Germany’s year-old Zeitenwende remains a nervous work-in-progress

Many politicians and defence analysts suggest the Zeitenwende doctrine has yet to land – politically or emotionally

Exactly one year ago, an ashen-faced Olaf Scholz announced a seismic shift in post-war German politics.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was in its third day and, in an emergency Bundestag sitting, the chancellor said nothing would ever be the same again: not for Europe and not for Germany. The return of war to Europe was watershed and required a new doctrine: the Zeitenwende. By the time he had finished his address, Germany’s post-war order was turned on its head. Berlin would supply Ukraine with arms – shattering a post-war taboo – and Germany would “invest significantly more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and democracy”.

Announcing a one-off €100 billion special defence fund and promising to double annual defence spending to the Nato minimum, he added: “This is a great national effort. The goal is a powerful, state-of-the-art, advanced Bundeswehr that reliably protects us.”

One year later, how are things going with the Zeitenwende? There is a clear effort to accentuate the positive, and highlight the low base from which things started a year ago.


“The Bundeswehr is pretty much stripped bare,” said Leut Gen Alfons Mais, chief military inspector, last February.

A year on, complicated procurement procedures mean that just €8 billion will be drawn down this year from the €100 billion – and for smaller spending on new guns, digital communication systems, protective vests and helmets.

Meanwhile, handing over key Bundeswehr equipment to Ukraine – ammunition, missiles, air defence and other weapons systems – means, according to Leut Gen Mais, “the Bundeswehr is even more bare than before”.

After months of emotional debate, Germany agreed this month to hand over to Ukraine 18 Leopards – four more than initially promised – and 40 Marder armoured troop transporters.

Inspecting the tanks last week in Lower Saxony, defence minister Boris Pistorius told watching army officials: “I know how painful it is for you to hand these over.”

No one contradicted him. Nor did anyone ask why he has yet to even begin the process of ordering replacements.

At €19 million per vehicle – and with an order list that is growing by the day – German’s Leopard 2 manufacturers say they remain puzzled by Berlin’s year-old Zeitenwende.

“Since then we have had various discussions on programmes but no concrete orders that could be attributed to the Zeitenwende,” said Mr Ralf Ketzel, chief executive of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, manufacturer of the Leopard 2 weapon systems. “I’m not frustrated but it is not a good signal to the Bundeswehr nor to our allies.”

Over at Renk, which builds the Leopard 2 gear transmission, chief executive Susanne Wiegand sees more talk than action in Germany on defence: “By now I am asking myself: what else has to happen?”

No one expected Germany could reverse overnight the legacy of the post-Cold War era. In a world where security risks resided far from Europe, benign neglect saw the Bundeswehr enter a slow decline. Compounding the slide: Merkel-era decisions to abolish compulsory military service and cut one-third from the military budget.

There was little sustained public protest, even when the cuts became visible in reports about non-flying German military helicopters and navy ships in permanent dry dock. Germany, it seemed, had the military it wanted.

A year after Olaf Scholz flicked the Zeitenwende switch, many politicians and defence analysts suggest the Zeitenwende doctrine has yet to land – politically or emotionally.

The headline-grabbing €100 billion special defence fund, to reverse years of underinvestment, has an expected life of 10 years. Strip out interest, inflation and other costs, however, and the real spend is likely to be closer to €65 billion.

Beyond that one-off fund, meanwhile, few expect Germany to meet anytime soon its 2 per cent Nato spending commitment in its regular defence budget.

A 2 per cent Nato minimum would require Germany to spend €85 billion on defence. While annually German defence spending has jumped two-thirds in the last decade to €50 billion, the 2023 defence budget actually dropped in real terms compared to the year before. Even maintaining last year’s spending is not a given in the 2024 budget, currently under negotiation in Berlin, with the SPD-lead coalition divided over spending more on security or child welfare.

Even if the €50 billion defence budget is maintained next year, 40 per cent disappears on personnel costs and another 40 per cent on repairing existing equipment with just one-fifth on procurement. For 2023 the total spending pencilled in for new equipment – from the special fund and the regular defence budget – is about €20 billion.

“That’s not a lot,” admits Dr Thorsten Rudolph, SPD head of the powerful Bundestag budget committee.

Beyond big ticket purchases like tanks and planes, other unresolved issues remain in the Zeitenwende transition.

One urgent gap is depleted ammunition stocks, due to years-old procurement stops and handovers of reserves to Ukraine. Depending on calculations, Germany has enough munition to defend itself from attack for a maximum of two days.

Meanwhile, the shift to a professional army a decade ago can still be felt, with gaps in the Bundeswehr ranks and a growing challenge to find 20,000 people annually to replace retiring staff.

After contributing arms worth €2.6 billion to Ukraine in the past year, the Zeitenwende remains divisive with some 40 per cent thinking this is too much, according to a weekend survey.

Some 22 per cent consider military support to be too low, according to the same poll, while another 23 per cent think it is just right.

As for supplying Leopard 2 battle tanks: 44 per cent are opposed while 41 per think it is the right thing to do.

On Saturday tens of thousands of people braved sleety rain at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to demand Germany do more for a diplomatic solution. Hours earlier a new survey for Der Spiegel found that 63 per cent of Germans agreed that Berlin should be more committed to peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Germany’s Zeitenwende response to the Ukraine war is a profound shift and a work-in-progress but, a year on, old pacifist roots are deep even if the path to peace in Ukraine remains elusive.

“For 70 years Germans have been conditioned to think that spending on defence is a bad thing,” said one arms company executive who asked not to be named. “The Zeitenwende was announced three days after the invasion but the mentality shift here will take much longer.”