Germany's 'peace chancellor' in crisis talks to heal Ukraine war rift

History and public opinion play key part in German policy as leader strives to avoid wider war in Europe

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gives a speech next to a statue of Cold War leader Willy Brandt, whose peacemaking efforts shaped the outlook of much of Mr Scholz's generation. Getty Images
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German leader Olaf Scholz goes into emergency talks on Ukraine on Friday with a new nickname from the Berlin media: the peace chancellor.

For his supporters, the name puts a positive spin on Mr Scholz’s much-maligned Ukraine policy, emphasising his resolve to avoid war with Russia. For his critics, the moniker is a piece of self-serving electoral branding that sums up everything wrong with Germany’s stance on the Ukraine conflict.

Withholding long-range missiles from Ukraine to avoid a confrontation with Moscow has put Mr Scholz at odds with some allies. His meeting with the leaders of France and Poland on Friday is an “emergency and unplanned” effort to restore unity.

French President Emmanuel Macron is pulling in the opposite direction by suggesting Nato troops could be sent to Ukraine, while Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk wants the Berlin talks to “mobilise all of Europe”.

"If, faced with someone who has no limits ... we naively tell them that we will not go further than this or that, at that moment we do not decide peace, we already decide defeat," Mr Macron said on Thursday night.

Mr Scholz has said he is acting in the interests of the German public by “being prudent and weighing things up”, but critics in Berlin and Kyiv accuse him of dithering during the war in Ukraine.

“I think Scholz is much closer to German public opinion on this than the German ‘blob’, the foreign policy establishment in Berlin,” Hans Kundnani, an author on German politics and history at the Chatham House think tank, told The National.

Mr Scholz’s caution “seems politically necessary" and is largely aligned with the US position on the conflict, Mr Kundnani said. “He has to be seen to be forced into this because that’s where the German public is. They’re very, very hesitant on this.”

Eye on history

While Germany does not go to the polls until next year, some observers believe there to be the makings of a re-election pitch in the policy that has driven a wedge between Mr Scholz and France and Poland. One MP asked: “Is there a reason for this change of strategy, or is it a gaffe?"

Mr Scholz leads the Social Democratic Party in Germany. Memories linger of how another chancellor from the party, Gerhard Schroeder, won re-election in 2002 after opposing the march to war in Iraq, dismaying the US and UK.

The term "peace chancellor" was used at that time too – although Mr Schroeder’s brand of camera-friendly, anti-US populism would hardly suit Mr Scholz. The Chancellor also likes to take after Willy Brandt, the late West German chancellor revered in the Social Democratic Party as a Cold War peacemaker.

Mr Brandt warmed relations with the communist eastern bloc, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. His policies, known as ostpolitik, are credited by many Germans with paving the way for reunification in 1990.

Mr Brandt's legacy shaped the thinking of Mr Scholz’s generation and dialogue with Moscow became something of a romantic ideal. Mr Schroeder took that rather too far, falling into disgrace for his personal and business ties to the Kremlin.

In 2021, Mr Scholz formed a coalition under the slogan "dare more progress", a play on Mr Brandt’s slogan "dare more democracy". He invoked Mr Brandt’s overtures to the east in his first policy speech as Chancellor.

In doing so, Mr Scholz “certainly hoped to appease his party’s strong left wing, perhaps hoping to remind them of his student activist days", historian Kristina Spohr argued in an essay shared with The National.

Mr Scholz’s difficulties in dealing with Moscow also relate to a “deeply ingrained historical Russophilia” on the much of the left, she said.

The war Ukraine pushed the Mr Scholz’s party into a more hawkish stance on Russia and forced some Germans to admit they viewed Moscow through a rose-tinted lens in an era of business-driven gas deals.

Until 2022, much of the party and Berlin's foreign policy establishment “misremembered ostpolitik as a policy of doing business with the Soviet Union, with this vague hope of democratising it", Mr Kundnani said.

“After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, obviously there’s a massive crisis of that approach. Now they’ve gone to the other extreme, with a few exceptions," he added. "I think Olaf Scholz does in the back of his mind have a little bit of that tradition, but he’s been pushed so hard by the foreign policy establishment in Germany to completely abandon hope of any kind of co-operation, ever, with Russia.”

Efforts to defend Mr Brandt’s legacy have stressed that he increased West Germany’s defence spending, negotiating from a position of strength. Mr Scholz, in turn, authorised a military upgrade worth more than $100 billion.

Findings this week by an army inspector suggest that effort has some way to go to achieve success after years of budget cuts. The German military lacks tanks and ammunition, and it has an “enormous personnel problem", she said.

Mr Scholz also set aside a German credo of declining to send weapons to conflict zones by approving shipments of air defence missiles, artillery and battle tanks to Ukraine. Sending tanks to fight against Russia was an especially tough pill for Germany to swallow, given the scarring memories of the 1940s.

The line that Mr Scholz is adamant he will not cross involves sending German troops directly into the fighting. He has resisted demands to give Ukraine German-made Taurus cruise missiles, which have a range of 500km, suggesting German soldiers would have to play a part in firing them.

That claim appeared to be contradicted by German military officers in a recording of a meeting leaked by Russia. The incident piled more pressure on Mr Scholz.

But a recent poll showed 61 per cent of Germans oppose the provision of Taurus missiles, including 58 per cent of Social Democratic Party supporters and 84 per cent of those who back the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

In tense exchanges in parliament this week, Mr Scholz shunned support from the rival party, but took criticised “half-truths” around his position as he warned any German troop involvement could drag the country into the war.

Hawkish opposition MP Norbert Roettgen, who has accused the Social Democratic Party of trying to “depict Scholz as a peace chancellor” for electoral gain, suggested the Chancellor of hiding his “true motives”. But Mr Scholz maintains he is on the high road.

“It is about guaranteeing Germany’s security and I swore an oath to do that,” he said.

Updated: March 16, 2024, 8:11 AM