Deep Dive

Germany Confronts Its Nuclear Demons

Opposition to all things nuclear was the bedrock of the modern German political psyche. Then came Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Grohnde nuclear power plant
The Grohnde nuclear power plant
In this long-exposure photograph, steam rises from the cooling towers of the Grohnde nuclear power plant in Emmerthal, Germany, on Dec. 29, 2021, days before it was expected to be taken off the grid after 36 years. Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images
By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

On March 30, the German Council of Economic Experts, a group of five leading economists who evaluate German government policy, made a recommendation that broke a long-standing cultural and political taboo. To confront the looming energy crisis linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the economists wrote, Germany should consider delaying the phaseout of its three remaining nuclear power plants, slated for the end of this year.

The country is heavily dependent on imports of Russian natural gas, and most experts agree it is only a matter of time before Germans—whether through their own political will or that of Russian President Vladimir Putin—are cut off for good. The European Union has already finalized plans to embargo most imports of Russian coal and oil, which make up a much smaller—but still significant—share of Germany’s energy mix. Though gas remains the last unsanctioned holdout, Putin in May cut 3 percent of his country’s gas exports to Germany in what was largely seen as a power move. They were reduced further last week.

Officials in Berlin are scrambling to concoct an emergency plan should Moscow turn off all the taps. Policy responses have ranged from pleading with the general public to curb private energy consumption to courting Qatar for exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). But one idea that has so far eluded any official government endorsement is to use Germany’s existing nuclear power infrastructure to stave off an energy shortage.

The Grohnde nuclear power plant
The Grohnde nuclear power plant

In this long-exposure photograph, steam rises from the cooling towers of the Grohnde nuclear power plant in Emmerthal, Germany, on Dec. 29, 2021, days before it was expected to be taken off the grid after 36 years. Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images

On March 30, the German Council of Economic Experts, a group of five leading economists who evaluate German government policy, made a recommendation that broke a long-standing cultural and political taboo. To confront the looming energy crisis linked to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the economists wrote, Germany should consider delaying the phaseout of its three remaining nuclear power plants, slated for the end of this year.

The country is heavily dependent on imports of Russian natural gas, and most experts agree it is only a matter of time before Germans—whether through their own political will or that of Russian President Vladimir Putin—are cut off for good. The European Union has already finalized plans to embargo most imports of Russian coal and oil, which make up a much smaller—but still significant—share of Germany’s energy mix. Though gas remains the last unsanctioned holdout, Putin in May cut 3 percent of his country’s gas exports to Germany in what was largely seen as a power move. They were reduced further last week.

Officials in Berlin are scrambling to concoct an emergency plan should Moscow turn off all the taps. Policy responses have ranged from pleading with the general public to curb private energy consumption to courting Qatar for exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). But one idea that has so far eluded any official government endorsement is to use Germany’s existing nuclear power infrastructure to stave off an energy shortage.

Though the proposal may seem obvious—the power plants are quite literally in plain sight—Germany’s deep-rooted anti-nuclear orthodoxy has rendered such suggestions political heresy. This is why it was so revealing to hear the country’s most prestigious economic body—whose economists are sometimes referred to as the “Five Sages”—resort to such a refrain. It was a rare show of helplessness on the part of the German intelligentsia. Fear of a nuclear meltdown runs high in Germany, and the specter of such a disaster is often enough to discredit good-faith arguments in favor of nuclear power.

A sign stands before a nuclear power plant
A sign stands before a nuclear power plant

A sign reading “A warm welcome to Gundremmingen” is pictured in front of the nuclear power plant in Gundremmingen, southern Germany, on Feb. 26, 2021. LENNART PREISS/AFP via Getty Images

Energy is not the only area where the German debate on the efficacy—and ethics—of nuclear technology has been thrown into flux by the war in Ukraine. Germany participates in NATO nuclear weapons sharing and has been home to an arsenal of U.S. nuclear warheads since the mid-1950s despite fierce public opposition that continues to this day. Now, with those weapons closer to possible deployment than at any period since the Cold War, the government of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—which vowed in its coalition agreement to work toward “a Germany free of nuclear weapons”—is being forced to question whether that arrangement is still strategically sound or even to be desired.

Popular opposition to all things nuclear in many ways forms the bedrock of the modern German political psyche, providing principled guardrails to a people who are rightfully risk averse, and Berlin has in recent years moved closer to the publicly demanded imperative of eradicating nuclear power and working toward the disarmament—and ultimate abolition—of nuclear weaponry.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine has cast an uncomfortable realist shadow over these campaigns, which were allowed to flourish largely unchallenged for decades by the dual comforts of U.S. security guarantees and Russian pipelines. Now, the anti-nuclear movement is facing an existential moment. German politicians and civil society must decide whether to continue down the anti-nuclear path or reluctantly acknowledge that nuclear technology will be part of Germany’s future. Either path will be risky and will have the potential to change the balance of power in both Europe and the world at large.


Germany’s Atomic Egg nuclear plant
Germany’s Atomic Egg nuclear plant

Left: Nuclear scientists work on the control bridge of the nuclear research reactor known as the Atomic Egg at the Technical University of Munich in Garching, Germany, on Feb. 5, 1958. Right: The nuclear reactor is pictured 40 years later on Jan. 30, 1996; it was shut down in 2000. Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images and Frank Mächler/picture alliance via Getty Images

When the Federal Republic of Germany, then known as West Germany, gained full sovereignty in 1955, the government was gung-ho about the potential of nuclear technology. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) created a federal ministry dedicated to nuclear issues and piloted test reactors across the country. By 1957, Germany had opened its first test reactor at the Technical University of Munich, known as the Atomic Egg. In 1959, Adenauer oversaw the passage of the Atomic Energy Act, which paved the way for power plants to be built in the country. The first opened in 1961.

“There was a nuclear utopianism in the 1960s,” said Stephen Gross, a history professor at New York University and author of the upcoming book German Energy Policy in the Age of Oil and Atoms, 1945–2010. Enthusiasm for nuclear power spanned the German political spectrum, including in the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD “saw this as a panacea for solving social problems: If you have abundant cheap energy, then you can employ more people,” Gross said.

Energy was where the partisan consensus stopped. A decade after the defeat of Nazi Germany and its futile quest to build a nuclear bomb, Adenauer made no secret of his ambitions to develop the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities through the European Atomic Energy Community, a precursor to the EU. (Postwar agreements forbade Germany from possessing its own nuclear weapons but not necessarily from participating in joint nuclear development efforts with other states.) The SPD was vehemently opposed to German armament of any sort, as well as West Germany’s membership in NATO, which the country had joined in 1955. NATO membership necessitated the establishment of the Bundeswehr, or Germany’s modern military.

An anti-atomic energy poster
An anti-atomic energy poster

An anti-nuclear weapons poster is prominently displayed behind Erich Ollenhauer (left), chairman of the Social Democratic Party, as he addresses a rally in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 25, 1958.Bettmann/Contributor/Via Getty Images

Rearmament was a hard sell for much of the German public, which was traumatized by firsthand experiences of military atrocities perpetrated during World War II. Adenauer’s pro-NATO posture elicited mass protests led by the SPD along with churches and labor unions; according to Der Tagesspiegel, only 17 percent of West Germans in 1957 were in favor of the country’s nuclear armament. German nuclear scientists also lambasted Adenauer for his position, as did neighboring countries. By 1969, the SPD had taken control of the chancellery, and in 1975, West Germany ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But Adenauer got a consolation prize in the form of U.S. nuclear warheads stationed on West German soil as part of a NATO nuclear sharing arrangement that continues to this day. The location of these weapons was and is officially a state secret, though recently declassified government documents, media reporting, and satellite imagery have revealed the extent of the German-held stockpile. A Greenpeace study estimates that as many as 5,000 U.S. nuclear weapons could have been stationed in the country at the height of the Cold War.

On the front lines of competing nuclear threats between the United States and the Soviet Union, Germany would over time come to house more U.S. troops than any country except Japan. The confluence of Cold War context and historical anxiety created a reflexively pacifist strain among the German public that is often misattributed to the government.

What made Germany’s anti-nuclear movement globally singular is how environmental concerns about nuclear waste and agriculture dovetailed with this more pacifist, anti-establishment bent. This was first epitomized by the West German 1968 student protests, a rebellion by young people against the cultural and political legacies of their Nazi forefathers. Joachim Radkau, a professor of modern history at Bielefeld University, writes that opposition to nuclear energy was “the decisive link” between the environmental movement and the 1968 uprising, a synergy that formed the bedrock of the modern Green party.

By the early 1970s, a coherent German anti-nuclear movement had emerged out of a hodgepodge of discrete grassroots causes. “Part of the issue was local NIMBYism among the farming community who didn’t want this stuff to go up in their backyards,” Gross told Foreign Policy. “Part of it was then an ideological issue in that there was a big movement on the left that did not like big state power. And nuclear power was the epitome of the kind of top-down, technocratic, opaque, centralized technology that could very easily get out of control.”


Police spray protesters with water cannons
Police spray protesters with water cannons

Police spray protesters with water cannons during demonstrations against the construction of a new power plant in Wyhl, Germany, on Feb. 20, 1975. Lutz Rauschnick/picture alliance via Getty Images

Tensions between anti-nuclear protesters and the government escalated as Bonn doubled down on nuclear power to confront the 1973 oil crisis. In 1975, hundreds of protesters occupying land cordoned off for the construction of a nuclear power plant in the town of Wyhl were forcibly removed by police. The altercations were broadcast on television, and days later, nearly 30,000 newly emboldened supporters from across Europe reoccupied the site and prompted a court to cancel the project. By 1976, 47 percent of West Germans expressed opposition to nuclear energy, according to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament.

Meanwhile, a change in government had done little to alter West Germany’s embrace of NATO. Though SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt, who governed from 1969 to 1974, pursued a degree of rapprochement with the Soviet bloc, his government bloated Bonn’s defense budget. The government of Helmut Schmidt, Brandt’s successor and fellow SPD member, was then thrown into turmoil by the 1979 NATO double-track decision to station more advanced nuclear missiles in Western Europe if arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union were not successful within four years. Crowds of hundreds of thousands of people rallied across the country in outrage—around 400,000 in Hamburg and 300,000 in Bonn—many dissenting SPD members among them.

The Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in the United States, also in 1979, similarly prompted mass demonstrations in West Germany. The day after the disaster, the Bundestag formed a commission of lawmakers and experts dedicated to exploring the future of the country’s nuclear energy policy, the first time the government formally engaged with the prospect of a phaseout. The commission conducted its work for four years, until 1983, months after the CDU took over following a 1982 no-confidence vote that ousted Schmidt.

 

The 1980s proved vindicating for Germany’s anti-nuclear activists. The double-track decision went into effect in late 1983, prompting both the United States and the Soviet Union to bulk up their European nuclear stockpiles and provoking immense fear of a new arms race that ended only when the two parties signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987. And in April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine sealed the German public’s commitment to a nuclear phaseout. Polling conducted by Der Spiegel and the Emnid Institute in early May of that year found that only 29 percent of West Germans supported the further construction of nuclear power plants. Among opponents, 54 percent were in favor of a nuclear phaseout after a reasonable transition period, while 12 percent demanded the immediate closure of German nuclear power plants.

Chernobyl was pivotal in pushing the German government to its eventual rejection of nuclear energy, said Nora Löhle, an energy and environment specialist at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a foundation affiliated with the German Green party, as it “showcased the risk of nuclear being very close to Germans.”

“At some point, our politicians had to listen to the demands of civil society,” she added.

Gross acknowledges the gravity of nuclear disaster but cautions against making it central. Germany’s economic realities, he said, were changing well before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A cohort within the SPD was beginning to question economic growth as an aspiration, and Germans came out of the oil crisis accustomed to using much less energy. The economic countershock of the 1980s also saw plummeting oil prices and skyrocketing interest rates—prompting the cost of a capital-intensive endeavor like nuclear power to rise considerably.

Protesters demonstrate against atomic energy
Protesters demonstrate against atomic energy

Protesters demonstrate against atomic energy in front of the nuclear plant in Biblis, western Germany, on April 29, 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident.THOMAS LOHNES/DDP/AFP via Getty Images

“There was a reevaluation of how much energy the nation actually needed to thrive. And so the justification for building more nuclear reactors evaporated,” Gross said.

However, the governing CDU party and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), both of which had ties to the nuclear industry, developed a new raft of arguments in favor of the technology, including that domestically produced nuclear power was necessary for Germany to remain an export-oriented economy. “They also began playing the climate card pretty early,” Gross added. “They said that nuclear energy was a carbon-free fuel and that it would be impossible to fight climate change without nuclear technology.”

The CDU continued to push its pro-nuclear strategy through German reunification in 1990—which saw the former East Germany absorbed into the Federal Republic—until 1998 elections brought an SPD-Green coalition to power under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the first time the young Green party was in government. After Schröder negotiated with utility companies, the Bundestag in 2001 passed a measure amending the Atomic Energy Act to prohibit the construction of new nuclear power plants and mandating that all the country’s 19 active sites be phased out by around 2021. The law went into effect in 2002, and two plants were brought offline before the CDU won the 2005 elections that brought Chancellor Angela Merkel into office.

In 2010, Merkel, governing with the FDP, undid the 2002 nuclear phaseout with another amendment to the Atomic Energy Act that extended the operating time of Germany’s nuclear power plants (the prohibition on the construction of new plants remained in place). It didn’t last long, though. The March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan brought Germany’s anti-nuclear movement back to the streets and led to major electoral inroads for the Greens in a state that had been a CDU stronghold. By that summer, the Bundestag had reapproved the nuclear phaseout, this time slated to finish in 2022. Seventy-three percent of the German public was in favor of the move, according to polling conducted by the Allensbach Institute.

Activists walk in front of the nuclear power plant
Activists walk in front of the nuclear power plant

Activists walk in front of the nuclear power plant near Neckarwestheim, Germany, on March 12, 2011, protesting the government-granted extension of Germany’s nuclear power plants. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred earlier that month in Japan. Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images

Merkel had also been known as a defender of the nuclear weapons sharing arrangement, but in 2009 she succumbed to FDP pressure to include a statement in the parties’ coalition agreement that they would work toward removing U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil. The U.S. nuclear stockpile in Germany had declined considerably since the end of the Cold War, but media investigations in the mid-1990s all but confirmed that 15 to 20 U.S. bombs were still being stationed at Büchel Air Base, about 100 miles west of Frankfurt. According to Spiegel reporting in 2007, Ramstein Air Base—the largest U.S. base in Europe—had been cleared of 130 nuclear warheads by that year.

In 2010, in response to a major 2009 speech by U.S. President Barack Obama announcing that the United States sought “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” a cross-party assembly of the CDU, FDP, SPD, and Greens passed a resolution pledging to work with Washington to do just that. After a NATO summit in 2012, however, Merkel and her CDU-FDP government not only retracted their posturing but vowed to upgrade the Bundeswehr’s fighter jets that would deliver a U.S. nuclear bomb.


Rainer Klute
Rainer Klute

Rainer Klute, chairman of Nuklearia, attends a rally in support of nuclear energy in Hamburg, Germany, on July 10, 2021. Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance via Getty Images

For Rainer Klute, Fukushima Daiichi was also a turning point. The computer scientist was upset with what he saw as sensationalist and scientifically misleading media coverage about the mechanics of the disaster, so he got to work studying the ins and outs of nuclear energy. He emerged a strong proponent in a country that was anything but hospitable to his views. In 2013, Klute founded Nuklearia, an organization that advocates for nuclear power in Germany. Its slogan? “Environmental protection through nuclear power.”

“Every form of energy production has risks, including nuclear energy. But I think the risks of nuclear energy are decidedly small compared to the risks of other forms of energy production,” Klute told Foreign Policy. He claims the dangers of radiation and nuclear waste are overhyped and cites a recent study on the increased mortality risks Germans have faced since 2011 as a result of the carbon emissions from fossil fuels that have taken nuclear power’s place.

Nuklearia is nonpartisan and has fewer than 500 official members. But its small size doesn’t bother Klute. He is convinced that a much larger fraction of the public shares his persuasions but is hesitant to express them publicly. Klute chalks some of this up to the fact that, since Fukushima Daiichi, the only major German political party to endorse nuclear power has been the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was founded in 2013.

“If the AfD were against nuclear energy, things would be easier for us,” he said.

Klute has the polling to back up his assertions. Since mid-2021, Nuklearia has contracted with the Allensbach Institute and Civey to conduct rolling online surveys of German public opinion toward nuclear power in Europe. At the survey’s outset, nearly 50 percent of the public expressed support for employing nuclear power to meet the EU’s climate commitments. Now, the war in Ukraine and its accompanying energy dilemmas have led to an unprecedented surge in enthusiasm, a finding confirmed by other surveys.

From late April to early June, Civey data reviewed by Foreign Policy showed that about 65 percent of Germans overall believe nuclear energy should be used to achieve climate goals, while 28 percent oppose the practice and 8 percent are undecided. By now, majorities of voters in all major parties except The Left and the Greens are in favor of the technology. (The Left, at 49.7 percent, is just 0.3 percentage points shy of hitting this benchmark, well within the survey’s margin of error.)

But for Klute, the biggest story is not the about-face among the SPD or CDU electorate but how precipitously Green resistance to nuclear energy has fallen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “In no other party is the uncertainty—am I for nuclear energy or am I against it?—as big as in the Greens,” he said.

In survey data from May and June 2021, about 70 percent of Green voters opposed nuclear power, with 22 percent in favor and 8 percent uncertain. By spring of this year, opposition had dwindled to just 56 percent, with 32 percent in favor and 12 percent uncertain.

Germans are anxious about how their country will meet its energy demands as the war escalates. In 2021, the country generated about 41 percent of its gross power through renewables—primarily wind and solar energy—15 percent from gas, 12 percent from nuclear energy, 28 percent from hard and lignite coal, and 4 percent from other sources, according to preliminary data from the German Association of Energy and Water Industries. Gas—55 percent of which was imported from Russia last year—plays a much more central role in heating.

What happens if that supply is cut off just as Germany’s last remaining nuclear power plants go offline this December—when heating is needed most—is a question most are reluctant to answer.

“It does get a little old to me to hear people just harp on Germany and harp on Germany. Because we’re not talking about decreasing German reliance on Russian energy. We’re talking about a complete rehaul of the German economy,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Löhle, the energy and environment specialist, is confident Germany can generate nearly 100 percent of its power from renewables and be energy independent by 2035. So is the government. But she concedes that gas is necessary to tide over that transition, particularly to keep the nuclear phaseout in place.

“I’m aware that with my position, I put us in a place that maybe short term, we might face an energy shortage, but I think we have to sacrifice that if needed,” she said. “The German government has no interest to call for a gas embargo.”

The language of sacrifice is central to the government’s messaging too. Robert Habeck, Germany’s minister for economic affairs and climate action and a member of the Green party, says he is confident Germany could survive a winter without Russian gas—with a critical caveat: Germans must do their part to consume less energy. “Less consumption is the be-all and end-all,” he told business magazine WirtschaftsWoche.

Wind turbines
Wind turbines

Wind turbines appear as a backdrop to houses near Hamm, western Germany, on June 8. INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

Habeck has started preparing crisis scenarios that would see industry make cuts before they hit private consumers. By late April, imports of Russian gas had sunk to 35 percent of Germany’s gas supply, and he hopes to bring them to 30 percent by the end of the year. By the summer of 2024, Habeck says, that figure could be just 10 percent. This could be made possible in part by the construction or leasing of LNG terminals in Germany, which do not currently exist, enabling gas to be imported from around the world. The first floating terminals could be completed by the end of this year and the first permanent installations by 2025.

“Natural gas is the foundation of the energy transition,” said Klute, of Nuklearia. But, he added, “I’m for an embargo. It would of course really hurt Germany. It would have severe consequences. But we have to stop Putin.” To Klute, nuclear energy is the clear solution.

Though the Greens will almost certainly stick to their decades-old line, there are signs that other parties may shift away from the post-Fukushima Daiichi consensus on nuclear power as the war in Ukraine intensifies. A report published this month by researchers at Yale and Columbia universities contradicts the current government’s transition plans and estimates that Germany could be the only EU country that fails to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, largely due to its nuclear phaseout.

Klute thinks Berlin will complete the phaseout as planned this year but will ultimately come around to this reality. He estimates politicians could reverse course on nuclear energy by the end of the next legislative period in 2028, with pressure mounting ahead of the 2029 federal elections. “The government will have failed on energy policy, climate policy, or both,” he wrote in an email.

Friedrich Merz, the head of the CDU, has publicly rebuffed the government’s refusal to consider an extension of the nuclear phaseout in light of rising energy costs, though he has not said for how long he would keep nuclear power plants running. “Our hunch is that this is purely driven by ideological reasons, especially by the Greens,” Merz said at a March news conference. Christian Lindner, finance minister and FDP chief, announced at an April party convention that the FDP would support a “limited extension” of the phaseout.

It’s a change Gross would like to see. “I don’t think they’ll reverse their nuclear phaseout, but I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “With the Greens in government, their party identity is built on phasing nuclear power out. That [reversing the phaseout] is a hard thing to sell to the party base.”


Activists wear masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden
Activists wear masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden

Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Jan. 29, 2021, in a call for more progress in nuclear disarmament. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

Where the Greens may be showing more leeway is on nuclear weapons. When Scholz’s “traffic light” coalition—comprising his SPD, the FDP, and the Greens—was announced last fall, some observers in the United States greeted the arrangement with trepidation.

“There were a lot of questions when this new government was formed about whether Germany would stay a part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement,” said Rizzo.

In their campaign programs, the SPD and the Greens demanded the total removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany and also sought to join the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as an observer state. At the time, 82 percent of Germans favored the complete removal of U.S. nuclear warheads from their country and 80 percent wanted Germany to fully join the TPNW, according to a poll conducted by Kantar for Greenpeace.

In November 2021, with coalition talks underway, U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched a high-level representative to Berlin to exert pressure on the new government, and a compromise was reached: Germany would remain part of NATO nuclear sharing for now but with the ultimate—abstract—goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. The country would also be allowed to join the TPNW as an observer along with fellow NATO member Norway, though it has not yet done so.

Rizzo thinks this is good news. A withdrawal from the nuclear sharing agreement “would have left us [the United States] with a lot of questions to be answered as far as, where are these weapons going to be stored? What does that mean for the entire NATO nuclear sharing arrangement? It would have thrown the entire structure into question,” she told Foreign Policy. “Germany is going to stand by its NATO commitment. Nuclear sharing is part of that.”

The relevance of that commitment has come into much sharper focus since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has provoked nuclear fears not felt since the Cold War era. Putin has on numerous occasions threatened the West with nuclear weapons use, and Germany’s U.S.-endowed stockpile would be on the front lines of any NATO response. Löhle said removing those weapons is probably not “of interest” to the government now.

“We are facing a war right now on European territory, and the aggression comes from a nuclear power, which is Russia,” Löhle said. “So how would you dare to get rid of nuclear weapons?”

Activist Ruediger Lancelle
Activist Ruediger Lancelle

Activist Ruediger Lancelle stands amid a “Friedenswiese,” or peace lawn, outside the perimeter to Büchel Air Base near Cochem, Germany, on Feb. 27, 2019. Lancelle has demonstrated for more than 20 years against nuclear weapons. Büchel houses more than a dozen U.S. nuclear weapons. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

That threat has prompted Germany to undergo somewhat of a defense transformation of its own, albeit reluctantly. After weeks of rhetorical barrage from Washington and Kyiv—and outcry from the CDU—Berlin succumbed to pressure to scrap its long-standing policy of not exporting weapons to conflict zones. Now, the country has pledged to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

Löhle defended the government’s slow pace of deliberation before making what she called a “tremendous” shift. “I want them [politicians] to think twice. I don’t want them to govern in panic mode,” she said, stressing that a diplomatic solution to the war is Germany’s ultimate goal.

Public opinion is still in flux. While 55 percent of Germans supported the export of heavy weapons to Ukraine at the beginning of April, by May that figure had sunk to 46 percent and the tally of Germans opposed rose from 33 percent to 44 percent over the same period, according to polling conducted by the Forsa Institute. In a different May survey from RTL/ntv-Trendbarometer, 57 percent of Germans expressed concern that exporting heavy weapons would only exacerbate the war, possibly causing it to spill into neighboring countries. It is the same deep societal vein that has always viewed armament—regardless of whom—as a threat.

Berlin’s recent concessions reflect the continuing dominance of the Greens’ pragmatist “realo” wing over its uncompromisingly pacifist “fundi” wing. The rift was most salient during the party’s first flirtation with power during the Schröder years, when a Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, authorized Germany to join the 1999 NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo and deploy troops to Afghanistan with the alliance two years later, causing great controversy in the process. Now, a Green foreign minister is once again at the helm of a changing German foreign policy in the form of Annalena Baerbock.

Curiously, both Habeck and Baerbock seem to be profiting from the discomfort of the ongoing transitions in their respective ministries: As of early May, the two were ranked as the most beloved politicians in Germany. And in recent state elections, the Greens earned their best results ever. The party is at its most popular and most powerful moment in history, yet its entire anti-nuclear foundation is shaking to the core.

With the Greens as the kingmaker of German politics and the darling of public opinion, the party’s own reckoning will in many ways set the tone for future political changes in the country as a whole.

“We’ve recently seen Germany meet this moment in a way that makes it clear that Germany is not just the most powerful economic actor in the European Union, but if it wanted to be, it could also be a pretty powerful player in security and defense,” Rizzo said.

“But what I think is more difficult is that this isn’t just about investment. It’s not just about spending money in the right places. It’s about fundamentally shifting Germany’s mindset, and that’s a lot harder.”

Allison Meakem is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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