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Germany's great pacifism debate

May 17,2022 - Last updated at May 17,2022

BERLIN  —  A commentary by philosopher Jürgen Habermas has triggered one of Germany’s most ferocious political debates in decades, on the question of how the country should position itself in the widening Russian-Ukrainian war. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been subject to a barrage of open letters, each signed by hundreds of leading public figures. Some take a hawkish position, advocating more forceful and active engagement on Ukraine’s behalf; others are dovish, pushing for a settlement that would let Russia claim some kind of victory and spare Europe from a widening and prolonged conflict.

As a widely pacifist country, Germany is neither familiar nor comfortable with the assumptions, red lines, and nagging questions that such debates entail. Long-ignored issues of national and European security have suddenly come to the fore. In the commentary that started the debate, Habermas contrasts the immediate reaction of Germany’s political class and media to Russian aggression with that of a more perplexed and unsure public. Germans are sharply divided about the Bundestag’s decision to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine, as well as on the question of whether the current sanctions go far enough.

This lack of consensus poses many dilemmas for Scholz. After all, it was his own party, the Social Democrats, that long championed constructive engagement (Ostpolitik) with the Soviet Union and then Russia  —  an approach that sadly led former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD to become one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hired hands. Acknowledging that five decades of Ostpolitik left a difficult legacy, Habermas defended Scholz against the charge that he has been too cautious in confronting Putin.

Is the new chancellor aping his predecessor, Angela Merkel, by trying to straddle the fence? No, Habermas argues. Scholz is correct to adopt a measured approach:

“The demands of innocently oppressed Ukraine, which quickly turns the political misjudgments and wrong decisions of previous federal governments into moral blackmail, are as understandable as the emotions, the sympathy, and the need to help … And yet I am irritated by the self-confidence with which the morally indignant accusers in Germany criticize a reflective and cautious federal government.”

The references to “moral blackmail” and “indignant accusers” provoked responses from doves and hawks, respectively. In the first of the open letters that followed, Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s leading women’s rights activist, and her co-signatories call for halting weapons deliveries to Ukraine. While acknowledging that “there is a fundamental political and moral duty not to back down from aggressive violence without resistance”, they want Germany to push for a compromise acceptable to all parties, even if it means giving Putin a victory of sorts. Otherwise, Germany is “accepting a manifest risk of this war escalating into a nuclear conflict”.

Another open letter offering the opposite view soon followed. Issued in German and English, it was drafted by Ralf Fücks, a former Green Party politician and past head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation who now leads the think tank Liberal Modernity. Fücks and his co-signatories urge Scholz quickly to “provide Ukraine with all available weapons it needs to repel the Russian invasion; to impose an embargo on Russian energy exports in order to deprive the regime of the financial means for war; and to give Ukraine a binding prospect of joining the European Union”. All this is necessary, they argue, to ensure Europe’s own security and to prevent additional crimes against humanity.

Whereas one side contends that a “bad peace” (rewarding the aggressor) is better than continued war, the other side argues that a “good war” (punishing the aggressor) is the only way to ensure a “stable peace”. While the United States, the United Kingdom, and France have faced this dilemma in the past (recall British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in 1938), Germany is not used to addressing such moral quandaries.

Since the open letters appeared, the debate has grown more intense. Tempers have flared, positions have hardened, and Habermas’s effort to encourage a measured discussion has come to seem futile. Though Germany has a rich debating culture, it has also avoided debating certain issues for too long. The population is proud of its liberal democracy and pacifist political culture and has generally seen no need to question these institutions.

Despite its ferocity, Germany’s Ukraine debate also offers reassurance, because it is taking place in the political mainstream rather than on the fringes. While there are clear differences across political parties, there is also substantial support for each camp within each. 

Both letter writers, Schwarzer and Fücks, were once part of Germany’s counterculture but now find themselves at the centre of the political action. They have done the country a great service by forcing Germans to consider the implications of political commitments that are finally being put to the test.


Helmut K. Anheier, adjunct professor of Social Welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, is professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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