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Germany has learned the wrong lesson from its history

Mathias Döpfner is Chairman and CEO of Axel Springer, POLITICO’s parent company.  

BERLIN — I remember feeling ashamed to be German. I was sixteen years old when I first saw the “Holocaust” miniseries on television. It was the first time I saw my country’s greatest disgrace. The pictures from concentration camps, the starving internees, the piles of corpses and the touching story of the Weiss family — I didn’t understand how “the Germans” could do such a thing, how they could want to do such a thing or how they could have allowed it to happen. 

My father reinforced this feeling of collective shame. He lived his life amid the traumatic ruins of his own childhood memories of war. I heard him say, over and over again, “the Germans started this war, there is nothing more terrible than war, we must prevent war from ever happening again.” 

My parents brought me up to be a pacifist. However, I never was a true pacifist. I couldn’t be — because the minute I began taking a closer look at the history of the Third Reich, it became clear that diplomacy, restraint and messages of peace would have achieved nothing against a dictator like Adolf Hitler.  

To my mind, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s politics of appeasement were chillingly opportunistic proof of that. How could anyone even try to negotiate with someone like Hitler? Why did the Allied intervention take so long to happen, and why was it not much harsher?  

Millions of Jewish lives could have been saved. Millions of soldiers might not have been sent to their death. And the bombing of Dresden and other cities need never have happened. These are the lessons I learned from World War II: Racism, never again! Genocide, never again! The tolerance of intolerance, never again! And appeasement, never again! 

My convictions about this became even stronger by the end of the Cold War. Speeches about peace in Moscow, or the acceptance and glorification of the German Democratic Republic would not have led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. What did lead to it was deterrence by the United States backed by military strength and projects like the Strategic Defense Initiative and the NATO Double-Track Decision — as well as the courage of people on the street. 

I found it liberating when Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer managed to push through his decision to deploy German soldiers in the Kosovo War — after the West had disgraced itself when it failed to prevent the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. Fischer’s reasoning was as clear as it was succinct: “I have not only learned, War, never again! I have also learned: Auschwitz, never again!”

Germany’s involvement did not end this conflict and barbaric murder through passivity, it ended it through determined military intervention. It was finally a new, more mature chapter in German foreign policy. It may have come late in the day, but Germany seemed to have learned, and was now applying, its lesson from history: There can be no tolerance when it comes to genocide. 

Different reactions 

And now, today, we are once again hearing talk of genocide. 

Even if the situation in Ukraine cannot be compared to World War II, respected experts in constitutional law like Otto Luchterhandt or Christian Tomuschat have spoken up. Tomuschat was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee for many years and has identified what he considers to be indications of genocide in the war in Ukraine. He refers in particular to the Russian military’s campaign in and around the city of Mariupol, where it seems , he says, to be aiming to “wipe out this section of the Ukrainian population as part of its attempt to conquer the city, which would be genocide.”  

That the U.N. Security Council responsible for such cases will end this breach of civilization in the middle of Europe is unlikely, according to Tomuschat. “Russia is a permanent member in the Council today and has just exercised its veto to quash condemnation of its actions. The government is therefore its own judge and jury.” 

The reaction to recent demands by Ukraine and others for NATO countries to intervene in the war have been very varied, and very telling. Calls to supply weapons, mobilize troops, or perhaps even establishing a no-fly zone to stop the killing, were welcomed by countries in Central and Eastern Europe.  

But in Germany and Switzerland, there was utter dismay. When I wrote in the Bild newspaper proposing that NATO members provide Ukraine with military support, I was accused of “warmongering.” The German journalist Deniz Yücel, who openly supported closing off the airspace over Ukraine, was even asked to resign from his position as president of PEN, the association of writers dedicated to freedom of expression. 

What was especially revealing was the clear line that emerged over using military pressure to avoid or end the war. There was outrage from the countries or milieus that live in peace and guaranteed prosperity, who have very little experience with the Russian president and who, for decades, have only had to witness totalitarian modes of behavior on television or in history books.  

The countries and milieus in which people had to, or still have to, fight for their freedom, or have experienced life under a dictator, expressed their consent. Ideology or party preferences played hardly any role at all. To date, it seems to me that more politicians from the Green Party than are campaigning for a policy of military solidarity than from the Christian Democrats. 

The Green politician Marieluise Beck was already clear about this during the war in Bosnia, “being totally against aggression is one side of the coin. The other is protecting those who are being attacked. But protecting them may require the use of military means.”  

She has now appealed in the Taz newspaper for “€100 billion to flow into a new Bundeswehr [the German armed forces]. It is time to make a down payment to those who bear the burden of war for us. Give them what they need to do that. It’s about our security.”  

The new head of the Green Party, Omid Nouripour, warned at the WELT Economic Forum a few days ago that we should never rule anything out. And that means military options as well. Nouripour speaks from experience as somebody who fled totalitarianism in Iran. 

Hawks and Doves 

Here it is again. The “doves” believe the best way to avoid or end wars is through restraint, by keeping out of it, by offering compromises and by talking. The “hawks” believe that conflicts can be avoided or ended through deterrence, strength and a mixture of credible threats and diplomacy. 

Most people would rather be doves, of course. However, recent history has shown us that the hawks are right when it comes to securing or restoring peace — which is hopefully what everyone taking part in this discussion wants.  

That’s the way it was in World War II, which only ended thanks to the courageous actions of the Allies. Or the Yom Kippur War, where American military support for Israel led to the conclusion of a ceasefire. And the Kosovo War only ended once NATO intervened.  

In all these cases, further escalation was a risk. And that risk is now the main argument put forward to support the policy of non-intervention in the war in Ukraine. It is a tempting argument; it sounds so reasonable. But most people haven’t thought it all the way through. Because escalation remains a threat even without an alliance with military backing.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is escalating the situation. And the less resistance he faces, the more he escalates. Is bombing the capital Kyiv not escalation? Or murdering women and children in Mariupol? Uttering threats of using nuclear weapons? Restraint, offers of compromise, the exclusion of certain military options — these are all things that autocrats and dictators see as weakness, and therefore as encouragement to continue on their path of aggression. In short —to them, restraint is an invitation to escalate even further. 

Putin’s next target 

The theory that war can be avoided if we avoid escalation is based on the false assumption that autocratic or dictatorial aggressors will be content if they can achieve their goals thanks to the non-intervention of others. But there is very little about Putin to suggest that this is the case. It was that same naivete that allowed him to annex Crimea in 2014. And what did Putin learn from that? He learned that it makes sense to escalate further. 

And that is what will happen if Ukraine falls. After that, what would Putin’s next target be? The Baltic states, or even Poland? In that case, NATO’s Article 5 would mean a formal obligation on the part of the alliance to intervene. And what then? Will the argument of avoiding escalation at all costs no longer be valid? Or will it be even more valid? Because then the dictator in the Kremlin really would have proved how aggressive he is, how irrational, and that he knows no limits.  

Maybe that will be the time to say, “the risk of further escalation is too high, we cannot risk an atomic war because of the Baltic states.”  

And what if — and there are increasing signs of this —Putin uses poisonous gas? What if chemical and biological weapons cause terrible casualties and people all over the world see images beyond anything they ever imagined? Will the West really intervene then? Or will it continue to tread the path of caution in order to prevent escalation? The problem with this strategy is that, with every week of waiting, the number of victims and the destructive nature of the means deployed get worse. 

If we are serious about the escalation argument, then we must draw a different conclusion —capitulation as fast as possible. Only a quick surrender can avoid thousands and thousands more deaths, can save the lives of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, of Ukrainian women and children. It would be a terrible option, but at least it’s an honest one. 

Absent escalation, there are two possible hopes for a resolution. The first is that a mixture of increasingly severe sanctions by the European Union and the U.S., combined with increasingly horrible pictures from the war in Ukraine, will force the Russian population to revolt against their tyrant, stopping Putin from the inside. This is conceivable, but not very likely. The mechanisms of propaganda and absolute fear of the authoritarian state are simply too strong. 

The second hope emerges, of all places, from China and President Xi Jinping. Without support and endorsement from China, Putin will not be able to pursue his vision of a new Russian empire. Xi could seize the opportunity to position China as a new force for world peace by turning his back on his ally.  

The role of solving and ending international conflicts that was once occupied by the U.S. could then fall to China — especially since bringing peace to Ukraine could mean less resistance to an annexation of Taiwan. However, this is also not a very likely outcome. And, more than anything else, the aftermath of such a scenario is rather risky, as it would consolidate global dependency on a non-democratic China. 

What we are left with then is escalation, which threatens to take place with or without Western, and above all, German support. And I believe that, if no support is forthcoming, escalation is considerably likelier and more dangerous. I am aware it is not an easy decision for politicians to make. And I am aware that German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz’s government has done more right in terms of security policy in only a few weeks than the government of Angela Merkel did in one-and-a-half decades. 

A hundred billion euros for the Bundeswehr, adherence to the 2.5 percent defense expenditure rule agreed by NATO and at least a few weapons for Ukraine are a significant paradigm shift. And yet, the old German policy of looking the other way and its “without-me” attitude toward historic situations has caught up with us again.  

Germany’s second chance 

We are failing to give the people who are defending our freedom in Kyiv, Mariupol, and soon in Odessa and Lviv, what they really need. And we are doing so  by using legal arguments. Formally, Ukraine may not be NATO’s responsibility. But we are acting like police officers watching people get attacked across the road, not intervening because the other side of the street is not under their jurisdiction. And so they curse, but just move on. 

The insistence on formalities with which Germany withholds aid — acting very differently to Poland — has a certain coldness, even heartlessness, about it: “Sorry. Not our responsibility. We can’t help.” 

The people of Ukraine feel abandoned. How would we feel if Putin attacked Berlin, and the Americans said, “There’s unfortunately nothing we can do, the risk of escalation is just too high?” 

The symbolic moment of this German detachment was the sad day when Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy specifically asked the German Bundestag for help. The Bundestag received his pleading speech with some degree of emotion, but as soon as it ended, they went straight back to business as usual. Consequences? None. Help? No. The courageous and understandably bitter Ukrainian president hit the nail on the head when he described Germany’s attitude as “Your ‘never again’ is worthless.” 

That was the day I began to fear that we Germans are in the process of gambling away the second chance that history has given us after the Nazi era. In Mariupol, houses are burning, people are going hungry, men must undress humiliatingly in front of Russian soldiers, civilians are shot deliberately, children are murdered, corpses lie on the streets. And we Germans do not see it as our responsibility. 

What moves me most are pictures like the one of soldiers in Odessa playing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in battle dress beside military barricades. Or Ilya Bondarenko playing an old Ukrainian folk song on his violin in a basement bunker in Kyiv —joined on social media by violinists from 29 countries. These are gestures of strength, in the most peaceful, most emotional and most international language in the world, music. Music creates these gestures of strength, of solidarity — gestures of carrying on despite everything. 

Is it unimaginable what might happen if it were not just 29 violinists but 26 heads of state, emulating their colleagues from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia by traveling to Kyiv — and remaining there? It would be the most powerful “sit-in” in the history of the world (ideally with a few weapons deliveries as luggage). 

Our government may still yet draw the right conclusions from German history — so that we don’t have to ashamed of being German again. 

This article was originally published in German in Welt on March 22.

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