This Was the Year Everything Changed in Germany
BERLIN — Winter is here, and Germany is ready. After worries that the country would have to resort to energy rationing, the government has managed to fill the reservoirs: Holiday season, now in full flow, is as it’s always been. Offices and apartments are a little cooler, but the Christmas markets — giving off their usual reassuring aroma of cinnamon and frying fat — and city streets are brightly lit.
That was no given. In the 10 months since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany has scrambled to replace the 55 percent of gas it used to get from Russia. The effort, alongside sanctioning Russia, supplying Ukraine with weapons and increasing military spending, was so great it earned a special term: a “Zeitenwende,” a watershed moment or epochal turn, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz termed it. Such a move, of course, merits little when set alongside the heroic endurance of the Ukrainians. Even so, for a country that seemed unable to do without Russian gas, it ranks as an achievement that the Christmas lights are on.
And yet the sense of normality feels provisional, even phony. Because this year has been anything but normal. Socially, economically, politically and even morally, Germany has been questioned, its fundamental moorings subject to intense scrutiny. What these 10 months have revealed is a country reconceiving of itself, without the old certainties. The change can’t be measured in the tanks, howitzers and aerial defense systems Germany has delivered to Ukraine, but in the depths of political psychology. For decades an empathetic bystander to European conflicts, Germany has acknowledged this war as its own.
The invasion came at the very time when Germany was about to forget what war means. The generation that lived through World War II, more than 75 years ago now, are in their 90s or have passed away; those born in its shadow, the baby boomers, have a dwindling hold in public life. In fact, the second postwar generation, born in the ’60s and ’70s, took the political reins after the end of Angela Merkel’s tenure in the fall of 2021, just months before Russia invaded Ukraine. Olaf Scholz, a boomer born in 1958, presides over a cabinet of mostly younger politicians, many in their 40s or early 50s. The three ruling parties — the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Liberals — are also now led by the second postwar generation.
That matters. It’s a generation that hardly remembers the Cold War and was raised after its ideological struggles had ended, free from fear of nuclear conflict. It came of age in the ’90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Germany’s reunification and what seemed to some to be “the end of history.” To this generation — my generation — war was a distant and gloomy impossibility, something that happened elsewhere, if at all. We thought that “never again,” the country’s postwar slogan, designed to expunge war from the national psyche, accurately described the world. We thought we grew up in peace.
In truth, the ’90s and 2000s saw a lot of violence in Europe. The brutal Balkan wars started in 1991, the conflict over Transnistria’s secession from Moldova in 1992. Mr. Putin’s war in Chechnya, announced with the horrific shelling of Grozny in 1999, lasted a decade. In 1998, war broke out in Kosovo; 10 years later, Russia attacked Georgia. The war in Ukraine, of course, started in 2014 when Mr. Putin annexed Crimea and fomented separatist conflict in the Donbas region.
Yet despite continued participation in the NATO mission in Kosovo, Germany attributed an “otherness” and “elsewhereness” to these wars. The Balkans? Geographically in Europe, sure, but late to the party of prosperity and stability enjoyed by the continent’s Franco-German core. Mr. Putin’s wars in the Caucasus and Ukraine? Some post-Soviet mess we had nothing to do with. When we Germans went to war — in Afghanistan, for example — it was out of a sense of duty or solidarity with our allies, not because it affected us.
Over the years, Germany’s belief in a post-violent world turned into arrogance, and vulnerability. Germany talked reconciliation with Russia, eyes closed to the Kremlin’s aggression, pocketing the money it saved from shrinking its military and putting to use cheap Russian gas. This was our state of mind when we woke up on Feb. 24 to find that the unimaginable — Russian troops marching toward Kyiv while bombs fell overhead — was real.
That changed everything. Back in December of last year, with Mr. Putin’s troops already massing at Ukraine’s borders in the thousands, Mr. Scholz still defended Nord Stream 2, a pipeline project that would have brought even more Russian gas to Germany’s shores. Weeks before the war began, Germany infamously promised 5,000 helmets to Ukraine. Yet denial gave way to frantic activity after the invasion, as Germany grew bolder in its resistance to Russia and attempted to shield its citizens from the consequences.
Amid this chaos, long-held political beliefs were casually shed, not least by politicians of my generation: Growing up in post-ideological times came in handy. The head of the Social Democrats, Lars Klingbeil, announced a new “Ostpolitik,” jettisoning the party’s decades-long rapprochement with Russia. The economy minister and Green Party co-leader, Robert Habeck, agreed to keep nuclear plants running and get coal plants back on the grid, and even helped seal a deal with Qatar for liquid gas. The Liberals, for their part, discarded their quasi-religious belief in balanced budgets to fund military spending and ease rising energy costs.
The mental political map has shifted. Tellingly, Mr. Scholz led the efforts to accept Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as candidates to the European Union and sought new ties to the Balkans — countries whose wars Germany had “othered” for decades. Mr. Scholz’s rhetoric, too, has become more inclusive. He edged from “Putin must not win his war” in May to “We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes” in June. And then, in December, there was a “we” that includes Ukraine, Germany and Europe as adversaries of Russia. Mr. Putin was wrong, he said in his final address to parliament this year, “about the courage of Ukrainians, about Europe, about us.” Ten months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, elsewhere has become here.
Whether the mental map of German citizens has shifted the same way is hard to say. Many reacted to the initial shock with immense solidarity. Thousands have taken in Ukrainian refugees or have given to Ukraine in some other way. Overall, about half of all Germans still support the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Germany’s government, what’s more, has managed to cushion the effects of inflation and the rising cost of energy. Despite the arrest of a group of far-right extremists — radicalized by the pandemic rather than the war — conspiring to overthrow the government, the winter of discontent and mass uproar that some feared has not materialized. The country, on the whole, is adjusting to the new reality.
The historian Karl Schlögel once said that Germany in recent decades had become “überraschungsresistent,” resistant to surprise. No longer. Now Germany’s normality, so long assumed, is up in the air. And yes, that’s a “Zeitenwende” worthy of the name.
Anna Sauerbrey (@annakatrein) is an editor and writer at the German weekly Die Zeit.
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