Guest contribution by Sönke Neitzel – Promised, fizzled out? Behind Scholz’s turning point is a bitter realization

Guest contribution by Sönke Neitzel: Promised, fizzled out? Behind Scholz’s turning point is a bitter realization

Chancellor Scholz proclaimed the “turn of the era” in February. However, nothing has come to light of popping champagne corks in the corridors of the Federal Ministry of Defense or on the boardrooms of the armaments industry. There is a bitter realization behind it.

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Since 1977, the Society for the German Language has regularly determined the word of the year. This year, the choice shouldn’t be difficult: It can only really be “turn of the era”.

Since the Chancellor’s speech on February 27, 2022, the Republic has been talking about what this term actually means and whether the turning point can succeed. In a way, the debate revolves around which punctuation mark follows the big word: a question mark or an exclamation mark.

Olaf Scholz is in the word nationally and internationally with the “Zeitenwende”.

The answer to this question depends on which dimensions of the term you focus on. From my point of view, the core issue is the creation of powerful armed forces for national and alliance defense as well as the political and social will to use them in extreme emergencies. To do this, public discourse and political action must change fundamentally compared to the time before February 24th.

Success, or to put it more precisely, the public perception of success, is of great importance to the coalition. Olaf Scholz is in the word nationally and internationally with the “Zeitenwende”. The question of which of the punctuation marks follows is therefore of high political relevance.

Where are we on the way to implementation? This question is answered quite differently. The optimists include the defense minister, her state secretaries and many senior generals and top officials in the BMVg in salary brackets B 9 and higher. On the levels below, but also in many armaments companies and among most of the specialist journalists in the big newspapers, there is more doubt, with irony, sarcasm and despair also being encountered.

About our writers

Sonke Neitzel has been a professor of military and cultural history of violence at the University of Potsdam since 2015. Before that, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the London School of Economics, among others. Bastian Matteo Scianna is a research associate at the University of Potsdam and co-author of “Bloody Abstention. Germany’s Role in the Syrian War”.

Arguments can be found for both views. There is no doubt that a great deal has been achieved so far: in the public discourse on the military, bans on thinking have been lifted and there are remarkable things to be heard in the political semantics. Olaf Scholz and Annalena Baerbock said that Germany would defend every square centimeter of alliance territory. The Bundeswehr is at an all-time approval high. The 100 billion special fund, the promise of permanent investment of 2 percent of GDP in defense.

Nothing is known of champagne corks popping in the corridors of the Federal Ministry of Defense or the boardrooms of the armaments industry

Added to this is the delivery of heavy weapons to a war zone, the training of Ukrainian soldiers and the close cooperation between the German and Ukrainian intelligence services. These are all significant achievements that no one would have believed possible before February 24th.

One might think that in view of such advances in the security policy scene, champagne corks will pop. When should the so often demanded and promised reorganization of the Bundeswehr succeed if not now?

However, nothing has been reported of popping champagne corks in the corridors of the Federal Ministry of Defense or the boardrooms of the armaments industry. The magnitude of the challenge is clear to all: nothing less than the rebirth of the armed forces is at stake.

As a reminder: in 2001, the Federal Republic of Germany secretly gave up national and alliance defense and in the following years geared itself entirely to foreign missions, which were to be carried out without direct German involvement in combat missions as far as possible. This reorientation was completed with the structural reforms of 2012, at a time when NATO was already switching back to alliance defence.

In fact, no state secretary can now shrug his shoulders when ammunition and equipment are missing

2014 showed how short-sighted the concentration on foreign missions was. When Putin annexed Crimea and grabbed the Donbas, the Bundeswehr stood there naked. A rethink followed on paper. The Bundeswehr’s white paper, capability profile and concept were adjusted in 2016/18. All these plans were well and good, but there was a lack of political will to implement them.

So now a renewed attempt with a new government. And above all: with a new frame of reference. Unlike in the past, it can no longer be ruled out that Bundeswehr soldiers will have to fight as part of the alliance’s defense. This puts pressure on politicians like it hasn’t been since the days of the Cold War. In fact, no state secretary can now shrug his shoulders when ammunition and equipment are missing.

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However, the decisive question is whether the shock effect of the war in Ukraine is sufficient for the rebirth of the armed forces, or whether the pressure in political and bureaucratic structures fizzles out. Behind the scenes, culprits are already being identified. The equipment office is a bureaucracy moloch, the industry doesn’t deliver what it promises, the Federal Ministry of Defense doesn’t decide, and some members of the Bundestag are only lobbyists for their region and not for the interests of the country.

Such accusations are not new, nor are they unfounded. But assigning blame doesn’t get you anywhere. Many actors are part of the problem.

The decisive impetus for fundamental changes can only come from above

But what to do if things get stuck with the turn of the century? The decisive impetus for fundamental changes can only come from above. The primacy of politics applies, so that only the chancellor and his cabinet are actually able to bring the war back into the frame of reference of society, politics, industry and the armed forces as the worst-case scenario. And from this point all other conclusions derive:

  1. Only the top politicians can use clear arguments to convince society that we need operational armed forces. The federal government cannot wait for society to come to the right conclusions.
  2. A reform of the BMVg and armaments procurement is only conceivable as a cabinet project. A defense minister alone will not be able to do this, even if she had the will to do so.
  3. If you look at the European level, only the heads of state and government are able to overcome national egoism and – if this can ever be achieved – to bring the European armaments industry more closely together after decades of fruitless discussions. After all, there has recently been hopeful news about the Franco-German FCAS combat aircraft project.

Will there now be major reforms, at least at national level? The bitter realization is that the pressure of the war in Ukraine is obviously not enough.

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It’s high time to think outside of your own pay grade

Of course, the Bundeswehr cannot sit back and shift the responsibility for what is to come entirely to politics. It’s about time that the 20 to 30 most important officials and generals met in Himmerod Castle in the Eifel, just like the founding fathers of the Bundeswehr did in 1950.

There they should look deep into each other’s eyes and ask what responsibility they bear for the success of the turning point. It’s high time to think outside of your own pay grade. Without their resolute action, there will be no exclamation mark behind the word “Zeitwende”.

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