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BERLIN — Nils Schmid, a member of Germany’s Parliament and a foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, was explaining to me what a minor role the military plays in his country’s politics.
“The average Bundestag member does not have this normal contact with the military he has with almost every other layer of society,” Schmid said, referring to members of Parliament. Germany may be a major arms exporter, but in terms of total German manufacturing, he said, “the arms industry is not really relevant,” and representatives don’t cater to it. There is a “huge distance, vis-à-vis all things military, in German society,” he said.
That could soon change. Shortly after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced a radical shift in his country’s national security stance. Germany, he said, will arm Ukraine, ending its policy of not sending lethal weapons to conflict zones. It will ramp up military spending to more than 2 percent of its gross domestic product. “It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country,” he said.
Schmid described the message German politicians now need to convey to the public. They must explain, he said, “that the military is part of the state and should be equipped accordingly,” just like schools and universities. For an American, this challenge — getting people to take warfare as seriously as education — has a through-the-looking-glass quality. But it’s a sign of how profoundly Putin’s aggression stands to alter German society.
Germany is not alone in ramping up its defense. Denmark has announced plans to increase military spending to 2 percent of G.D.P., a target set by NATO that most member states haven’t hit. Sweden, which is not a part of NATO, also intends to increase military spending to 2 percent, and the country’s prime minister said that young people should be prepared to do military service.
But Germany’s sudden foreign policy transformation is particularly astonishing. Since World War II, militarism has been deeply taboo in Germany. And the country has felt a special responsibility to Russia because of Soviet losses in that war.
“That’s something that I feel like Americans are really underplaying,” said Susan Neiman, the Berlin-based author of “Learning From the Germans,” a book about Germany’s reckoning with its genocidal past. “Because when they think of the Second World War, they think of two things. They think of the Holocaust, and then they think of Western Europeans: Anne Frank and Paris and so on.” But it was the Soviet Union that suffered the most deaths in that war, an estimated 26 million.
For years, Schmid said, there was an implicit bargain in Germany’s relationship with Russia: “We acknowledged our responsibility from history, and the Soviet Union and then Russia sort of granted us the benefit of accepting that this is a new Germany and that we could enter into a normal relationship.” In “Putin’s World,” Angela Stent’s 2019 book about Putin’s foreign policy, Stent wrote that German leaders since Willy Brandt, who became chancellor in 1969, “have been determined never to repeat the pattern of Russo-German enmity.”
Putin’s attack on Ukraine has made that determination void. Now many compare the feeling in Germany to that in the United States after Sept. 11, minus the patriotic chest beating. (I’ve seen far more Ukrainian flags in Berlin this week than German ones.) “I have never seen a kind of cloud of uncertainty and a sense of feeling lamed descend over this city before,” said Neiman, who serves as director of the Einstein Forum, a German cultural institute.
In the United States, Putin’s aggression and Ukraine’s heroic resistance have elicited horror but also strains of triumphalism. After years of American decline and self-doubt, a period when political momentum at home and abroad seemed to be with pro-Putin authoritarian populists like Donald Trump, some seem to welcome a renewed sense of moral clarity. “Among the many positive consequences of the Ukraine crisis is the death of wrongheaded and ultimately dangerous Republican nostalgia for isolationism,” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin wrote.
I don’t think there’s much talk of positive consequences in Germany. “Europeans know there is no complete security in Europe against Russia,” said Klaus Scharioth, who served as Germany’s ambassador to the United States during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. “You can unite, we all do that, which is absolutely necessary, but if Russia stays on the current path, then nobody is secure, because they have all these tactical nuclear weapons. They have also intermediate-range nuclear weapons. And they can, if they want to, they can destroy any European city within minutes.”
Germany has reason to be proud of its reception of Ukrainian refugees, reprising the “willkommenskultur” that led it to accept a million Middle Eastern and North African refugees in 2015. A large section of the Hauptbahnhof train station has been transformed into a makeshift refugee processing center. On Wednesday evening, countless volunteers — wearing yellow vests if they speak only German or English, orange if they speak Russian or Ukrainian — helped new arrivals navigate toward free accommodations in Berlin or buses onward. But the scene is still unspeakably sad. Hundreds of people newly forced from their homes milled around, some laden with baggage, others with only rolling suitcases. Families were slumped on the floor. Some people clutched pets. The catastrophe they’d fled wasn’t that far away; Berlin is closer to Lviv than to Paris.
“We live in a different world now,” said Ricarda Lang, a co-leader of the German Green Party, when I met her at a pro-Ukraine demonstration outside the Russian Embassy. “I, as a person who was born in 1994, I grew up in a peaceful Europe. For me, peace and democracy in many ways were something that was taken for granted.” Such assurance, she said, has now disappeared. Putin has murdered a whole constellation of post-Cold War assumptions. No one knows what new paradigms will replace them.