Inside Story

The egotism of German pacifism

Our correspondent casts a critical eye over an emerging German peace movement

Klaus Neumann Hamburg 14 March 2023 4311 words

A makeshift memorial on the site of a building heavily damaged by an airstrike in Borodyanka, Ukraine. Nearly a year after towns and villages near Kyiv were retaken from Russian troops, authorities are still exhuming the bodies of civilians buried in makeshift graves. Vadim Ghird/AP Photo

It was the largest rally the Federal Republic had ever seen. On 10 October 1981 around 300,000 people gathered in Bonn to protest against NATO’s 1979 decision to deploy hundreds of nuclear-armed Pershing II and BGM-109G Gryphon missiles in Germany and other Western European countries unless the Soviet Union withdrew its SS-20 missiles from Eastern Europe. Nobel Prize–winning novelist Heinrich Böll delivered the main speech; Jamaican-American singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte prompted the crowd to join him singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Over the following two years, NATO and the German government stuck to their guns, while the German peace movement kept growing. Even larger demonstrations were held in June 1982 and October 1983, but to no avail. In November 1983 the Bundestag consented to the stationing of additional nuclear missiles on West German soil.

The Greens, who earlier that year had entered federal parliament for the first time, naturally opposed the measure. So did the Social Democrats, even though their own Helmut Schmidt, toppled as chancellor by the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl in October 1982, had defied the mass protests in 1981 and 1982 and was one of the staunchest advocates of the Pershings’ deployment in Germany. After the vote, the peace movement faltered, but the Greens, whom it had nurtured and who identified as its parliamentary wing, have remained in the Bundestag ever since.

The record numbers mobilised by peace activists in the early 1980s were surpassed twenty years later, when more than half a million protesters took to the streets of Berlin in February 2003 to demand a peaceful resolution to the conflict between the United States and Iraq. Again, the protests failed to alter the resolve of the decision-makers. The following month, the United States, supported by some of its allies (but not France and Germany), invaded Iraq. But the widespread sense of outrage soon dissipated.

Another twenty years on, Germany is again said to be witnessing a massive groundswell for peace. A prominent figure in the left-wing Die Linke party, politician Sahra Wagenknecht, called “Uprising for Peace,” the rally in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate she co-organised on 25 February, “the opening salvo of a new, powerful peace movement.”

Hundreds of thousands of people did indeed demonstrate in Berlin for an end of the war in Ukraine, but that was more than a year ago, in late February 2022. According to the police, Wagenknecht’s rally attracted a mere 13,000 protesters. The media nevertheless paid as much attention to it as they had to the February 2022 crowds, perhaps in the expectation that Wagenknecht’s prediction might come true — or maybe in response to her claim that the public broadcasters and mainstream newspapers overwhelmingly supported an escalation of the war and were trying to silence the views of the majority of Germans.

Both Berlin rallies, a year apart, were calling for peace in Ukraine, but they could not have been more different. In 2022, just three days after Russia intensified its undeclared war against its neighbour by launching a large-scale invasion, the demonstrators were demanding that Russia stop its aggression. They were waving yellow-and-blue flags and professing their solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Last month, Wagenknecht and her co-organisers asked participants not to carry national symbols, but while no Ukrainian flags were on view, some of the protesters came armed with the horizontally striped white-blue-red ensign of the Russian Federation.

In 2022, the overwhelming message, directed at Russia’s Vladimir Putin, was “Stop the war!” A year later, demonstrators demanded that Germany and its NATO allies stop supplying arms to Ukraine — in the expectation that once Ukraine was left to its own devices, Volodymyr Zelenskyy would have to sue for peace. Both crowds were a diverse lot — and included veterans of the German peace movement of the 1980s — but last month’s also featured prominent representatives of the extreme right, such as Jörg Urban, the leader of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, in Saxony, and the far-right publisher Jürgen Elsässer. Wagenknecht didn’t mind: everybody is welcome at our rally, she said, provided they sincerely “ehrlichen Herzens,” want to call for peace and negotiations.

Last month’s rally was prompted by a change in government policy. In late January, after months of procrastination and debate, Germany agreed to supply fourteen Leopard 2 A6 tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries to export the German-made tank to help Ukrainians repel the Russian invaders. The Leopard is considered one of the world’s best battle tanks, and Ukraine had long demanded that its allies make this particular model available.

Germany had already delivered other military hardware to Ukraine, including thirty Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, but had shied away from supplying tanks that might enable Kyiv’s forces to go on the counteroffensive and perhaps even carry the war into Russia. And the Scholz government didn’t want to be seen to make available weaponry of a kind that the United States was keeping back.

Because of a widespread wariness about German involvement in armed conflicts, it took a while for the government to supply Ukraine with any weapons at all. Even after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for the separatists in the Donbas, the Merkel government categorically ruled out arming Ukraine.

Visiting Eastern Ukraine in May 2021, Greens co-leader Robert Habeck suggested that Germany should enable Ukraine to defend itself against the pro-Russian separatists. He didn’t have in mind tanks or heavy artillery; at most, he was referring to weapons that could be used to shoot down drones. He was roundly criticised, not only by the Merkel government but also by prominent members of his own party. With a national poll looming, he backtracked.

After Merkel’s defeat in September 2021 the new government of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats initially maintained its predecessor’s approach to Russia. In spite of American misgivings, Scholz and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens pushed ahead with the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline and continued to treat Vladimir Putin as if he could be trusted. In January 2022, when defence minister Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat, assured Ukraine that it had Germany’s full support, she proved her point by authorising the delivery of 5000 helmets to the Ukrainian army.

After Russia launched its full invasion, Scholz’s government abandoned the fifty-year-old doctrine that precluded weapons being provided to states outside NATO that are involved, or likely to be involved, in military conflicts. As Germany’s allies began talking about arming Ukraine with artillery, however, Lambrecht agreed only to dispatching bazookas to Kyiv. Much like the 5000 helmets, the offer didn’t seem overly generous: the weapons had been inherited by the Bundeswehr from its East German counterpart, the GDR’s National People’s Army, in 1990.

Over the twelve months since then, Scholz and his defence minister have appeared to be dragged kicking and screaming towards ramping up Germany’s military support, with pressure piled on by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his outspoken ambassador to Berlin, the Polish government, the opposition Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats’ coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats.

Things changed when Lambrecht was replaced by another Social Democrat, Boris Pistorius, in mid January. Once the US agreed to supply M1 Abrams tanks, which American generals consider unsuitable for the conditions in Ukraine, Germany finally decided to deliver a very limited number of battle tanks. Still, the Scholz government is committed to treading as carefully as possible, even if that’s not how its actions were perceived by those attending last month’s rally in Berlin. They were convinced that Scholz had joined the chorus of warmongers and that it might only be a matter of time until Germany crosses another red line and arms Ukraine with fighter planes, making a third world war a realistic prospect.

A couple of weeks before last month’s rally, Wagenknecht and Alice Schwarzer, a faded icon of the German women’s movement, published a manifesto on the petition website Its opening paragraph reads:

Today (10 February 2023) is the 352nd day of the war in Ukraine. So far, more than 200,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians have been killed. Women have been raped, children frightened, an entire people traumatised. If the fighting continues unabated, Ukraine will soon be a depopulated, ravaged country. And also in Europe many people are scared of an escalation of the war. They fear for their and their children’s future.

There are two reasons why it might be easy to dismiss the manifesto. One is its language. While the text acknowledges that the “Ukrainian population” — not “Ukraine,” nor the “Ukrainian people” — was “brutally attacked by Russia,” it fails unambiguously to identify victims and perpetrators. The grammatical passive voice in the first paragraph obscures the indisputable fact that women in Ukraine were raped by Russian soldiers. Civilians died in Ukraine rather than in Russia.

Wagenknecht and Schwarzer claim that Ukraine can’t win the war and that it therefore makes little sense to prolong the hostilities. They say that each day the war goes on costs up to a thousand lives and brings the world closer to a third world war, which would be fought with nuclear weapons.

The manifesto calls for immediate negotiations to facilitate a ceasefire — because that’s what half of Germany’s population wants. Such negotiations, Wagenknecht and Schwarzer suggest, would require compromises on both sides. It is hard to imagine what a Russian compromise would look like, or how the government in Kyiv could agree to anything but a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory (or at least from that part occupied after 24 February 2022).

The other reason why the manifesto lacks credibility has to do with the ulterior motives of one of its authors. It’s no secret that Wagenknecht wants to leave Die Linke (as her husband and closest political ally, former Social Democrats leader Oskar Lafontaine, has already done) and form a new party. She is hoping that enough of those currently voting for either Die Linke or the AfD would support her brand of populism and push a new party over the 5 per cent threshold designed to keep minor players out of the Bundestag.

The slogan “Peace with Russia!” would appeal to many voters, particularly in East Germany, as would two other causes currently championed by the AfD but also close to Wagenknecht’s heart: “Close the Borders!” and “War on Wokeness!” The manifesto and the rally were thinly disguised means of gauging support for a new party.

The petition was endorsed by sixty-nine prominent Germans, most of them writers, academics or actors. Many of them would have written a very different text but felt strongly enough about the manifesto’s key message to sign it. They include, for example, Margot Käßmann, a former leader of Germany’s Lutheran Church. She doesn’t want Germany to provide any more arms to Ukraine because she is convinced that they would inevitably “escalate, extend and broaden the war, and that fears of a nuclear war are not completely unfounded.” When asked how she imagines negotiations would be initiated and proceed, she said that she wasn’t an expert on diplomacy.

Another signatory is the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, who suspects that the war is the result of a US ploy to shore up its global hegemony at the expense of Europe. Like many others who subscribe to the sentiments of the manifesto, he is convinced that his views have not been sufficiently aired by Germany’s public broadcasters and the press — or worse: “The government is readying the tools to unleash the police and, in particular, the security services on anyone who doubts the wisdom of pledging full-scale support to the ultranationalist government of Ukraine and the Biden administration,” he predicted in a recent interview.

But while Wagenknecht and Schwarzer’s “Manifesto for Peace” and some of the arguments put forward by its prominent supporters are unconvincing, the manifesto can’t be readily discounted. That’s not least because around three-quarters of a million people have already signed it. It has in fact attracted more signatures than any other German petition on

The support for the manifesto also reflects widely shared views and sentiments. According to a YouGov poll conducted last month, 51 per cent of Germans believe that their country’s supply of arms to Ukraine makes it a belligerent. Another survey, in early March, found that 31 per cent of respondents think that Germany’s support for Ukraine goes too far.

I didn’t sign Wagenknecht and Schwarzer’s manifesto, nor do I believe that Germany’s support for Ukraine goes too far. But I sympathise with some of those calling for renewed diplomatic efforts to stop the killing. And I have misgivings about the hawkish rhetoric of Ukraine’s German supporters.

The demands that Germany provide more, and more sophisticated, military hardware to Ukraine is often linked to the mantra that Ukraine must win the war. That aligns with the demand that Russia must lose the war, but is quite different from the suggestion that Ukraine must be put in a position where it won’t lose the war. I cannot see why a defeat of Russia should be a necessary prerequisite for a Russian withdrawal and an acknowledgment that Ukraine’s borders must be respected. Besides, it is hard to imagine Russia, the country with the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, conceding outright defeat.

I am astounded by the uncritical embrace of NATO by erstwhile pacifists, particularly among the Greens, as if the US-led alliance were a peacekeeping force on a humanitarian mission. The idea that its expansion, be it eastwards or northwards, would only be in the interest of global peace or that NATO is an alliance designed to promote democracy strikes me as preposterous. The Kurdish exiles extradited from Sweden to Turkey to facilitate Sweden’s joining of the alliance could testify that NATO doesn’t have a problem with autocratic regimes among its members, let alone dictatorial regimes outside NATO. That is if they live to tell the tale.

The forgetfulness of particularly those hawks who are recent converts baffles me. There have been numerous violations of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter — namely that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations” — since 1945. The US has been a regular culprit. Past American invasions should not serve as excuses for Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity — not just since February 2022 but since 2014 — but a picture that casts the US as a defender of the UN Charter is plainly wrong.

Similarly, while moves to collect evidence in order to eventually charge the Russian leadership with crimes against humanity deserve all the support they can get, it’s worth recalling that the US is among the countries that don’t recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which in an ideal world would try Putin and his generals.

The forgetfulness of Ukraine’s hawkish supporters also extends to other aspects of postwar history. They often imply that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unprecedented. It’s not. Arguably, Russia would not have dared to invade Ukraine if the West had taken a strong stance against its invasion of Georgia, its bombing of Grozny, its occupation of the Crimea and its intervention in Syria (including the bombing of civilian targets in Aleppo).

Nor is Russia the only country that has tried to bomb a European country into submission. The Greens, in particular, ought to recall NATO’s 1999 intervention in the Kosovo war and its bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which then foreign minister Joschka Fischer defended by comparing what was happening in Kosovo to Auschwitz. At the time, many Greens quit the party in protest against the decision to endorse Fischer’s stance.

Incidentally, a closer look at what happened in 1999 might be instructive in more than one sense. At rallies against the NATO bombing, left-wing pacifists marched side by side with Serbian ultranationalists, admirers of the far-right Chetniks who fought against Nazi Germany (but also against Croats, Bosniaks and Tito’s partisans).

The amnesia that characterises the current debate between hawks and doves also extends to other recent conflicts. According to the UN Development Program, the war in Yemen had caused 377,000 deaths by the end of 2021. Last year, the German government authorised arms sales to Saudi Arabia, one of the parties to that war. So much for the claim that the decision to supply arms to Ukraine has been unparalleled.

And what about Scholz’s Zeitenwende, the turning point in German policy that he announced in the Bundestag on 27 February 2022? He used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a pretext for a €100 billion funding boost for the armed forces.

Finally, I am wary of the expectation that support for Ukraine and its people must be accompanied by an endorsement of Ukrainian nationalism. At rallies in support of Ukraine I am uneasy when the Ukrainian national anthem is sung (which invariably happens during such events), not because I have anything against that anthem in particular, but because occasions when the Australian or German national anthems are sung make me similarly uncomfortable.

Similarly, demands that cultural events involving Russian artists ought to be cancelled or boycotted, or that the reading of Russian literature ought to be discouraged are not just plain stupid but also reek of a nationalism that is at the heart of many of the ills of today’s world, including armed conflict and forced displacement.

Some of those who signed Wagenknecht’s manifesto may have done so because they are critical of NATO, object to US foreign policy past and present, or believe that we eventually ought to overcome an international system based on nation-states. None of these beliefs is incompatible with empathy, and indeed solidarity, with a people attacked by a ruthless invader. Yet in many statements about the war by self-declared pacifists, solidarity is in short supply.

Take, for example, an open letter to Olaf Scholz by the mayor and twenty-one of thirty-four local parliamentarians of Freital, a town of 40,000 in the East German state of Saxony. “As a sovereign state, Germany, the federal government and you as chancellor have to make sovereign decisions for the benefit of the German people,” they tell Scholz, claiming that instead his government’s policies further the interests of “third parties.” Referring twice to “Leid,” meaning pain or suffering, they write that “our painful past” ought to teach Germans that the supply of weapons to Ukraine will simply produce further, indescribable suffering.

A generous interpretation would assume that unlike the historical Leid, “indescribable suffering” refers to the current and future experiences of people in Ukraine. According to a less generous reading, the latter is something likely to be experienced by “us,” once the delivery of tanks and other arms to Ukraine ignites a war fought with nuclear weapons.

Such a reading is supported by another statement in the letter. The authors claim that they are not prepared, as Germans, “to be involved in a third world war or to be made a party to belligerent acts in whatever form, either directly or indirectly.” Already, individuals and businesses are experiencing what they call “unacceptable consequences” — presumably as a result of Germany’s support for Ukraine.

Lacking any explicit reference to Ukrainian victims and Russian perpetrators, and devoid of empathy for the people in Ukraine, the Freital letter captures some of the sentiment fuelling German pacifism. It is not even an extreme example. It doesn’t spell out what many opponents of support for Ukraine are openly saying: that the sanctions against Russia are harming Germany’s economy and have been responsible for energy shortages and rising inflation, and should therefore be withdrawn immediately.

Am I being unfair by quoting a letter written by the members of a local parliament in which the AfD wields a lot of influence? True, regional Saxony is not representative of Germany. Neither is the man I am about to quote, although many Germans would like to think he is. Jürgen Habermas, the nonagenarian philosopher who is arguably Germany’s foremost public intellectual, intervened twice in the public debates about German support for Ukraine, first in May last year, and again after the publication of Wagenknecht and Schwarzer’s manifesto, on both occasions by writing an essay for the respected Munich-based broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Habermas names perpetrators and victims. In his first contribution, he endorses Olaf Scholz’s caution rather than arguing against supporting Ukraine. More recently, he has echoed calls for a diplomatic solution and criticised the ramping up of Germany’s military aid for the government in Kyiv. His line of argument is neither simplistic nor rash. But he too seems overly concerned by what the war does to him.

He begins his first article by referring to the representation of the war in the media, which in his view has been influenced by Volodymyr Zelenskyy: “A Ukrainian president, who knows about the impact of images, is responsible for powerful messages.” He then concedes that notwithstanding this “skilful staging,” “the facts tug at our nerves.” He is concerned about our nerves, rather than about the very real death and destruction represented by such skilfully staged images?

In his second essay, he once more articulates Western sensitivities. “The West has its own legitimate interests and its own obligations,” he writes. Western governments

have legal obligations towards the security concerns of their own citizens and, irrespective of the attitudes of the people in Ukraine, they are morally co-responsible for victims and destruction caused by weapons from the West; therefore, they cannot shift the responsibility for the brutal consequences of an extension of the fighting, which becomes only possible thanks to their military support, to the Ukrainian government.

Although Habermas is ostensibly talking about Western governments, he appears to mean “us.” To use Margot Käßmann’s reading of Habermas’s words: “When we are supplying weapons — that’s something the philosopher Habermas has put very well — we are co-responsible for the dead. That’s not something where we could evade our responsibility.”

Might Käßmann and Habermas feel less strongly about the brutal consequences of a Russian occupation of Ukraine because they wouldn’t be broadcast into their living rooms (with the skilful stager, Zelenskyy, presumably one of the many victims of the Russian “liberators”)?

Habermas might object to Käßmann’s interpretation of his words, and would not want to be associated with either Wagenknecht or the Freital councillors. But he shares with them a call for negotiations and a conviction that such negotiations require the West to scale down, if not halt altogether, its military support for Ukraine. And the clamour for peace, whether in pursuit of cheap Russian gas or out of a desire not to be held morally responsible for the fighting, is informed by egotism.

No obvious middle path exists between abandoning Ukraine and arming the Kyiv government to the extent that its army can inflict a defeat on Russia. That is, if we assume that a solution will depend on what happens on the battlefield.

But the West has two other options. One is to do more to influence countries that have tacitly supported Putin, particularly China and India. The West would have to pay a high price if it wanted China and India to stop buying Russian coal and oil, but until we know the price-tag, it might be worth exploring that option in more detail.

The other option would be to impose meaningful sanctions in the hope that they lead to a coup against Putin. A couple of days ago, the Hamburg state government reported that last year the use of coal in Hamburg’s power stations increased by almost 15 per cent on 2021’s figure. That’s a result of Germany’s attempt to wean itself off Russian gas. But 35 per cent of the coal used in Hamburg last year was imported from Russia. So far, the sanctions are too selective to seriously hurt the Russian economy. In fact Russia’s revenues from selling oil and gas increased by 28 per cent last year.

The global climate might benefit from more wide-ranging sanctions targeting Russian fossil fuels. But any tightening would also hurt those imposing the sanctions, at least initially. Their impact would be grist for the mill for those who claim the price we pay for the war in Ukraine is already too high. The debate would further obscure the fact that whatever inconveniences we experience, and however much our sensitivities are offended, the war’s victims are the people of Ukraine.

German angst, which I discussed in a previous Inside Story essay, is clearly back, and with it the egotism that accompanied it. The current debate would benefit from a less blinkered view of the past, one that is mindful of what happened in Yemen and of Russia’s track record since the early 1990s, of unholy alliances against NATO’s bombing of Belgrade, and of the US’s insistence that its self-appointed role as global sheriff should not be subject to the scrutiny of the International Criminal Court.

It could also be instructive to revisit the peace movement of the 1980s, which is now upheld as exemplary by German pacifists and hawks alike. Then, too, many peace activists took sides in a global conflict pitting the US and its allies against the Soviet Union. Then, too, what mattered most to many of those gathered in Bonn in October 1981 were their own sensitivities, because they imagined themselves as (future) victims. And then, too, the allaying of Germans’ fears did nothing to enhance the safety of people in faraway places. •