On my last trip to Germany, just before the pandemic, I took in an interesting sight. Visiting the headquarters of the German military in Berlin to offer an informal lecture, I was escorted to the top floor of the building and offered a view of the foyer. Below, I saw a ghastly mélange of orange and yellow – the giant carpet had the effect of illustrating on a grand scale the gates of hell from this vantage point. “Never again,” my escort, a senior officer in the Germany Navy, told me. “It’s a reminder to us. That was Berlin in 1945.” This sort of thinking is incorporated in Germany’s policymaking.
Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Schölz, met with U.S. President Joe Biden on Feb. 7 to try to show a united front, but there remained some evident differences between the two allies, particularly as regards the fate of the second Russia-German gas pipeline. Many have been unfairly critical of the new German government, which has bravely staked out a principled stand against military escalation in the current Ukraine crisis. European leaders have advised Germany to follow the pattern of the Danes and French in immediately dispatching military forces into Eastern Europe. Berlin has now committed to sending a token force of 350 to Lithuania, but Germany’s reluctance is obvious. Schölz and his team, in particular, have been excoriated for being unwilling to allow weapons transfers to flow from the Baltic states into Ukraine. Meanwhile, the British have been rushing in military cargo planes laden with weapons, with the Americans now following this risk-laden gambit.
Yet Berlin has stood up against the rush to arms, and all the accompanying bellicose rhetoric, for at least three good reasons. First, Germany accurately assesses that Ukraine has no real chance in a military contest. For starters, they have practically no air force and weak air defenses. The Ukrainian army, such as it is, will also be pulverized by missiles and long-range artillery, as indeed it was in the devastating defeat at Debaltseve (eastern Ukraine) in February 2015. Moreover, if Russia attacks simultaneously from at least three directions, it is painfully clear that Russia’s superiority leaves Ukraine no viable plan of defense, and the country may well lose its capital in the space of a few hours. Knowing something of the cruelties of partisan warfare, Germans are more inclined to grant Russia the sphere of influence it desires and allow the hot embers of the Ukrainian civil war to burn out rapidly, rather than pouring additional gasoline on the fire. Former President Barack Obama clearly understood that sending arms to Ukraine would just result in more Ukrainians getting killed, since the Kremlin retains vast escalation dominance. Sadly, neither of his successors seems to grasp this fundamental point.
Germany understands full well, even as other Western capitals seem shamefully oblivious, that there are nuclear shadows behind the present crisis in Ukraine. Berlin is well acquainted with all aspects of Russian nuclear weapons modernization, from new ICBMs to bombers to nuclear-armed missiles on submarines. Then there are the tactical nuclear systems, some of which are based in very close proximity to Germany in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Schölz and his team evidently understand much better than, for example, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that the present nuclear era demands a much higher standard of prudent decision-making in defense policy, namely realpolitik, which also means toning down confrontational rhetoric and avoiding needless risk-taking.
Finally, Berlin is acutely conscious of its historical responsibility. Knowing full well the ghastly destruction and crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime throughout Europe, Germany will take the high road of negotiations, dialogue and compromise, understanding that military escalation with Russia is the road to perdition. In adopting such a principled stance, Schölz is following the proud tradition of responsible, peace-making German diplomacy that goes back to the Ostpolitik of Willie Brandt, but also reflects Angela Merkel’s tradition of pragmatic diplomacy, including with the Kremlin. Indeed, Merkel bucked opinion in Washington and stubbornly stood by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, knowing that it was in Germany’s national interest, but also that it was beneficial for European security for Germany and Russia to enhance their economic interdependence as well.
When I lived in Germany, I worked in the industrial city of Essen. At the center of this bustling city stands a stunningly renovated synagogue, a hauntingly large and majestic building. This museum retells faithfully, and in all its horrors, the story of the Holocaust and serves as a memorial to the city’s once flourishing Jewish population. Germany does not hide from its dark history and does all it can to promote peace, including in troubled Ukraine. This is highly commendable. Other countries should confront their own dark chapters and follow Berlin’s lead in supporting dialogue, peace, and compromise in the present crisis.
Lyle Goldstein is the Director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities. The views expressed are the author's own.