Zeitenwende: Scholz Turns Back Time to Make Room for Action on Ukraine

16 May 2022, 1039 EDT

On February 24, just hours after Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock tweeted a simple message: “Today we are waking up in a different Europe. In a different world.” Three days later, the same could be said for waking up in a different Germany. For 70 years, Germany maintained an explicit and unyielding policy of not shipping weapons to conflict areas. This position was reversed with a single speech by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Bundestag. 

Amongst policy circles in Germany, Scholz’s February 27th speech is dubbed a Zeitenwende.” The English translation (“watershed moment”) fails to capture the depth of the word – it literally translates to a turnaround of time, a new era for Germany. Yet, it also comes just months after another major shift in German foreign policy in the form of a new left-of-center government even less inclined to increase military spending. 

The war in Syria, the 2011 Libya intervention, the 2014 invasion in Ukraine – all represented moments in which Germany faced calls to intervene in crises in the European neighborhood but chose not to. So why now? Are we looking at the culmination of a slow burn that began under Angela Merkel. Or was there something different about Russia’s invasion that triggered change in a way that past crises could not? And can the German government justify change in a way that will make it stick?

The answer to all of these questions stems from a basic fact: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended Germany’s own ontological security. 

Ukrainian Invasion: An Ontological Security Crisis for Germany? 

Ontological security scholars recognize that sometimes securing a sense of self is more important than securing the physical body. For a state, this sense of self is propped up through routinized inter-state relationships, securing elements of national identity, and an effort to maintain and adapt an autobiographical narrative of the state. This differs from identity, which too often is cast as a fixed entity which can be used. Ontological security is something to be sought. It is less a state of being than an achievement to work toward.

Autobiographical narrative is crucial here; it defines the state, the system, the past and the future. A strong and flexible narrative makes room for change through activation and deactivation of elements of the narrative during crises. In other words, when the story a state tells no longer fits with the reality of the world, state agents are left to creatively narrate their way out.

Germany was blindsided by the invasion, despite its self-assigned role as the EU’s interlocutor with Russia

The invasion of Ukraine represents a tangible, military threat to the EU. Yet, the first-order physical threat for Germany comes primarily from aligning with Ukraine. Cutting off Russian gas means economic hardship for average Germans; Russian cyberattacks on Germany’s weak digital infrastructure have already proved effective  Ukraine is not a member of NATO or a candidate for the EU, nor does it have a bilateral military alliance with Germany.

Despite these tangible incentives to stay out of the crisis, Germany chose to reverse course by marking a new era of military spending and deterrence policy. The invasion itself – not the buildup or the threats, or the bullying from Vladimir Putin – marked a critical situation for the German psyche. The elements that grant a state a measure of ontological security – routinized relationships, narrative coherence, and consistent self-identifications – were all challenged simultaneously. 

Germany was blindsided by the invasion, despite its self-assigned role as the EU’s interlocutor with Russia. The widespread use of allusions to WWII called forth painful elements of Germany’s history. Public debate highlighted that history. Pundits and scholars attributed Germany’s inaction with its identity, to its historic relationship with violence, and to its complex relationship with Russia.

All of this culminated in the Zeitenwende speech. Chancellor Scholz drew upon the same record to reshape the narrative of German history – not as a tool for inaction, as is so often the case in German politics, but as a tool for action. To overcome the critical situation, Scholz needed to rewrite answers to fundamental questions about Germany’s role in the world. 

Changing the Script: WWII and the Legacy of German Foreign Policy

Addressing this critical situation meant overcoming the sediment created by years of military apathy – an apathy cultivated by prominent German politicians. Chancellor Scholz needed to provide a narrative to overcome that apathy. He did so by redefining Germany’s relationship with Russia and by taking ownership of Germany’s position of power in Europe and the world. Most crucially, he needed to address the legacy of World War II, which has constrained German foreign and national-security policy since West Germany regained sovereignty in 1955.

the pervasive myth of “Peace in Europe”… gives the German government a referent object in need of protection

Chancellor Scholz picked up several historical threads to redefine the present and make room for German action. He began with WWII, historically a source of German military inaction. But he also drew out the thread of responsibility which remains a paradigm of German foreign policy. Responsibility is linked to the “Never Again” and “Never Alone” narratives, both successors of WWII. In this case, he used this framework to call for Germany to take up a new mantle of responsibility to “defend every square meter of NATO territory together with our allies.” This he framed as a choice made not in spite of history, but because of it: “we know what we stand for – not least given our own history. We stand for peace in Europe.”

Scholz also used history to defend Germany’s longstanding connection to Russia. “Reconciliation between Germans and Russians after the Second World War is – and remains – an important chapter of our shared history,” he noted. But he goes on to cleave Putin from the Russian people by highlighting those opposed to the war and celebrating their resistance. He accused Putin of rewriting history, of tearing open old wounds and of attempting to “turn back the clock” to the age of great powers. Putin, Scholz said, “wants to build a Russian empire”.

Finally, Scholz’s speech highlights the pervasive myth of “Peace in Europe” which gives the German government a referent object in need of protection. He repeated the need to “secure peace in Europe” and protect the European project. This reinforces a narrative retelling of European history which, after WWII, is prosperous, democratic, and, above all, peaceful. This is particularly jarring given that the annexation of Crimea was less than ten years ago. 

Zeitenwenden Beyond Germany

The invasion in Ukraine is not simply an ontological security crisis for Germany (or for Europe writ large). It implicates a variety of security, identity, social, and economic concerns. Still, Putin triggered ontological stress and anxiety in the whole of Europe. Russia’s invasion crossed a line that many Germans and Europeans believed inviolable, and therefore made it possible for other actors – including Germany – to take actions that no one thought possible.

Finland and Sweden are asking to join NATO. Mediterranean countries are shipping weapons to Ukraine. And Germany cast off its moral ambiguity and stepped closer to taking on a military role in Europe. Narratives competing for purchase in this conflict reflect clashing identities, alternate views of history, and a challenge to the coherent narrative, accurate or not, of peace in Europe. Whatever the outcome, these stories will be woven into the autobiography of Ukraine, of Russia, and of Europe. Time will tell whose story will win out.