Nigel Jones

    Scholz’s token military gesture won’t undo years of neglect

    Scholz’s token military gesture won't undo years of neglect
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    Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement that Germany is sending weapons and missiles to Ukraine – and is increasing its defence budget to two per cent – marks the mother of all U-turns. But it comes too late, too late for Ukraine. Years of Germany allowing its military to atrophy cannot be done overnight. Compromised by her cosy relations with the tyrant in the Kremlin, open to economic blackmail by being stretched over an oil barrel and a gas pipeline, and guilt-stricken by her Nazi past, today's Germany is in a very bad place indeed.

    Yet you might not realise it from the fawning reaction to Germany's renewed interest in militarisation. Scholz’s move has been hailed for its decisiveness and bravery, yet in reality he had little choice. Pressure from other members of the Nato alliance was mounting. This was also a shamefaced response to an outburst last week from his country’s top soldier. In one of the most extraordinary statements ever made by an army commander about his own forces. Lieutenant-General Alfons Mais, head of the German army, wrote in a LinkedIn post that the Bundeswehr was ‘standing bare’. He admitted that the options that his troops could offer politicians and Germany's allies in the current Ukraine war were ‘extremely limited’ and added for good measure that he was mightily ‘pissed off’.

    Things have clearly not improved in the past two years since the then-German defence minister, one Ursula von der Leyen, shuffled off to take up her new post as unelected president of the European Commission. She left a military made up of planes that couldn't fly and soldiers without proper kit. Vladimir Putin really must be quaking in his snowboots.

    Quite a change, then, from 22 June 1941, when 3.8 million German soldiers, with thousands of tanks and planes, crossed Russia’s and Ukraine's borders to launch Operation Barbarossa, the biggest invasion in world history, initiating the bloodiest conflict of all time. The decline of German militarism that had terrified Europe from the 18th century to the end of the Second World War is an easy concept to explain. The catastrophe of the war meant that Germans needed no persuading in turning their backs on militarism. But Germany's place as Europe's economic powerhouse without the military apparatus to back it up has become increasingly untenable as the United States looks to pull out of upholding Europe's security.

    Until Scholz’s screeching U-turn, the most military aid that Germany had offered Ukraine – a country that it once conquered and occupied so brutally – was the much derided five thousand helmets. When it came to military matters things had obviously come to a pretty pathetic pass.

    In years gone by, the motor that powered Germany from a collection of squabbling and disunited statelets into a formidable colossus was Prussia, previously an impoverished kingdom languishing in obscurity in the sands of Pomerania, that under the rule of Frederick the Great, who reigned from 1740 to 1772, rose to be a major player among Europe's great powers. In successive wars 'Old Fritz' and his Generals smashed the armies of Austria, checked those of Russia, France and Sweden, divided Poland, and, in the words of a later German statesman Friedrich von Schroetter, turned Prussia into a fully militarised state: 'not a country with an army but an army with a country'.

    Prussian patriotism turned into German nationalism during the wars with Napoleon in the early 19th century when a trio of commanders – Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and the military theorist Clausewitz – forged the armies that resisted and eventually defeated even the great Bonaparte. Fifty years later the 'Iron Chancellor', Otto von Bismarck, completed their work with successful wars of conquest against Denmark, Austria, and finally France, proclaimed a united German empire, and established Germany as Europe's predominant power.

    At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany was a fully functioning military state under the bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II. Generals literally called the shots. The political parties in the Reichstag were practically powerless. And uniformed officers were given ridiculously exaggerated respect: a phenomenon famously illustrated in 1906 when an imposter called Wilhelm Voigt dressed up as an army Captain, took over a squad of soldiers, and used them to help himself to the municipal funds of the town of Kopenick near Berlin, obediently handed over by terrified Treasury officials.

    The results of such militarism soon followed: Germany played the primary part in launching the First World War in 1914, a conflict that killed ten million, devastated Europe, and brought the Bolshevik regime to power in Russia after Germany injected Lenin into the country like a poisonous bacillus. That catastrophe was dwarfed by the horrors of the Second World War, launched by a vengeful Nazi Germany, still in thrall to its military traditions, and laced by a virulent doctrine of racial superiority that murdered millions of Jews and Slavs in Poland and the Soviet Union.

    In tandem with Barbarossa and the Holocaust, Hitler's Wehrmacht used its well-honed military skills, bolstered by modern science and technology, to conquer and occupy most of Europe in a Blitzkrieg war that left the continent in ruins for the second time in a generation. Ignoring the moral nadir represented by the Nazis, professional German Generals like Rommel, Manstein, Guderian and Kesselring were among the war's most celebrated and effective commanders. Fighting against enormous odds, such Generals, supported until the bitter end by the vast majority of Germany's people, followed Hitler into the abyss.

    The war left Germany on the floor, prostrate, in ruins, and utterly defeated. But she still retained strong cards to play in the bleak post-war world with the Cold War beginning. Occupied by the Allies, and disgraced by her criminal conduct in the war, the Federal Republic was not allowed to spend money in her own defence. Instead, she relied on the other Nato states to man the front lines dividing the democratic West from the Communist East, and was able to devote all her resources and considerable energies to rebuilding herself as Europe's foremost economic, rather than military, power.

    Nominally a Nato member, West Germany's overwhelming sense of guilt at the abominations her armies had inflicted on the world, inoculated her against her former rampant militarism. It prevented her for half a century from deploying her troops in foreign conflicts, even in peacekeeping roles. Pacifism replaced militarism as the default mode of her ruling class, especially after the leftist 'Generation of '68' came to power.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet and East German Communism, and the reunification of the country in the early 1990s turbo-charged the process of Germany detaching herself from the Atlantic Alliance, easing her into a quicksand of queasy neutrality in the gathering conflict between the West and Vladimir Putin's Russia. A key figure in this process was Gerhard Schroeder, chancellor of a newly unified Germany from 1998 to 2005 as head of a government which (then as now) consisted of a coalition between his own Social Democrats and the pacifist German Greens.

    A close personal friend of Putin, almost unbelievably Schroeder described the Russian dictator as 'a flawless democrat' during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine that overthrew Putin's puppet president, Viktor Yanukovich. One of the anti-American 68 Generation, Schroeder has been the main man responsible for transforming Germany from a stalwart pillar of the Western Alliance into its weakest sister.

    Schroeder's role in German politics has been even more crucial since he left office. When chancellor, he played a key part in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to pump gas from Putin's Russia; he now chairs the board of both Nord Stream 2 and the Russian oil company Rosneft. After Schroeder's successor as chancellor, Angela Merkel, cancelled Germany's nuclear energy programme, the country became dependent on Russia for its energy needs, and now Russian gas and oil supplies almost half of Germany's total energy consumption.

    Small wonder, then, that Germany – militarily emasculated and impotent as she is, and politically worryingly indecisive and neutralised – has until now been dragging its feet in imposing meaningful sanctions on Russia. The result is that Germany has been left 'standing bare'. It will take more than a token arms shipment and an uptick in its woefully inadequate defence budget to reverse seven decades of neglect.

    Written byNigel Jones

    Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. His next book ‘Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying & Surveillance in the Third Reich’ will be published by Bonnier next year.

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