The hypocrisy of the “German history” argument
German leaders and elites have referred to the country’s Nazi past to justify its refusal to help Ukraine defend itself with arms. Ironically, that’s exposed German historical ignorance.
Only two stops from my flat in central Berlin, you’ll find Platz der Luftbrücke—a unique looking memorial to air crews who lost their lives during the Berlin Airlift. After Soviet forces attempted to annex West Berlin by blockading land routes into the city in 1948, American and British forces landed a plane into the city once a minute for eleven months. The Berlin Airlift would save two million West Berliners from starvation as allied planes flew in everything from food to toilet paper. Soviet forces eventually gave up, but over 100 people would lose their lives. The memorial thanks those “who gave their lives for Berlin’s freedom in service of the 1948/49 Airlift.”
At the time, West Germany was not yet a NATO ally. The Treaty of Rome, which first established what would eventually become the European Union, was almost a decade away. Yet the allies acted. Beyond being a logistical feat of Herculean proportions—it stands out as one of the finest moments in the history of the West.
It’s a shame we don’t discuss it more often, especially in Germany. Our strategic debates would certainly be better if we did—not just in Germany but across the West in general.
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently tweeted “Imagine, if during the Berlin blockade in 1948, Truman had said, ‘better not send any planes; Moscow might think it too provocative?’” In a Washington Post op-ed last August, he wrote: “in the global struggle between democracy and dictatorship, and the fight for a peaceful Europe, Ukraine is on the front lines – not unlike West Germany during the Cold War.”
Yet so many Germans—and certainly a hefty chunk of the country’s elites in government, media, and business simply do not see it this way. Domestically, the country’s Nazi past is seen as a warning against anything that could be interpreted as “warmongering” or escalation in general. This is most strongly seen in anything that might resemble any sort of militarization. Even Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a hawkish Green that regularly advocates for a tougher German stance on authoritarians like Russia and China, denied a Ukrainian request for defensive weapons with “our restrictive arms export policy is based on our history.”
The idea that a strong stance might deter an aggressor—or that a weak one could incentivize that aggressor to see how far it could go—simply doesn’t have the same presence in German strategic debates as it does in American or British ones. Even ruling out arms transfers, too many Germans seem unwilling to get tough on Russia—even as an invasion of Ukraine currently seems all but imminent. 65 percent of respondents in one recent poll said Germany and European states should take a bigger role in “mediating” between Russia and Ukraine. But what consequences do they think a Russia with a past of repeatedly invading its neighbours face as it once again masses troops on the Ukrainian border? Only 47 percent are for harsher sanctions, compared to a sizeable minority of 41 percent who—even now—oppose tighter measures. 60 percent of Germans polled still want the controversial Nord Stream II pipeline to go ahead.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats isn’t ruling out tougher sanctions, but says that Germany would have to take into account the consequences those sanctions would also have “for us.” Markus Söder, Leader of the conservative Bavarian CSU told the FAZ newspaper that Russia needed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but ruled out tougher sanctions that might actually deter Putin from seeing how far he can go. His opposition partner, Christian Democrat Leader Friedrich Merz, called for Germany to not block weapons transfers to Ukraine due to German “historical responsibility.” But Söder’s intervention only days before continues to highlight the divide between Russia hawks and doves, even among German conservatives.
Precisely because Germany is so reluctant to use—or even discuss—using force to deter aggressive actors, its geopolitical and geoeconomic tools become more important when considering how it responds to authoritarians who jeopardize peace and security. Yet the country’s short-term commercial considerations—such as the Nord Stream II pipeline lambasted by so many of its allies—blunt its incentives to act, a fact Chancellor Scholz publicly acknowledged.
Many German elites are convinced of the importance of constant dialogue for peace and “Wandel durch Handel,” or “change through trade,” a theory that holds that trade and regular exchange with authoritarian regimes can gradually democratize the world through contact with democratic German, European, or Western values.
But what if “Wandel durch Handel” actually worked the other way around? Instead of us in Germany slowly changing the authoritarian world to share our values—what if the authoritarian world has changed us? What if easy authoritarian money has made us increasingly unwilling to stand up for the values we convince ourselves we are trying to promote—values we like to think are, again, based on our history?
China is now Germany’s main trading partner, with the US in third place. The Merkel administration pushed hard for trade deal between the EU and China—a country currently detaining the Uyghur minority in camps and committing practices like forced labour, sterilization, and abortions—during the most recent German EU presidency. This is, of course, despite Germany’s own history rather infamously featuring a regime that detained Jews, homosexuals, and other “asocials” in camps before either murdering them outright or working them to death.
And while German trade with Russia has declined since 2014’s Crimea annexation, Germany’s shutdown of its nuclear power plants risks leaving it particularly dependent on Russian gas for years to come. What if we’ve now become a nation of Neville Chamberlains—the British Prime Minister who pursued a policy of appeasing Hitler? Are we so keen to avoid any responsibility a country as economically powerful and geopolitically well-positioned as ours might have that we will repeatedly appease the Russian bear as it eats into its neighbours, hoping that maybe one day it will finally feel full?
If that’s what our foreign policy has come to, then we clearly don’t understand the lessons our history should have taught us—despite how often we bring the topic up.
Germany’s response so far to recent Russian aggression has made the need for a proper national strategic debate rather obvious. But so too has it exposed the need for us to have a new discussion about what responsibilities we have based on our history. There’s few better places to start that reflection than with a stop to Platz der Luftbrücke.