condemned all arms exports, for example to Saudi Arabia, currently waging war in Yemen. Now the Greens are also demanding that heavy weapons be supplied to Ukraine — as quickly as possible. The SPD has also done an about-face on this issue, albeit not as dramatically: As before, the left wing of the SPD is putting on the brakes when it comes to weapons for Ukraine.

In light of these historic shifts, Bonn-based political scientist Volker Kronenberg believes the usual political arithmetic in Germany has been rendered invalid — and with it has come the chance to launch something new. "This shock has created a momentum that has brought a lot of room for policy-making. Such times of crisis give the executive branch a time to shine," Kronenberg tells DW.

The view from outside

Abroad, people sometimes rub their eyes in amazement. In mid-August, the British news magazine The Economist spoke of a "New Germany" on its front page. It was illustrated with a powerful German eagle hatching from its egg. The Ukraine war has shaken up a complacent and self-satisfied Germany, the Economist authors wrote, hoping for a "stronger, bolder and more determined Germany that takes leadership for a more united Europe."

Hamburg harbor
Germany relies heavily on trade with ChinaImage: Rupert Oberhäuser/picture alliance

Abroad, there are different expectations and perspectives. "In the US or France, what has been achieved is noted favorably," said Kronenberg. "They see it positively that Germany is getting involved in the necessities and realities and is now finally leaving behind this all-too-subtle reticence as far as defense and security policy necessities and constraints are concerned." Kronenberg also emphasizes, however, "that they would like to see more of this in Central and Eastern Europe, and perhaps more quickly."

In the crucible of crises, the failures of the past are becoming abundantly clear. Delayed digitalization has been hampering business and administration. The now chronic unreliability of German Rail (Deutsche Bahn) is just one example of the effects of years of infrastructure neglect. Above all, however, it is clear that Germany's prosperity is standing on feet of clay.

Put simply, Germany's business model of the last few decades worked like this: With large quantities of cheap energy from Russia, upstream products from China were transformed into high-quality products — and mainly exported back to China. China is Germany's most important trading partner; entire economic sectors are dependent on the Chinese market, and the supply chains of other sectors depend on Chinese suppliers.

One pillar of this system is already wobbling: Trade with Russia has been drastically restricted by several EU sanctions packages. Less and less raw materials such as gas, oil, and coal are flowing to Germany.

Nuclear power plant of Grohnde and anti nuclear protesters in 2011
Germany is even rethinking its nuclear phaseoutImage: Peter Steffen/dpa/picture alliance

Before the war, the country imported more than half of its gas needs from Russia. Now, the country is taking a new direction and has to focus on savings. The chancellors and economy minister are trying to tap new energy sources around the world, most recently in Canada. Politicians, business leaders, and the population are looking forward to the coming winter with concern. That season will reveal mercilessly whether what has been achieved is sufficient — and how much solidarity there is among Germans and within Europe.

The second pillar, trade with China, is still holding strong. But there is growing unease about dependence on the Chinese market. Under pressure from the US, a kind of reversal of globalization is beginning under the banner of decoupling. New blocs are forming under Chinese and Western auspices. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do business with all sides.

In view of the abundance of crises and conflicts, current and imminent, the government in Berlin has begun work on a National Security Strategy. For the first time. Until now, Germany had not considered it necessary to be clear about its geostrategic goals and the ways to achieve them.

This article was originally written in German.

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