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2022 - year of the Zeitenwende
Olaf Scholz isn’t the most rhetorically gifted politician in the world. He is a dry and sober man who prefers the company of books to other people. But you have to give it to him. Zeitenwende, a term that he used to describe the post-invasion world of 2022, has come to define the year.
It has even become popular among Anglophone journalists, meaning it can join Merkel’s famous contribution to English vocabulary: ‘wir schaffen das.’
Zeitenwende translates roughly to ‘a new era.’ The word Wende, a nautical term that refers to turning a boat around, is often used to describe a big moment in German history. The reunification of east and west in 1990 is famously known as die Wende. The transition to renewable energy (probably the most gradual turn in human history) is called the Energie-wende.
For Scholz, the Zeitenwende that was brought about by Russia’s invasion meant an end to a world in which trade ties were supposed to stop countries from going to war. The consequence would be more military spending and less reliance on dictators for cheap goods and energy.
What has changed in Germany in 2022? How far has the country turned away from the old way of doing things? Here are nine articles (I was on parental leave from May to July) that chronicle the year that marked a turning point in 21st century history.
January: It is hard to pick out the quote which has aged worst from this article about German attitudes just weeks before the war broke out. Naval commander Kay-Achim Schönbach said that the West should give Vladimir Putin “the respect he deserves”; public broadcaster ARD argued that “the Ukrainians can’t stand up to the Russians and no one can seriously think that German arms deliveries will make a difference”; and former Chancellor Gerhard Schöder told Kyiv to stop its sabre rattling.
Hmmm… Germany had a long way to go.
February: Before the war started I was still looking at a more parochial Wende, the transition to renewable energy. In this article I traced the history of a very important electricity line - one that holds the key to the success of Germany’s zero-carbon plans. As we would come to realise in the coming months, some turns take longer than others…
March: The Russian invasion had started and Germany was forced to take a long, hard look at the decisions that it had failed to take that could have prevented the war. In my first article after the invasion started, I looked at why the war upended just about every orthodoxy of German foreign policy.
April: Putin’s troops were committing war crimes in the northern suburbs of Kyiv, but German chocolate manufacturer Ritter was still refusing to end its business dealings in Russia. (Pulling out would harm cocoa farmers in Africa, the company protested.) I took a look at how German trade interests in Russia have led industry to lobby Berlin over years to take a lax attitude to the EU’s sanctions regime over the annexation of Crimea.
August: One of the central aspects of Scholz’ Zeitenwende was ending the decades-old policy of not delivering weapons to war zones. This came at a cost though. In retaliation, Russia cut off gas supplies and prices were sent into the stratosphere. Back in the summer, the German far-right tried to exploit this by organising an autumn of ‘hot’ protests. In the end though, the ‘hot autumn’ turned out to be lukewarm at best. Public support for weapons deliveries has dropped since the first days of the war, but the German public is clearly not about to take to the streets to help Putin.
September: It was always clear that the Zeitenwende wasn’t going to come cheaply. Money earmarked for giving German soldiers adequate weapons alone totaled to €100 billion. On top of that, the government has borrowed hundreds of billions more to absorb the effects of Russia’s energy embargo. But will this unprecedented public spending ruin Germany’s reputation for financial prudence - and is it even possible within the strict constitutional debt rules?
October: The war in Ukraine didn’t just demand that the SPD re-examine their cosy ties to Russia. Few parties have changed through the past year quite like the Greens, who’ve gone from avowed pacifists to hawkish weapons advocates. On nuclear energy too, the Greens have had to surrender their dearest principles. But their acceptance that the remaining three nuclear reactors should keep running to avert blackouts only came after Olaf Scholz laid down the law.
November: Analysts and politicians were left scratching their heads by Scholz’s decision to visit Beijing just weeks after Xi Jinping was reappointed as leader of the Chinese communist party for an unprecedented third term. Wasn’t the Zeitenwende about snubbing dictators, they asked? But the famously self-confident Scholz claimed that his message had been misunderstood. The trip to Beijing was followed up by a tour of Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia. The real meaning of the Zeitenwende is forging alliances with medium-sized economies while keeping China tied into western markets, Scholz patiently explained.
December: When Scholz delivered his Zeitenwende speech in February, the media focused on plans to modernise the German army. But by December not a cent of that €100 billion extra budget had been spent. Reports were beginning to seep through that the armed forces only had enough ammunition to fight for a few days. Critics complained that the government had still failed to grasp that Europe was at war.
Ten months into the new era the conclusion we can draw is: when a ship the size of Germany has to change course it doesn’t happen overnight.
Thank you so much for reading this newsletter over the past 12 months. A special thank you to all of you who have supported it financially. I’m taking a break for a few days over New Year and have paused payments for the time that I’m away. You’ll hear from me again in January!