Ghosts of Germany’s past rise as Olaf Scholz seeks strategy for Ukraine

Guilt over Nazism’s crimes is affecting Berlin’s approach to Moscow – and that equivocation has frustrated its allies

When Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, shook hands on a coalition deal with his liberal-green partners last month, they energetically vowed to “risk more progress”.

Less than two months on, however, Berlin’s allies in Kyiv, Washington and neighbouring European capitals worry the country remains stuck in passive old ways. As tension mounts on the border between Russia and Ukraine, they fear Scholz is falling back on foreign policy instincts honed by his most recent centre-left predecessor, the ex-chancellor-turned-lobbyist Gerhard Schröder.

A restrictive attitude to exporting weapons is one source of frustration. In spite of being one of the world’s top five biggest exporters of arms, Germany says it cannot send lethal weapons into conflict zones for historic reasons, instead supplying Ukraine with 5,000 military helmets, a gesture that Kyiv’s mayor described as “a joke”.

It has still not signed paperwork allowing Estonia to give Ukraine nine D-30 howitzers, which Germany has to authorise because the Soviet-made long-range weapons were once stationed in East Germany.

For Germany’s critics, however, nothing symbolises its ambiguity towards the brewing conflict more than Nord Stream 2. The recently completed but still unapproved gas pipeline between Ust-Luga in Russia to Lubmin in north-east Germany, they say, shows how the country’s energy needs have made it vulnerable to blackmail by Putin. Scholz insists that “all options are on the table” when it comes to potential sanctions in the event of a Russian incursion into Ukraine, but his government has been slow to go into specifics, even arguing it is strategically wiser to remain vague.

“We must not rule anything out when it comes to sanctions, including Swift [the global banking payments system] and Nord Stream 2,” said Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesperson of Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD).

“If push comes to shove, then Nord Stream 2 will probably be unsustainable,” Schmid told the Observer. “It’s crucial that Putin cannot calculate in advance what the consequences of his actions will be.”

The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project on a pipe
The recently completed but as yet unapproved Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

The logic of this stance is not just questioned abroad but also domestically. “Threatening sanctions does not work if the other side can tell you are afraid to spell out what they are,” said Norbert Röttgen, a member of the Bundestag’s foreign policy committee for the conservative Christian Democratic Union. “It has to be clear that authorising Nord Stream 2 is out of the question if there is a war.

“We are on the cusp of the most dramatic situation since the end of the second world war: a war in Europe that would change the geopolitical balance on our continent,” Röttgen told the Observer. “Chancellor Scholz needs to make it clear he understands the historic significance of this moment, or he risks gambling away Germany’s reputation as a reliable partner of the west.”

As Scholz’s Social Democrats convene on Monday for an internal debate on its stance on Russia, Röttgen urged the party to take a stand against those who use German history as a cover “for personal financial gain and an appeasement policy that turns aggressors into victims”. The belief that Germany, whose military forays in the Nazi era cost millions of Russian lives, cannot act as aggressively towards the Kremlin as other European nations is not a minority view. It runs across the German party spectrum and is widely shared among the population.

However, the SPD’s Schmid says: “You have to take into consideration that Germany, alongside France, has the role of a mediator between Russia and Ukraine in the Normandy format [the four-way contact group set up after the conflict in Donbas]. We cannot supply weapons to one of the two parties we are mediating between.”

Even the Green party, heralded by some as human rights hawks who would radically reposition Germany’s stance on China and Russia after claiming the foreign ministry under the new government, reaffirms this position. “The German government has not provided any arms shipments to Ukraine for almost a decade,” said Agnieszka Brugger, a Green member of the parliament’s defence committee.

“A change in policy would not make any significant short-term military difference on the ground but may be a big risk for the very difficult ongoing diplomatic talks,” Brugger said. “European and Nato unity in our support for Ukraine is crucial to demonstrate a strong stance towards Russia, and we should not let the different ways we show our support for our allies get in between us.”

Russian mechanized infantry holds drills in the Rostov region
Russian mechanised infantry forces carry out exercises in the Rostov region on Ukraine’s border on 27 January. Photograph: Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters

No party in the Bundestag has used Germany’s historic crimes as a cover for expanding ties with Russia as much as Scholz’s, however. As Germany’s oldest party, the SPD has a tendency to reach back into the history books, and few of the party’s politicians talk about Russia without citing Ostpolitik, the “change through rapprochement” foreign policy strategy towards the Soviet Union and its satellite states pursued by its former chancellor Willy Brandt.

Yet the SPD’s attitude to Russia doesn’t necessarily run as deep as it likes to convince itself. In an essay for the Frankfurter Allgemeine last week, the historian Gerd Koenen argued that a foreign policy of “latent equidistance between Washington and Moscow” was rooted in the centre-left’s experience at the start of the millennium, when an SPD-led German government refused to join America’s war in Iraq.

That stint in power resulted in the SPD splitting over domestic policy, with Chancellor Schröder pursuing a New Labourite third way while finance minister Oskar Lafontaine peeled off to co-found the leftwing Die Linke (The Left). But in their pro-Russian sympathies the two camp leaders remain united.

Schröder, who on Friday insisted that Russia had no intention to invade Ukraine and accused Kyiv of “sabre rattling”, joined the state-controlled Russian giant Gazprom’s North European Gas Pipeline company, later renamed Nord Stream AG, as chairman within months of losing the 2005 election. The Baltic Sea pipeline between Russia and north-east Germany, which bypasses Baltic and east central Europe, was green-lit in the interim period before Angela Merkel took office, but continued under her tenure.

At Nord Stream AG, Schröder’s chief executive is Matthias Warnig, a former high-ranking Stasi officer who once spied on West German industry for East Germany’s secret police under the aliases “Ökonom” (“Economist”) and “Arthur” and ascended to Putin’s inner circle after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Workers at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Russia
Work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Leningrad region. The project illustrates the close ties between Russia and Germany. Photograph: Anton Vaganov/Reuters

While revelations about Stasi links can still curtail political careers in Germany – one Berlin state secretary from the same paramilitary regiment as Warnig was made to resign in 2017 – the past of Nord Stream’s boss is rarely mentioned in the debate around the project. “I am sometimes surprised this doesn’t play a more prominent role,” said an SPD politician who asked not to be named.

Schröder’s networking still links the SPD and Russian gas. A German subsidiary of Nord Stream 2 called Gas for Europe, founded last week in an apparent attempt to complete the controversial pipeline’s certification process, has registered as its supervisory board chairman Dietrich Walter Haller, who worked at the chancellory under Schröder from 2003 to 2005. On Thursday night, the German foreign office announced it would seek to ban Haller from the role, since it was in conflict with his recent activity as a top diplomat.

Lars Klingbeil, the Social Democrats’ co-chair, used to work in the Hanover constituency office of Schröder, whom he declined to desribe as a “lobbyist” when pressed in an interview with Der Spiegel last week. Klingbeil is also a trustee of “German-Russia – The new generation”, a networking association founded in 2011 by the Russian ambassador to Berlin.

Scholz, who was SPD general secretary under Schröder, has brushed against these networks. But his rise to power is not of their making, and it remains possible that he can detach himself from them.

If the Schröder generation’s approach to Russia was shaped by Brandt, Scholz has cited as his political idol Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt, who prodded Nato in 1979 to adopt its so-called dual-track resolution: a strategy of military armament and threat coupled with an openness to dialogue.

Schmidt’s confrontational course made him enemies within his own party, but in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung last week, Scholz seemed to signal that he favoured this strand of his party’s foreign policy tradition: “If you cite Brandt and Schmidt, then territorial integrity and states’ right to self-determination is an inextricable part of that,” he said.

Schmid said: “Both Brandt and Schmidt were committed transatlanticists: that’s something that’s misremembered by some people in Germany, including some in my own party. Scholz will act in Schmidt’s vein: he has no nostalgic illusions when it comes to Russia. He won’t bat an eyelid when it comes to sanctions.”

• This article was amended on 31 January 2022. An earlier version referred to “the start of the millennium, when an SPD-led German government refused to join America’s war on terror”. That should have said “America’s war in Iraq.”


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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