Can Germany Be a Great Military Power Again?

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Under a blazing July sun, Anne Katrin Meister prepared to fire a Heckler & Koch G36, the standard rifle of the German military, or Bundeswehr. Dressed in fatigues, helmet and bulletproof vest, she crouched about 20 yards from two human silhouettes, stand-ins for a hypothetical threat to the German homeland.

“Konzentration,” ordered her instructor, Oliver Maesmanns, articulating each syllable. Maesmanns, a former tank commander who is now a sergeant in Germany’s reserves and an electric-guitar teacher by trade, stood with a supportive hand on Meister’s back. “Don’t wiggle around so much!” he urged. “Thumb away from the breechblock!”

Meister, who is 34, works in human resources for a tech company near her home in Lower Saxony, where she serves on the local council as a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party. The closest she had ever come to firing an assault rifle was at a carnival shooting gallery. Now, as blasts from adjacent firing areas rang out, Meister took a few breaths to steady herself. She set her rifle’s sights to just above the sternum of her fictional enemy, having been instructed by Maesmanns to aim higher to account for the gap between the scope and the barrel, and pulled the trigger. Shock waves reverberated off the walls of the shooting range, and four shells landed in the gravel near her feet. Clouds of sunlit dust rose from the mound of sand behind the target.

“Now, she’s awake again!” one of the trainers called out with a laugh.

Meister had been doing well for a novice. But this time, she pulled the trigger too fast between shots, resulting in errant fire. In the end, she hit the enemy’s chest 16 times. She needed 18 hits to meet the goal set by her instructors. Her short lapse of Konzentration had cost her.

A few dozen of Meister’s new comrades in arms watched from beyond the shooting area. Like Meister, they were civilians with no previous military experience and had come to this military base in Nienburg, a medieval town in Lower Saxony, to train for “homeland protection” units in the country’s reserves.

Anne Katrin Meister, a reservist in training, at a base in Nienburg, last summer.Credit…Ingmar Björn Nolting for The New York Times

“My generation, I always say, is a bit like a generation without war,” Meister told me between exercises. “Of course, there were conflicts, like in Kosovo, but we were still relatively young, and we grew up in such a safe, ideal world. But this is now changing.” Not everyone in her age group wanted to embrace this change, she conceded. “I would say, many of them lean in the direction of being pacifists,” she said. “But you can only be a pacifist if you have this safe, ideal world. And we don’t have such a world.”

Although no one on the base said so explicitly, the threat Meister and her comrades were preparing to counter emanated from Russia. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and then instigated a separatist war in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, German military planners began to consider the suddenly not-so-far-fetched possibility of a large land war in Europe — one that would require German soldiers to defend European territory. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, those fears grew more acute. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, told Parliament that the attack marked a Zeitenwende — a historic “turning point” for Europe and Germany. There could be no doubt that Putin wanted to build a Russian empire, Scholz said. Germans must therefore ask, “What capabilities do we need in order to counter this threat?” He announced, among other measures, a 100-billion-euro fund to bolster the German military. The plan, if implemented, would represent the largest absolute jump in German military spending since World War II.

Parliamentarians gave Scholz a standing ovation. That level of support would have been almost unthinkable before the invasion. In Germany, skepticism of the merits of military strength has enabled a long post-Cold War process of disarmament. As a result, Germany is a historic anomaly in the heart of Europe — an economic leviathan but a military minnow. Now German leaders are vowing to transform the country into a military power capable of taking responsibility for Europe’s security. The question is whether they — and a hesitant German society — can follow through on this promise.

Across much of the world, soldierliness is considered a virtue and fighting for one’s country a natural way to serve it. Less so in Germany, where the use of military power often raises uncomfortable associations with the country’s Nazi past. The fact that German soldiers have repeatedly been implicated in high-profile cases of right-wing extremism has not helped ease this discomfort. In recent years, such cases of extremism have been particularly prevalent among commandos in the German Army’s special forces, the Kommando Spezialkräfte, or K.S.K. In December, members of Citizens of the Reich, a fringe group of conspiracy theorists, were accused of planning a bizarre if potentially violent coup to overthrow the government and install a prince; several former Bundeswehr soldiers — and one active member — were among the alleged plotters.

Russian propagandists were clearly trying to hit a nerve when they responded to Germany’s current plans by suggesting that the country was returning to Nazism. “How could this end?” a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, said in June. “Alas, this is well known from history.” This was a far-fetched line of attack. Despite a radical-right minority, Germany is largely defined by its aversion to extreme nationalism and militarism. But it was also a familiar one. When the Bundeswehr was created in 1955, largely in response to American and British concerns about a potential Soviet invasion of West Germany, its officer corps consisted almost entirely of old Wehrmacht officers, including former S.S. men. Soviet leaders at the time portrayed the rebirth of the German military as “fascist revanchism” and “the return of Hitlerism.” Resistance to rearmament also came from a substantial swath of the war-weary West German population fearful, as many are now, that it would provoke the Russians. The Bundeswehr nonetheless grew, with the help of conscription, to include nearly 500,000 soldiers, becoming one of the largest militaries in the NATO alliance during the Cold War.

It was the Russian threat that led to the resurrection of the German military during the Cold War; it’s once again the Russian threat that may lead to its revitalization. Meister and her fellow trainees see joining the reserves as their democratic duty, and the officer running the training program in Nienburg told me that interest in the reserves rose sharply in the days following Russia’s invasion. But many Germans don’t share that enthusiasm, and the war has not led to a boom in recruitment for the Bundeswehr as a whole. Still, there are signs that a historic shift — a growing acceptance of the need to wield military power — is taking root in Germany.

On the base that day was Frank Oesterhelweg, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union and then vice president of the Lower Saxony State Parliament. Oesterhelweg, who wore a pin of the Ukrainian and German flags on his lapel, has long advocated for a more robust German defense. Now, he said, people were finally coming around to his point of view.

“What we’ve had was really almost a pacifist attitude, whereby some have said, ‘Do we actually need the Bundeswehr?’” he said. “There are also a lot of people who would no longer be willing to pick up a weapon at all. I believe that the invasion on Feb. 24 and what we have experienced since show that it is not so simple after all.” He added: “I believe a lot is now changing in the population. We have come back to reality.”

Visitors at a shooting range at the “Day of the Bundeswehr” event in Warendorf. Credit…Ingmar Björn Nolting for The New York Times

On Sept. 12, Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s defense minister at the time, addressed the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin and declared that Germany must be willing to become a Führungsmacht, or “leading power,” within Europe. She acknowledged that this might seem alien to Germans but that “this uneasiness obscures something quite essential: Namely, that Germany de facto leads even when it does not want to.” Located at the center of the bloc, and with the European Union’s biggest economy and largest population, Germany has an inescapable influence on Europe’s stability and security, even as it has often tried to avoid the role. Scholars have referred to Germany as a “reluctant hegemon” and point to what they call a “leadership-avoidance complex.” While this reluctance has a great deal to do with Germany’s Nazi past, it would be naïve to think that this entirely explains it.

Germany has long occupied an exceptionally comfortable place in the world. It has an export-dependent economy, selling its cars and machines far and wide — and many tanks and submarines, as one of the world’s largest arms exporters. But when it comes to countering perceived security threats — whether the Islamic State or Putin — it has allowed allies to take the lead. German leaders sent troops to Afghanistan but largely avoided referring to it as a “war,” even as German soldiers engaged in ground combat there for the first time since World War II. Germany’s aversion to military power has been sustained by one glaring fact: Its defense is guaranteed by the world’s pre-eminent superpower, the United States, within the framework of NATO. President Donald Trump, who tended to reduce foreign policy to questions of who was ripping off whom, was particularly obsessed with what he saw as German defense freeloading, calling Germany “delinquent” on military spending. But it wasn’t just Trump. Every recent U.S. administration tried, and mostly failed, to get the Germans and other European allies to strengthen their militaries and meet the NATO defense-spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product, a goal Germany has long undershot.

The State of the War

  • Military Aid: Western defense officials meeting in Germany failed to reach an agreement for sending battle tanks to Ukraine. It was a setback to Kyiv’s hopes to quickly receive weapons that President Volodymyr Zelensky has called crucial to the next phase of the war.
  • NATO Rifts Emerge: The Western alliance has been holding strong, but disagreements over strategy for the coming year and what Ukraine needs ahead of a major offensive in the spring are breaking into public view.
  • Helicopter Crash: A helicopter crashed in a fireball in a Kyiv suburb, killing a member of Mr. Zelensky’s cabinet and more than a dozen other people, and dealing a blow to Ukraine’s wartime leadership.

Even as Putin’s rhetoric and actions became increasingly bellicose, a mantra of “Wandel durch Handel,” or “change through trade,” continued to define Germany’s foreign policy toward Russia. Economic interdependence with Russia, the thinking went, would encourage Russian democratization, or at the very least a rules-based international order that precluded acts of aggression. It was also good for business. By 2015, Putin’s imperial ambitions were becoming increasingly clear. Yet German officials backed the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring Russian natural gas to Germany directly through the Baltic Sea, bypassing existing pipelines in Ukraine. (Nord Stream 1, running the same route, opened in 2011.) The Germans pursued the project despite warnings from U.S. lawmakers, who feared that German dependence on Russian gas gave Putin leverage. Those lawmakers, along with leaders of Eastern European countries who were increasingly alarmed by Putin’s aggression, also worried that the new pipeline would compromise Ukraine’s security, isolating it and depriving it of lucrative transit fees for transporting gas from Russia to Europe.

Revenue from German fossil-fuel purchases helped the Kremlin finance a military expansion. At the same time, German military spending as a portion of G.D.P. remained near a post-World War II low. Leaders of Eastern European countries like Poland and Ukraine — which have endured the great geographic misfortune of being sandwiched between Germany and Russia and suffered immensely under both Hitler and Stalin — grew exasperated with Germany’s approach to Russia. Even as far back as 2006, Poland’s then defense minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, likened plans to build the first Nord Stream pipeline to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact — the nonaggression agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. “Poland has a particular sensitivity to corridors and deals above our head,” Sikorski said at a security conference in Brussels. “That was the 20th century. We don’t want any repetition of that.”

As far as Germany was concerned, history had shown that soft-power accommodation was more effective than hard-power intimidation. Wandel durch Handel was in many ways an extension of West Germany’s Cold War Ostpolitik, a policy of rapprochement with Russia put in place by the Social Democratic government at the end of the 1960s, amid fears of nuclear war. Though West Germany then maintained a robust military to deter a Soviet invasion, West German leaders came to believe that economic interdependence was crucial to preventing an apocalypse. In a now-familiar pattern, pipelines were built to bring Soviet natural gas to Germany. Over the years, American presidents expressed concern that Germany was becoming too dependent on the Soviets and providing revenue for their military. But in Germany, Ostpolitik was seen, especially on the political left, as instrumental in ending the Cold War.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the failings of German policy became clear even to Germans: Germany’s army consisted of an aging force of about 183,000 troops. German soldiers lacked not only heavy weapons and ammunition, but also basics like protective vests, helmets and backpacks. On the day of the invasion, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais, the head of the German Army, one of three branches of the Bundeswehr, used his LinkedIn page to broadcast his frustration. “The army that I am privileged to lead is more or less bare,” Mais wrote. “This does not feel good!” In April, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who served as foreign minister under Angela Merkel and was an architect of Germany’s Russia policy, admitted to mistakes. “We held on to bridges that Russia no longer believed in and that our partners warned us about,” he told journalists in Berlin. “We failed at building a common European house that includes Russia.”

Few countries have been as fundamentally shaken by the Russian invasion as Germany. Soaring energy costs are undermining German industries. Wandel durch Handel has been discredited, calling into question not only Germany’s past Russia policy but also its current relationship with an autocratic China — Germany’s largest trading partner — at a time when President Xi Jinping is consolidating power and China is building up its armed forces and threatening military action against Taiwan. Germany’s leaders are now frantically seeking new energy sources and arguing for the necessity of hard power.

As part of his Zeitenwende speech, Scholz vowed to meet the NATO defense-spending target “from now on,” though his government has since been noncommittal about when that might happen. In part, this is because of the entrenched bureaucracy that makes the process of spending money on arms glacially slow. Should German leaders deliver on their promises, Germany would become the third- or fourth-biggest military spender in the world. Before the war, such an increase would have been highly unpopular. But in a poll conducted for German public television soon after the invasion, 69 percent of Germans supported it.

One day in June, I spoke with Germany’s top-ranking military general, Chief of Defense Eberhard Zorn, at the defense ministry in Berlin. Military leaders in the United States often project a certain swagger, with generals assigned nicknames like Mad Dog or Stormin’ Norman. That’s not so much the case in Germany’s Bundeswehr. Wearing thin-framed glasses and short-sleeved service shirt, Zorn had the manner of a friendly corporate manager. In a conference room with a map of Ukraine stuck to the wall above the copier, I asked him if he believed Germans were embracing the idea that the country needs a capable military.

“I think it’s coming back now,” he told me. “Even parties that were not necessarily always behind the Bundeswehr per se, even there, realpolitik is now on the table, where people say, ‘We need the armed forces.’”

Much of the current period reminded him of his service during the Cold War, he said, particularly during the early 1980s, when the arms race was heating up and the threat of nuclear war still loomed. The questions in the population are similar, Zorn told me. “What’s the threat situation?” he said. “And what happens if deterrence doesn’t work?” He went on: “All of that is coming back again.”

The “Day of the Bundeswehr” is a bit like the German military’s Woodstock. Billed as a “look behind the scenes,” it was founded in 2015 to sell the idea of the military to the German people and, though not explicitly, to win new recruits. Germany’s defense ministry has plans to expand its force by roughly 20,000 soldiers. That will be difficult. In 2021, 17.5 percent of military posts above the level of enlisted ranks were vacant. The previous year, fewer than half of the 220 posts for jet pilots in the Air Force, were occupied. Conscription in Germany, a relic of the Cold War, was suspended in 2011, so the Bundeswehr has little choice but to make military service seem exciting.

Bundeswehr Day drew families with their children, but the German military has had a hard time filling open positions in its ranks.Credit…Ingmar Björn Nolting for The New York Times

This year, the event occurred on a nearly cloudless Saturday in June in Warendorf, a town in western Germany. When I arrived, a rock band in military uniform was playing a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” before a sparse crowd. “We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control,” droned the singer with a slight German accent. Beyond the stage, there was an array of German military equipment: an armored infantry fighting vehicle, an armored reconnaissance vehicle, decontamination equipment. Above it all fluttered Germany’s tricolor flag with the federal coat of arms — a black, open-winged eagle.

I walked over to a tent belonging to the Zentrum Innere Führung, a civic-education center in the Bundeswehr that teaches soldiers the concept of “inner leadership.” That concept, which dates to the founding of the Bundeswehr, is the ethical bedrock of today’s force: Soldiers should be led not by a Führer, but by their own moral compass; they can refuse orders that violate higher principles. Though the concept was intended to mark a clear break with the Nazi past, the men who conceived it served in the Wehrmacht. Many went on to perpetuate the myth of a “clean Wehrmacht” — the false narrative that the force was innocent of Nazi crimes — that held sway through much of the 20th century and is sustained today by the radical right.

In the tent, a soldier in fatigues posed a series of questions about “inner leadership” to a group of civilians, who tapped answers into their phones and then watched the results on a screen. “Which of the following terms represents not a universal value, but a virtue?” the soldier asked. A boy in a camouflage cap looked up at his mother, who was struggling to choose among the options: Bravery, freedom, human dignity and peace. Of the participants, 67 percent chose “human dignity,” which was wrong. The correct answer was “bravery.” Participants received Bundeswehr tote bags and other swag.

Sitting outside the tent under a canopy, I found Maj. Gen. André Bodemann, who was the commander of the Zentrum Innere Führung. As the band played Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Bodemann told me that the purpose of the center is to inculcate soldiers with values rooted in Germany’s democratic society. “In the end, soldiers risk their own lives, or the lives of others, or have to kill,” Bodemann told me. “They have to know what they’re doing it for.”

Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. During 2021, 1,452 cases of suspected extremism were investigated in the Bundeswehr, a vast majority of a right-wing variety. In one case, several soldiers in one platoon of a mechanized infantry-training battalion that was part of a German-led NATO battle group in Lithuania sang a happy birthday song for Adolf Hitler. When this and other incidents were investigated, one soldier posted a photo of a Wehrmacht soldier on social media with a finger over his mouth and the caption: “Silence!!! = don’t blab! The enemy is listening!” The Bundeswehr’s leaders have said that they have a zero-tolerance policy for extremism and that these cases don’t represent a systemic problem within the ranks. But for the Bundeswehr, they are a profound existential threat, undermining the idea that the modern military represents a clean break from the Nazi past.

Meister (far right) at training for the reserves.Credit…Ingmar Björn Nolting for The New York Times

Germany is, of course, far from the only nation to attract extremists to its military. But in a country so averse to any semblance of militarism, it is perhaps not surprising that some of those drawn to combat would have views out of sync with the mainstream. This was certainly the case inside one company in Germany’s elite commando force, the K.S.K. In 2020, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then the defense minister, disbanded the company following a series of right-wing extremist incidents, including one in which soldiers were accused of giving each other Hitler salutes at a party. The K.S.K. was then put through a series of reforms, and K.S.K. commandos were required to take courses at the Zentrum Innere Führung on subjects like “character development” and “loyalty to the constitution.”

In December, the K.S.K. again came under scrutiny when police searched a K.S.K. barracks and detained a master sergeant working in logistics who is suspected of taking part in the alleged coup planned by an organization affiliated with Citizens of the Reich. German media reported that two other soldiers previously associated with the K.S.K., including an ex-colonel, were also part of the “military branch” of the organization.

The plotters with known K.S.K. connections were in their 50s and 60s, according to German media reports, and German officials say they don’t reflect the future of the force or the effectiveness of current reforms. But the scandals haven’t helped with recruitment of new commandos. Many K.S.K. posts are currently unfilled, according to a confidential defense-ministry document obtained by the German media in June. The force is of course keen to change this. Shortly after I spoke to Bodemann, a uniformed M.C. took the stage and played a short video on the K.S.K. As soaring music played, soldiers in tactical gear pointed guns at the camera, ran through woodlands and trudged through snow-covered hills.

“Well, there’s something to talk about,” the M.C. said when the video ended. He then introduced a K.S.K. soldier of two-decades named Andi, a wiry man in fatigues who told the crowd that he was responsible for “personnel regeneration.” Andi gave a short sales pitch that excluded any mention of the force’s recent troubles: “We travel all over the world, to the Arizona desert for parachuting, to the Arctic, training in all these vehicles with these special features. You can see them at our tent.”

After Andi spoke, people gathered to hear Lambrecht, Germany’s defense minister, say a few words. She took the stage to a smattering of applause and praised the soldiers’ “creativity” in dealing, in recent years, with “tight financial margins.” The last few months had provided a “painful lesson,” she said. “If we want to continue to live in this free and secure situation, we must also be prepared to militarily defend these values that we stand for.”

Six months later, on Jan. 16, Lambrecht resigned. She had come under fierce criticism from Germany’s conservative opposition for failing to bolster Germany’s military fast enough and for a series of embarrassing public missteps. Early in her tenure, Lambrecht, just weeks before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, announced that Germany would send Ukrainians 5,000 helmets. “It’s a clear signal: We are on your side,” she said. She was widely derided. Speaking to the German tabloid Bild, the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, called the contribution an “absolute joke.” The day after Lambrecht’s resignation, Scholz announced that Boris Pistorius, a Social Democratic politician who served as the interior minister of Lower Saxony but who has little foreign-policy experience, would be the new defense minister.

I made my way around the exhibits. Near one called Life in the Field, amid tents and faux campfires, a soldier slung a helmet and a bulletproof vest over the small frame of a young boy dressed in military fatigues. The boy’s father snapped photos. “I’m more of a pacifist,” he told me when I caught up with him. The man, Frank, who preferred not to give his full name to protect his son’s privacy, told me that his son, a 7-year-old named Samuel, went through role-playing phases. Samuel, his father said, had been particularly affected by the invasion of Ukraine because they had family friends who were Ukrainian. Frank thought this might have created a certain psychological need “to be strong.”

I met several parents dragged to the event by their children, who wanted to look at the equipment. Recruiters also gave guided tours to young people interested in applying to join the force, an event referred to as Talent Scout and billed as an “exclusive V.I.P.-experience.” Teenagers I spoke to had seen Bundeswehr videos on TikTok or followed the Bundeswehr’s YouTube channel, where the often-humdrum life of a soldier is made to seem maximally cool.

One such prospective soldier was Leonardo Preuss, an amiable kid one week from his 15th birthday. Slung over his shoulder was a drawstring Bundeswehr backpack filled with military swag and emblazoned with the phrase “On the Way to My Strengths.” Preuss told me he aspired to be a K.S.K. soldier and was excited to visit the K.S.K. tent. I asked Preuss what his friends made of his ambition. “At school, it’s not like kids are saying: ‘Oh, he wants to join the Bundeswehr. He’s not really my type.’ Rather, you hear, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’”

I asked him if he knew about the right-wing extremist scandals in the K.S.K. He recalled hearing something, but this didn’t deter him. “I won’t become a right-wing extremist or anything like that,” he said. “I think Hitler sucks. I say it like it is.”

Before Preuss left, he showed me a poster he received from the K.S.K. tent. It featured an image of soldiers just dropped from a helicopter, with the K.S.K. motto: “Der Wille Entscheidet,” or “The Will Decides.”

“It’s definitely going above my bed,” he said.

Leftist groups protested proposed increases in military spending in Düsseldorf on Sept. 1. Many members of the Green party, however, which had roots in the Cold War peace-and-disarmament movement and is now part of the governing coalition, are among the most vocal supporters of sending arms to Ukraine. Credit…Ingmar Björn Nolting for The New York Times

In Germany, and Europe generally, resistance to new get-tough-on-Russia policies is particularly evident on the political fringes, where elements of anti-U.S., anti-NATO and pro-Russia sentiment prevail. Members of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or A.f.D., have long advocated for a stronger military, but their sympathy for Putin — the man right-wing radicals across the globe regard as the keeper of traditional values in the face of decadent liberalism — means they don’t want to use the military to antagonize the Kremlin. The far left, on the other hand, is against militarization and favors diverting defense spending toward social spending. Yet its historic affinity with Russia and its abhorrence of perceived American imperialism means the far left has sometimes seemed to make Putin’s points for him.

This dynamic was on display on a July afternoon in Berlin, when hundreds of people, many belonging to far-left parties and pacifist groups, assembled on Bebelplatz, a square in the center of Berlin that was the site of one of the first mass book burnings of the Nazi era. Many in the crowd waved socialist-red flags — some adorned with a hammer and sickle. A small band led by an older man in red pants played a German-language version of an antifascist Woody Guthrie song composed in 1942. “All you fascists bound to lose!” the man sang. One woman in the crowd had draped herself with a rainbow flag that said “No to NATO.” She told me she was a member of the German Communist Party, a marginal faction that Germany’s domestic intelligence deems extremist. She gave me a quick revisionist history lesson about the West’s post-Cold War relations with Russia before concluding, “The U.S.A. is the main aggressor.” As if on cue, the curly-haired, bespectacled chairman of her party, Patrik Köbele, appeared on a makeshift stage to denounce Germany’s military plans and NATO’s “aggressive war alliance of imperialism.” He then declared: “Away with the armament program and great-power ambitions of Germany!”

Not everyone at the protest, however, seemed to be an acolyte of the hard left. One group with no overt party affiliation simply carried a banner that said “Friendship!” in Russian. One woman in the group told me she didn’t want to share her views with a member of the press because she would most likely be depicted as a “Nazi.” Members of a leftist organization later reported abandoning the demonstration after confronting what they called groups with right-wing and conspiratorial views. This would not be surprising in such a setting. Extremists on both ends of the political spectrum embrace conspiracy theories that act as a kind of ideological glue. The German far right has been trying to exploit this crossover, hoping to form a Querfront, or lateral front, to recruit new members. The political extremes are also targets of Russian disinformation. A Reuters investigation published in January found pro-Putin operatives operating inside far-right and fringe groups in an effort to spread Kremlin narratives.

As the demonstrators took off for a march toward the Brandenburg Gate, a disconcerting scene unfolded in front of the Russian Embassy, where a small group had assembled to protest the invasion of Ukraine.

“Heavy weapons for Ukraine!” one of the protesters, a woman draped in the Ukrainian national flag, shouted in the direction of the anti-armament demonstrators.

“Build peace without weapons!” some of the anti-armament demonstrators chanted in return. Heated arguments broke out. The police, who had anticipated the conflict, stood between the factions.

One Ukrainian protester, a 39-year-old yoga instructor named Yuliya Stepanchenko, was completely befuddled by the German demonstrators. She told me that the eastern Ukrainian town she grew up in was occupied by Russian soldiers at the beginning of the invasion. “They say make friendship with people that come to kill you,” she added, her voice breaking with emotion. “I don’t know what’s in their heads. Just saying ‘peace’ doesn’t solve problems.”

Many Germans, not just dedicated pacifists, remain unaware of how frustrated many Ukrainians are with German policies, and how much they perceive those policies as having enabled the current invasion. Germany’s government has tried to make amends by sending weapons to Ukraine, breaking with a past practice of not delivering arms to conflict zones. Earlier this month, Germany pledged 40 infantry fighting vehicles and a Patriot missile battery that will bolster Ukrainian air defenses. But Ukrainians remain dissatisfied with the pace and extent of German weapons deliveries. Mostly, the Ukrainians want Germany to deliver German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks that could be decisive on the battlefield — or at least to allow other countries to do so. Leaders of several European governments say they are willing to send their own Leopard 2 tanks, but because of re-export rules, they need Germany’s approval. In mid-January, German officials said they would not give that approval unless the United States also agreed to send American-made tanks, but no deal had been reached.

There remains widespread reluctance in Germany to the country’s assuming a greater role in Europe’s defense. In a survey conducted for the Körber Foundation in August, 52 percent of Germans said the country should continue practicing restraint in international crises, and 68 percent rejected the notion that Germany should become a leading military power in Europe. There’s also a reflexive aversion among many Germans to the idea of German tanks being used against Russians given that Nazi Germany unleashed unfathomable suffering when it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. By contrast, fewer Germans understand the scale of suffering Ukrainians endured during the Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine — or the degree to which its conquest and colonization was central to Hitler’s war aims. About 6.5 million people in Ukraine were murdered or died as a result of German “killing policies” or as a direct or indirect consequence of the war, according to the historian Timothy Snyder.

To an extent, pacifism has served as a kind of balm for many Germans, who, given the extent of German crimes under Nazism, see no other moral way forward. But much debate — on the political left, but also within various social institutions — now centers on whether the correct moral stance is to abandon that pacifist tradition.

At the end of April, a group of 28 well-known intellectuals and artists published an open letter to the German chancellor asking him to refrain from sending heavy weapons to Ukraine to prevent drawing Germany into a “world war” and to limit the “human suffering” of the Ukrainians. “Even justified resistance to an aggressor can at some point become unbearably disproportionate,” the letter said. “The escalating arms buildup taking place under pressure could be the beginning of a global arms spiral with catastrophic consequences.” All this, the letter went on, should be considered in view of Germany’s “historical responsibility.”

The letter was widely criticized, including by members of the Green party, which has roots in Germany’s Cold War peace-and-disarmament movements but whose leaders are now among the most vocal supporters of sending arms to Ukraine. “A foreign policy guided by human rights should constantly ask itself how we can help liberate even more villages and thus save lives through further deliveries,” Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister and a prominent Green party politician, told The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in September.

At the same time, it’s hard to deny that a global arms spiral, accelerated by the Russian invasion, is already happening. Global military spending is now at an all-time high and rising. Japan, seeing threats from North Korea and China, is abandoning its postwar pacifism, vowing to double its military spending. That both Germany and Japan — two former World War II axis powers — are now remilitarizing illustrates the degree to which the world may be reverting to great-power rivalry, with unpredictable consequences.

Soldiers during a military exercise south of Hamburg.Credit…Ingmar Björn Nolting for The New York Times

One of Germany’s main military training areas sits on a vast expanse of heath and woodlands south of Hamburg. One morning in September, I stood atop a concrete bunker and looked out over a sandy, shrub-covered plain. The groan of several approaching tanks, which had started their advance about 3,000 yards to the east, was growing louder. I scanned the landscape but still couldn’t see the tanks, which made the sound of their roaring engines more menacing. To the west, a few tanks lay hidden. The goal of the attacking tanks was to eliminate them.

Finally, several of the most advanced battle tanks in Germany’s arsenal — the Leopard 2 A7V — emerged from the tree line into the open. Emblazoned with the Iron Cross, the 64-ton vehicles kicked up clouds of dust as they roared past the bunker and disappeared into a recess, which was strewn with nonworking anti-tank mines. The clamor of a tank battle commenced. But, really, it was more a game of laser tag — a simulation involving blanks. As the defenders mounted a counterattack from their northern flank, the attacking tanks went into reverse, setting off smoke grenades to obscure their hasty retreat. The tanks that were hit flashed a white light to indicate they were disabled. The battle was over in about 10 minutes.

Trainers for each group of tanks assembled to meet with the captain overseeing the exercise. One trainer was particularly disappointed. His group had lost three of its tanks. “It’s not about winning or losing,” the captain admonished him. It was about the men knowing “how to respond in certain situations.”

The tank operators were part of Germany’s 393rd tank battalion, based in the eastern state Thuringia. They were training to take part in NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force — a rotating, multinational force which must be able to deploy within a few days. Conceived in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, it is considered the “spearhead” of the larger NATO Response Force, and has a rotating leadership. This year, German forces are in charge. Soon, there will be additional forces at the ready. In June, NATO heads of state met in Madrid and agreed to a large increase in the NATO Response Force, to around 300,000 from 40,000. Germany’s defense ministry said it would make available a division of up to 15,000 soldiers, along with some 65 aircraft and 20 ships.

Taking on these NATO roles is a challenge for German forces. In the past, Germany has had difficulty scraping together the equipment and weapons it needs to take part in NATO missions. In the event of actual war, military experts say, Germany has enough munitions for maybe two days of fighting. In December, all 18 armored infantry vehicles involved in a live fire exercise broke down, casting doubt on the “very high readiness” of the infantry forces using them. The vehicles, called Pumas, were supposed to be state-of-the-art. Germany, according to the defense ministry, will instead have to rely on older vehicles used during the Cold War. In January, German public television reported that military leaders in a confidential paper assessed the operational readiness of their “spearhead” forces as limited because of deficits in air defenses and communications technology.

There’s also an issue of basic fighting knowledge. Germany’s military hasn’t done a great deal of training in this kind of conventional warfare — defense of a large swath of territory — since the end of the Cold War. Or at least not on this scale. “A lot of practical knowledge had been lost,” Capt. Renzo Di Leo, a public-affairs officer, told me after the tank exercise. “Now we have to go back and look at some of the old manuals.”

There were many more exercises that day. In a nearby pine forest that afternoon, a series of Pumas sped down a dirt road carrying members of Germany’s 112th Mechanized Infantry Battalion. The 112 is in many ways a carry-over of the Cold War. It has been stationed near the Czech border, close to the former frontier with the Soviet Bloc, since 1960. Now, its soldiers were also preparing to take part in NATO’s high-readiness force. Their goal on this day was to take control of an intersection strewn with fake mines and defended by an enemy platoon.

The Pumas halted, and troops with green-painted faces emerged from the vehicles carrying rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They quickly scattered into the forest. As they moved toward the enemy, an intense firefight began, albeit with blanks. Shouts of “enemy shooter destroyed!” rang out as the soldiers pressed closer to their target. Moments of confusion approximated the fog of war. “We’re too deep into the wilderness!” shouted the deputy platoon leader, ordering his troops to cut right through the woods and hug the road.

After the exercise, members of a platoon, sweaty and out of breath, stood around in a semicircle to assess their performance. The platoon leader, a master sergeant named Josef — he declined to give his full name in accordance with military rules for rank-and-file soldiers — told me that some of the older soldiers had been in Afghanistan, where German troops played a “stabilization” role. But this was a much larger kind of fight.

“This is war that we’re preparing for,” he said.

James Angelos is a contributing writer based in Berlin. He last wrote about Brexit and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Ingmar Björn Nolting is a photographer based in Germany. His work focuses on issues of social, geographical and geopolitical isolation.

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