The German army's Freudian slip
A naval commander has embarrassed the German political establishment.
As I reported on Monday, the week got off to a dreadful start for Germany on the diplomatic front after a video went viral over the weekend in which the head of the German navy said that the west should give Vladimir Putin “the respect he deserves.”
In the video, vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach also dismissed the threat of a Russian invasion as “nonsense.”
The Ukrainians were livid. Their ambassador to Berlin didn’t hold back from drawing the most grim of all historical parallels: “This patronizing attitude subconsciously reminds Ukrainians of the horrors of the Nazi occupation, when Ukrainians were treated as subhuman,” he said.
Schönbach offered his resignation, but things only went downhill from there.
On Wednesday, the Defence Ministry made its big announcement: it was sending 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, what it described as “a very clear signal” of solidarity.
Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, responded with withering sarcasm. Would the next delivery be a pile of pillows?
Furthermore, Berlin has been meddling in other countries’ plans: it has blocked Estonia from delivering some GDR-era howitzers that it sold on to the Baltic state in the 1990s.
The international response has been damning.
“Where Is Germany in the Ukraine Standoff? Its Allies Wonder,” was the headline of a New York Times article, which quoted officials from the Baltic region who accuse Berlin of a “strategic mistake.”
The Washington Post cited State Department sources who said that President Biden had sent CIA chief William J. Burns to Berlin to convince Chancellor Scholz to take a tougher line by sharing the latest intelligence on troop movements near the Ukrainian border.
The conservative Wall Street Journal was most direct: “Is Germany a Reliable American Ally? Nein,” it stated.
The German response
By the end of the week, the penny had dropped in Germany.
Every single major newspaper published a leader article urging the government to more forcefully confront Russia.
The condemnation was led by the conservative Axel Springer press. Top-selling tabloid Bild screamed that “Chancellor, the world is laughing at us.” Broadsheet Die Welt chimed in that Germany was now the “federal republic of clowns.”
“The distrust of the Germans, which has never really subsided in London, Paris or Copenhagen apart from the official rhetoric, is being updated. We, the Germans, are uncertain friends. Our moral arrogance conceals our cowardice and comfort,” Die Welt editor-in-chief Ulf Poschardt wrote.
The other media houses weren’t much less damning.
In its morning newsletter today, Die Zeit warned that “Germany's reputation among its European neighbours is collapsing with breathtaking speed.” The liberal weekly called on Berlin to immediately address the situation by delivering high tech communications equipment to the Ukrainian army.
Der Spiegel wrote that the new government is trying to walk a tightrope between different interests and thus “runs the risk of making a mess of things with everyone.”
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day, reminded readers that the Ukrainians suffered the most of all east European nations under the Wehrmacht.
Meanwhile the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s urged the government to end its blockade on Estonian weapons exports, saying Germany could not afford to be seen as appearing to be “moral superior.”
On the other hand, the state broadcasters, who have more licence to shape public opinion than, say, the BBC, have been more cautious.
ARD’s Tagesschau programme rejected calls for weapons deliveries, saying that these would “change absolutely nothing.”
“The Ukrainians can’t stand up to the Russians and no one can seriously think that German arms deliveries can make a difference,” the public broadcaster proclaimed with more than a note of defeatism.
The ARD is not totally pacifist though. It called for explicit consequences for the Nord Stream pipeline and the Swift payment system should Russia invade.
The most hilarious reaction of the week came from former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Schröder, if you recall, joined the boards of Gazprom and Rosneft shortly after leaving power in 2005. He also celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin, whom he has described as a “flawless democrat.” (even Trump would gulp)
Speaking on Friday, Schröder accused Ukraine of “sabre rattling”, saying that “what I’ve heard there, including the accusations against Germany over its sensible refusal to supply weapons, is quite unbelievable.”
According to Schröder, the Russian troop build up is a reaction to Nato military exercises in the Baltic, which “naturally have consequences”.
The fact that Schröder is not a pariah in German politics, and even still has admirers inside the SPD, speaks volumes about the difference in mentality between Germany and other western nations.
But the international outcry over “helmet gate” has led to a change in tone in the Bundestag.
Freidrich Merz, new leader of the CDU, seems to have backtracked on his previous reluctance to get on board with threats to shut Russia out of the Swift financial system due to the economic impact it would have on Germany.
On Thursday, Merz announced that the CDU would advocate a new Russia policy. In the event of a Russian invasion, a start for Nord Stream 2 would be “completely out of the question,” he said. While equivocating on German arms deliveries, he said it was “no longer acceptable” that Berlin was blocking other EU countries from doing so.
Merz’s strategy is a mild course corrective at best. Still, in the Bundestag he berated the government over its “lack of leadership.”
Divisions are growing inside both the Greens and the Social Democrats over how to approach the crisis, although these have so far been kept out of the public eye, according to Der Spiegel.
Both parties, who control the Foreign ministry and Chancellery, have publicly ruled out arms deliveries. Behind closed doors though, senior members are pushing for a tougher course.
Moderates in the SPD want the party to drop its traditional Kremlin-friendly approach and construct a new EU-led Ostpolitik - confidential talks of senior SPD figures are planned for Monday.
The Greens have different problems. They aren’t encumbered by Putin fans, but the party old school are dyed-in-the-wool pacifists. Younger members are openly calling for more realism. It is no secret that Economics Minister Robert Habeck favours weapons deliveries.
Recent opinion polling shows that the major German newspapers are all out of sync with public opinion, which mirrors the ambivalent approach of the political classes.
Some 41 percent of Germans say that they “can understand that Russia feels threatened by the West.” On the question of tightening sanctions, there is no clear majority in favour, with 47 percent being dafür and 41 percent dagegen.
Should Germany deliver weapons to Ukraine? A poll published yesterday showed that 59 percent still rejected such a measure. Interestingly though, Green voters are least likely to oppose weapons exports.
And among voters for all parties, only a majority of Green voters want an end to the Nord Stream 2 gas project.