5th Dec 2023


Europe should help Germany, not lambast it over Ukraine crisis

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The new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is coming under a lot of criticism over his handling of the Russa-Ukraine crisis. But Europe should help Germany, not lambast it.

Barely two months after his inauguration in December, Scholz stands accused of being absent in Europe, of being a "Putinversteher" [Putin-understander] and an unreliable partner.

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  • In the 1950s, the French torpedoed a European Defence Community out of fear for a re-militarised Germany. To this day, this remains one of the most sensitive subjects in Europe

Germany's decision to send helmets and field hospitals to Ukraine, instead of helping the US, the UK and others to airlift military equipment, is not going down well with many of its western allies.

Nor does Scholz' refusal to clearly state that Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, will be included in a western sanctions package in case Russia invades Ukraine.

For many Europeans it may be weird to hear German citizens tell phone-in programmes that "with weapons you cannot create peace" or "I am against weapons in general", as if Ukraine would be wrong to defend itself against an enormous military threat posed by Russia.

But if we want Germany to overcome its fear of militarisation, rooted in its past, we must change Europe, too. A stronger German security posture, including a role of security provider, can only develop if it is embedded in European defence.

As Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first post-war chancellor, once said: "Germany's problems can only be solved under a European roof."

Initially, the post-war order in Europe was about the containment of Germany. The objective of European unification is, and remains, to prevent war.

Crucial to this is that Germany must never again play the dominant soloist on the continent. In the concert of European nations, Germany is part of the orchestra.

French fear, British jealousy

In the past, German dominance aroused French fear (and British jealousy), and unbridled Franco-German rivalry culminated in devastating wars engulfing the entire continent. Germany and France fought each other during the last three great wars in Europe – in 1870, and during the First World War and the Second World War.

In 1919, the victors imposed military constraints on Germany. But then, Germans felt humiliated and saddled with such high reparation costs that after a decade military rearmament came to symbolise Germany's breaking its chains. Again, they set out to build a terrible war machine.

After 1945, drawing lessons from 1919, a smarter system was set up.

A vanquished Germany was not crushed this time, but forced to play along. Germany and France agreed to set up a common market, initially with four other participants. The rules governing this market would apply to all - not just Germany.

This way, the question of power was muted: small countries came on a more equal footing with large and powerful ones, while political problems were turned into technical ones before they could escalate.

The US made this possible by largely assuming western Europe's defence. A Germany whose security depended on foreign troops stationed on its territory was convenient for both Europeans and Americans.

Many Germans regarded it as a blessing, too. They still do. The American security umbrella gave them the chance to lick their wounds, build their welfare state and become an open, cosmopolitan, thoroughly pacifist "export-nation".

Nowadays, Germany is Europe's economic powerhouse, while France is the largest military power and security provider on the continent.

Occasional squabbles aside, this division of labour generally suits the two former rivals well, as it does others in the European Union. The founding fathers would have liked it: a Europe in which France and Germany do not fight each other, but complement each other.

But the world is changing. The rise of China has prompted the US to focus more on Asia. Russia, Turkey and China see a void in Europe, trying to exploit it for their own policy ends.

This requires Europe to formulate a geopolitical and military answer that it does not have. Confronted with a sudden emergency – over 130,000 Russian troops threatening to invade Ukraine; and Russian president Putin demanding Nato to withdraw from central Europe and change its statutes – US president Joe Biden is stepping in again with military reinforcements and a flurry of diplomatic initiative.

While one of Putin's policy goals was to expose the widening gap between Europe and the US, for the moment he seems to have brought about the opposite: transatlantic reconciliation.

'Sonderweg' no more?

But Europe is well aware that Biden's successor may well be a Republican, whose party takes orders from Donald Trump. During his presidency, Trump promoted bilateral military support for some European Nato allies, like Estonia or Poland. He routinely insulted Germany, calling it "very bad". He largely ignored the EU, the UN and Nato, the multilateral institutions that made the post-war German "Sonderweg" [Special Way] possible.

With Russia flexing its military muscles and claiming a role in Europe's security, and with long-term US protection not a given, Europe must shore up its defence.

This means Germany cannot remain as passive as it was. As current Ukraine debates show, getting more serious about security and defence will be difficult for the Germans. As policy analyst Hans Kundnani pointed out in his book The Paradox of German Power, "free-riding has become an essential part of German national identity".

This will difficult for other Europeans, too. Calling for more robust German defence and security contributions is one thing. But in a Europe where German leaders are still routinely compared to Hitler the minute they are perceived as overstepping their powers (as the euro crisis amply demonstrated), a stronger Germany will easily upset the delicate post-war balance with France and the others.

Therefore, there is only one way in which it can assume a role as a security player and provider: in a European context. Europe must become a stronger political and defence force within Nato, or outside of it if this ever becomes necessary.

This week, amid accusations he had gone AWOL during his first serious crisis, chancellor Scholz finally stepped on the European podium: he gave interviews, travelled to Washington, received French president Emmanuel Macron and Polish president Andrzej Duda, and announced visits to Moscow and Kyiv.

But the real, underlying issue that must be addressed is what Germany's place will be in a Europe that cannot just float in a secure environment any longer, and must seriously start to protect itself in a world once more dominated by great power rivalry.

In the 1950s, the French Assemblée torpedoed a European Defence Community out of fear for a re-militarised Germany. To this day, this remains one of the most sensitive subjects in Europe, requiring a common foreign policy which Europe has not been able to agree on either.

Some say these things are impossible to achieve. Nevertheless, it is imperative we try again. The German question requires it.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist and correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an adapted version of a piece in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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