Argument

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Germany Has Never Been a Pacifist Power

Contrary to the popular historical narrative, the country has always prepared for war.

By , the research director at the Institute of International Relations Prague and a lecturer at the Prague University of Economics and Business.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets a member of the German Navy’s Special Forces while she visits the Braunschweig warship in Kiel, Germany, on Jan. 19, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets a member of the German Navy’s Special Forces while she visits the Braunschweig warship in Kiel, Germany, on Jan. 19, 2016.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets a member of the German Navy’s Special Forces while she visits the Braunschweig warship in Kiel, Germany, on Jan. 19, 2016. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz does not have a reputation as a man of big words. Yet, speaking to the German parliament on Feb. 27—just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—he broke this mold to give a speech ushering in what analysts have correctly described as an “epochal shift,” or even a “revolution,” in German foreign policy.

Scholz announced fundamental changes to Germany’s approach to military power. Berlin would now deliver arms to Ukraine, a small revolution in itself: The Scholz government had previously resisted Ukraine’s requests for support, citing a long-standing policy of not delivering weapons to conflict zones. The big revolution, though, was Scholz’s promise that the government would finally meet its NATO obligations and start spending at least 2 percent of the country’s GDP on defense. As a part of this commitment, Scholz created a special fund of $113 billion to upgrade Germany’s cash-strapped army, the Bundeswehr—the announcement of which supposedly stunned even senior cabinet members.

Soon after Scholz’s speech, international pundits rushed to argue that Germans had “turn[ed] their backs on pacifism,” portraying the country as having been “[s]hocked out of its post-World War II pacifist zeitgeist” by Russia’s invasion and shedding pacifism as the “underlying doctrine” of its foreign policy. Some German voices joined in, proclaiming the awakening of “Europe’s pacifist giant” and lamenting the “pacifist mistakes” of the past.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz does not have a reputation as a man of big words. Yet, speaking to the German parliament on Feb. 27—just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—he broke this mold to give a speech ushering in what analysts have correctly described as an “epochal shift,” or even a “revolution,” in German foreign policy.

Scholz announced fundamental changes to Germany’s approach to military power. Berlin would now deliver arms to Ukraine, a small revolution in itself: The Scholz government had previously resisted Ukraine’s requests for support, citing a long-standing policy of not delivering weapons to conflict zones. The big revolution, though, was Scholz’s promise that the government would finally meet its NATO obligations and start spending at least 2 percent of the country’s GDP on defense. As a part of this commitment, Scholz created a special fund of $113 billion to upgrade Germany’s cash-strapped army, the Bundeswehr—the announcement of which supposedly stunned even senior cabinet members.

Soon after Scholz’s speech, international pundits rushed to argue that Germans had “turn[ed] their backs on pacifism,” portraying the country as having been “[s]hocked out of its post-World War II pacifist zeitgeist” by Russia’s invasion and shedding pacifism as the “underlying doctrine” of its foreign policy. Some German voices joined in, proclaiming the awakening of “Europe’s pacifist giant” and lamenting the “pacifist mistakes” of the past.

These arguments rely on a popular historical narrative that usually goes like this: After Nazi Germany’s defeat in 1945, (West) Germans reeducated themselves to become a “peaceable nation,” eventually earning readmission into international society. Since the 1990s, critics have seen Germany’s supposed pacifism as preventing Europe’s largest economy and most important power from accepting its share of responsibility for upholding the liberal world order, which sometimes includes the use of force.

In reality, Germany has not been a pacifist power at any moment since 1949. Rather, the pacifist label has been abused and misrepresented by those criticizing German foreign policy. These critics usually do not explicate what they mean by “pacifism,” which can refer to different things but is always rooted in principled opposition to the use of force.

In the postwar era, Germany has indeed been more reluctant to use force than the United States, Britain, or France. But Bonn—and then Berlin—has always prepared for war, including nuclear war. Meanwhile, real German pacifists have usually clashed with their government rather than sit in it.


The 1945 Potsdam Agreement that ended World War II called for the “complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany.” But this was a short-lived goal that soon gave way to the demands of the nascent Cold War. The 1949 West German Constitution struck a very different chord: It forbade “wars of aggression,” but it did not say anything about other forms of war. The authors of the 2019 book Reluctant Warriors write that West Germany’s founding document “implicitly permitted wars of self-defense,” enabled the introduction of conscription, and provided for the country’s participation in military alliances.

This was not a foundation for a pacifist state but one ready to fight and defend itself against the Soviet Union and its satellite states. This became clear under Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who served from 1949 to 1963. In 1955, West Germany joined NATO and officially created the Bundeswehr, despite vocal protests led by unions, churches, intellectuals, and the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD). The Bundeswehr soon boasted 500,000 soldiers, making it NATO’s largest standing army in Western Europe.

In 1957, the United States agreed to place its nuclear weapons stationed in Germany under the control of the Bonn government—with the Bundeswehr trained to deploy them in a potential conflict with the Soviet bloc. The prospect of Germany’s nuclearization triggered mass protest. Two-thirds of the German public rejected the move, yet Adenauer was able to push it through the parliament thanks to the CDU’s absolute majority. While the West German peace movement protested in the streets, the allegedly pacifist government was involved in planning for a nuclear war, albeit a defensive one.

When the SPD finally came to power under Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1969, they had long abandoned their opposition to NATO, rearmament, and nuclear weapons. Adenauer’s defense policy was left unchanged. While reaching out to the Soviet bloc, Brandt still relied on NATO and Germany’s military muscle for defense and deterrence. In fact, the country’s defense budget increased by 50 percent over Brandt’s five years in office—record numbers. Brandt, misremembered by some as a “romantic hero” who befriended Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, wrote that his experience with the Nazi regime prevented him from becoming a pacifist and that the SPD under his chairmanship was “no pacifist party.”

Helmut Schmidt, Brandt’s successor and party fellow, fully supported the deployment of a new generation of U.S. nuclear missiles on German soil as part of NATO’s response to a similar Soviet missile plan in Eastern Europe. This so-called Euromissile crisis, which lasted from 1977 to 1987, ended the period of détente between East and West and created the prospect of a renewed nuclear arms race in the heart of Europe. It also reinvigorated Germany’s peace movement. Crowds of 300,000 people gathered in Bonn in 1981 at the first of a series of major demonstrations that became incubators for a new, staunchly pacifist party: the Greens. Apart from environmental sensibility, the Greens called for a foreign policy “free of violence,” requesting the disbanding of NATO and an “immediate disarmament worldwide!”

The pacifist label has been abused and misrepresented by those criticizing German foreign policy.

Backing NATO’s confrontational policies put Schmidt not only against the peace movement but also most of his own party. Though Schmidt did not relent, his posture contributed to the SPD’s exit from government in 1982. In the subsequent elections, the Greens made it to the parliament for the first time. Yet the governing conservative coalition led by Helmut Kohl stuck to Schmidt’s policy. The pacifists were outflanked, again.

Reunified Germany enjoyed the peace dividend that came with the Cold War’s end. But changing demands from allies, led by the United States, forced Berlin to take a stance on the new wars of the day. These were increasingly waged well beyond NATO territory—in the Persian Gulf,  Kuwait, Somalia, and, most importantly, the former Yugoslavia—making it difficult to interpret them as self-defense in the conventional sense. Eventually, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 1994 that even “out of area” deployment of the Bundeswehr could be permitted under certain circumstances, especially if as part of a broader international effort.

This opened the door for the Bundeswehr to engage in direct warfighting as part of NATO-led coalition forces: first, in the sky over Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, and then in Afghanistan with 150,000 soldiers—the second-highest number after the United States—making their tour until the final retreat in 2021.

Ironically, both deployments happened on the watch of the Greens, which became the SPD’s junior partner in the two Gerhard Schröder governments from 1998 to 2005. At that point, the Greens were still officially committed to pacifism. The party’s long-term programmatic document from 1993 posited an “ethic of nonviolence” as a key principle, “reject[ed] war as a means of conflict resolution,” and called for the “dismantling of military alliances.”

Despite fierce internal opposition, the Green leadership supported Germany’s new wars, arguing military violence was necessary to stop a genocide in Kosovo or to respond to the “totalitarian challenge” in Afghanistan. This distinctly nonpacifist stance earned then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer a famous paint bomb attack at a party congress in 1999. In 2001, the government nearly collapsed because of a handful of Green deputies’ dissent over Afghanistan. Still, pacifists in the Green camp failed to sway official policy. The Greens then dropped pacifism from their 2002 long-term program, which explicitly—if not unconditionally—embraced both NATO and military deployments abroad.

Germany’s military engagement appeared to become more conservative in the following years. While staying in Afghanistan and participating in multiple smaller missions in Mali, the Mediterranean, and off the coast of Somalia, the Bundeswehr avoided the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003 and the U.N.-sanctioned and NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011. These decisions were occasionally wrapped in peace rhetoric, even by key actors such as Schröder. Yet, as I show in my book on the Iraq War, the German government supported those wars by other means: guarding U.S. military bases, helping with logistics, or sharing intelligence. While some of its leaders were preaching peace, Germany was pursuing, as the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung wrote in 2002, “a little bit of war.”


Most German politicians who opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya explicitly refuse the pacifist label. When I interviewed some of them in 2014, they preferred to trace their restraint to those wars’ disputed legality rather than principle. They also considered them counterproductive, pointing out their adverse impacts on the international order, NATO unity, and the struggle against Islamist terrorism. Many cited examples of other military efforts they fully endorsed, especially Afghanistan and Kosovo, to demonstrate their un-pacifist credentials.

As I argue in my book, embracing the Bundeswehr and NATO—two things German pacifists have traditionally struggled to do—is a key precondition for being considered a serious political partner in the country. This was last demonstrated in the run-up to the 2021 general election, when both the SPD and Greens cited the far-left Die Linke party’s lack of commitment to NATO and the Bundeswehr as major obstacles to a possible coalition.

Rather than pacifism, postwar German foreign policy has been shaped by an eclectic mix of distinctly liberal beliefs. First is trust in the virtues of economic interdependence. Germany has defended the idea of “change through trade” even when it became clear that countries such as China and Russia were changing only for the worse while trading with Germany. Still, many in Berlin believed that projects including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would “carry a peace dividend,” as recently admitted by Sigmar Gabriel, a former SPD party leader and vice chancellor and foreign minister under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Second is an all-too-optimistic assumption about diplomatic tools’ effectiveness in resolving conflict—and perhaps also about Berlin’s unique skills in applying them. In this worldview, settling for a compromise is always better than risking a war, even if you are negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This thinking is rooted in a specifically German understanding of how the Cold War ended, which sees it as a series of successful negotiations. Banking on diplomacy, Berlin called for “keeping diplomatic channels open” until the last hours before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Of course, Germany can hardly be that keen on military power when the Bundeswehr has been neglected to the brink of dysfunction, as its own chief of staff and a former defense minister both admitted in February. Years of underinvestment have left the Bundeswehr struggling to fulfill basic tasks. What Scholz now calls for is as unambitious as “planes that fly, ships that sail, and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions.” Apart from Germany’s correctly criticized lack of strategic thinking, the problem is also grounded in the ordoliberal obsession with balanced budgets that characterized the Merkel era. The military is hardly an exception: Lack of public investment has also worn down roads, schools, and other infrastructure in Germany.

It is not pacifism but rather the liberal assumptions about the ineffectiveness of military force and the virtues of diplomacy, trade, and fiscal discipline that Germany is now questioning. Deeply rooted in Berlin’s political culture, these assumptions are unlikely to vanish overnight. Germany’s search for a new place in the world is likely to be much more painful—and slower—than many would like to see. While Germany has never been a pacifist power, it may not be ready to become a traditional military power just yet, either.

Jakub Eberle is the research director at the Institute of International Relations Prague and a lecturer at the Prague University of Economics and Business. He is the author of Discourse and Affect in Foreign Policy: Germany and the Iraq War and co-editor of the forthcoming book International Theory and German Foreign Policy.

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