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BERLIN — Love Germany or hate it, few would dispute that it is a country of pessimists, a country where the glasses are half empty and every silver lining is accompanied by a dark cloud. There is, of course, a German word for this phenomenon: Schwarzmalereiblack paint.
Normally, the morose nature of the Germans provides a source of cheer for its neighbors and allies. With the tide apparently turning in the war in Ukraine, no one is having fun.
On Monday, Christine Lambrecht, the latest in a long line of German defense ministers with little or no military experience, made it clear that Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield would not alter Berlin’s refusal to provide the country with much-needed combat tanks.
Lambrecht, delivering what was billed as a ‘historic’ address to Berlin, lambasted Russia for its ‘horrible war of invasion’ and said it was time for Germany to take a ‘role of leadership’ in European security. Helping Ukraine win doesn’t seem to be part of that strategy.
Germany’s refusal to deliver combat tanks is a classic example of policy pursued by Schwarzmalerei. Rooted in fear, German reluctance not only threatens Ukrainian security; it undermines the stability and cohesion of the European Union and NATO.
“Berlin’s hesitation, its inaction, seriously calls into question the value and the alliance with Germany,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in an interview published in the current edition of the weekly. The Polish leader, whose country has been among the most generous arms suppliers to Ukraine, added that “many other heads of government in Europe” shared his view.
With Russian forces retreating in eastern Ukraine, if there was ever a time for Berlin to rethink its stance on tanks, it’s now. Instead, the torturous debate continues.
In recent days, black German painters have come out in force. Despite all the progress Ukraine has made on the battlefield, it would be folly, they relentlessly argue, to assume that Kyiv can retake its occupied territories, let alone win the war.
“It’s probably not going to go on like this,” Christian Mölling, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations, a state-sponsored think tank, told ZDF, Germany’s public broadcaster, over the weekend. The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition and fuel, he noted.
Johannes Varwick, a German political scientist who has poured cold water on Ukraine’s prospects through the country’s media for months, has turned even gloomier.
“Unpopular opinion,” he said. wrote on Twitter. “In my opinion, reports of Ukrainian military successes do not change the big picture: Russia (unfortunately) has escalation dominance and, in the medium term, higher endurance. There is no alternative to a political reconciliation of interests.
Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk offered his candid assessment in response: “Unpopular opinion: Fuck you.”
Although not all of the country’s war commentators are convinced that Ukraine will lose, the pessimism expressed by the likes of Varwick is at the heart of Germany’s reluctance – despite widespread public sympathy for the Ukrainian cause – to not do more to help.
While a clear majority of Germans want to support Ukraine, only about a third advocate sending heavy weapons such as tanks.
Germany has indeed delivered heavy weapons to Ukraine, including 10 howitzers, anti-aircraft systems and other weapons, mainly defensive. Critics say the degree of military aid, which stood at 1.2 billion euros in mid-August, according to data from the Kiel-based Institute for the World Economy, is not proportionate to a country of its size and wealth. By comparison, the United States has so far committed some €25 billion in military aid to Ukraine.
Germany’s three-party governing coalition is split on the tank issue, with some voices from the Greens and Free Democrat Liberals calling for the delivery of tanks. But practically, the answer remains ‘Nein.’
During a visit to Kyiv over the weekend, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was pressed by her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on the needs of his country in battle tanks. She refused to make any commitments on the tanks, saying only that her government remained in “intensive” deliberations on arms deliveries.
Ultimately, the responsibility for the decision not to send tanks lies with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who likes to point out that neither the United States nor any other country has sent Western-made battle tanks to Ukraine.
Scholz’s argument is frustrating for those fighting in Ukraine. As the manufacturer of one of the most effective combat tanks in the world, known as the Leopard, no country in Europe is better placed than Germany to supply Ukraine. In addition, the country has hundreds of downgraded Leopards.
While Berlin’s caution was easier to understand for some in the early days of the war, when the extent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s colonial ambitions were not yet clear to everyone, it has become increasingly difficult to justify.
Even US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has generally treated Berlin with kid gloves, has begun to strike a more forceful tone. “As much as I admire and applaud everything Germany does…we need to do more,” Amy Gutmann, the US ambassador to Germany, told German television on Sunday, adding that “the peace and prosperity of the West” were at stake.
Much has been written about the causes of Berlin’s soft approach to Moscow: the country’s commercial interests, the legacy of Ostpolitik and the Russophilia of the German left all played a role.
But with Ukraine finally making meaningful progress on the battlefield, it’s hard not to think that Germany’s own history has nothing to do with the continued intransigence.
Call him the ghost of Stalingrad. It is not German war guilt for the damage Hitler’s armies inflicted on Russia that is at stake here (after all, Ukraine suffered more than Russia under German occupation). Rather, like the Ukrainians, the Germans were convinced that they could defeat Russia. In the end, however, they found they couldn’t.
If Germans want to reflect on the lessons of history, they had better ask themselves another question. Rather than worrying about the miscalculations that led to their loss in World War II, they should think about what Europe would look like today if they had been allowed to win.