As Ukraine waits for German-built Leopard 2 tanks, which Kyiv hopes will tilt the war with Russia in its favour, Berlin is giving its allies a master class in prevarication, German-style.
“Bedenkenträgerei”, a Teutonic tradition of expressing concerns without presenting solutions or alternatives, is the bane of German work meetings. It has also clogged Berlin’s thinking and actions since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.
Whether it’s guns, ammunition, missiles or air defence equipment for Ukraine – all have required weeks and months of debate over whether Moscow will see such deliveries as Nato entering the war, potentially triggering Russia’s nuclear capability.
“I will do everything to prevent a nuclear war,” said chancellor Olaf Scholz to Der Spiegel last April. Since then, his Bedenkenträgerei has bred its own verb – “to Scholz”. In one online definition it means “communicating good intentions only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and/or prevent them from happening”.
‘If the chancellor doesn’t want to deliver battle tanks then he has to explain why to us’
Defence minister Boris Pistorius scholzed his way through a Sunday evening talkshow appearance, explaining how he had requested a full rundown on Leopard 2 tank “interoperability and readiness for deployment”.
The sceptical host suggested it was either a “tactical move to win time or, if not, it means the chancellor has been leading talks about German battle tanks without having a clear basis in facts”.
Pressed on the tank delay, Pistorius pointed to divided public opinion in Germany. (A poll last Thursday found 54 per cent in favour of tank delivers and 38 per cent opposed.) Pushed further, he conceded: “In the end, the tanks will come; the decisive question is who delivers what in what quantity.”
Despite that concession, the unresolved tank question has sparked all-out political warfare in the Berlin’s three-way coalition. The chancellor’s own Social Democratic Party (SPD) is a house divided, with Bundestag floor leader Ralf Mützenich claiming those calling for German tanks today will be “clamouring for [German] planes or troops tomorrow”.
“Politics in a time of war in Europe is not done in the style of ritualised gasps of outrage,” he said, “but with clarity and reason.”
With Scholz silent on Monday, SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil insisted the chancellor’s position had the party’s ‘full backing’
Such remarks infuriate the SPD’s junior coalition partners, the Greens and Free Democratic Party (FDP). They have consistently been ahead in demanding military equipment Berlin eventually has delivered – after months of hesitation.
“If the chancellor doesn’t want to deliver battle tanks,” said Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, FDP defence spokeswoman, “then he has to explain why to us – and to the Ukrainians, countless numbers of whom are dying every day, which is just shameful”.
When Mützenich described Strack-Zimmermann’s words as “excessive”, she hit back at her previously pro-Russian coalition colleague as “a symbol of all major German foreign policy failures”.
Green deputy floor leader Agnieszka Brugger said the SPD’s scholzing “plays into the hands of Putin the war criminal, who is planning a new terrible offensive against innocent people in Ukraine”.
Striking a proactive but conciliatory note, Germany’s Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said the government would not stand in the way of countries delivering to Ukraine their own Leopard tanks even through, according to the terms of sale, this requires explicit permission of Berlin for re-export.
“We haven’t been asked to date,” she told French broadcaster LCI.
The opposition centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – which also supports Leopard tank exports – urged the FDP and Greens to examine whether their coalition with the SPD had a future given this fundamental disagreement – or whether another alliance was needed.
Encouraging the SPD junior coalition partners to revolt, senior CDU figure Thorsten Frei added: “We are, in any case, ready to take on responsibility.”
With Scholz silent on Monday, SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil insisted the chancellor’s position had the party’s “full backing”. He was presenting a 25-page revised foreign policy paper that acknowledges Germany’s “leadership role” in Europe and promises a “common European Ostpolitik” with “all states facing the threat of an expansionist Russia”.
“Germany has a responsibility to regain lost trust,” it adds, without explaining how.
That is the final straw for historian Sönke Neitzel, who sees “too much talk, too many papers being written” in Germany.
“I can’t hear these speeches any more about Germany as a leadership power,” he said, “because nothing is happening.”