Here in Berlin, mention Zeitenwende — the expression German Chancellor Olaf Scholz used last winter to describe the big changes triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and reactions vary. Zeitenwende roughly translates as “the beginning of a new era.” Six months later, it’s all impressive — and complicated.
Scholz promised in his February 27 speech to lawmakers to ramp up defense spending, break Germany’s dependency on Russian natural gas, and confront autocrats with a far tougher, national security-minded approach. Virtually everyone we meet here is on board — and hopeful. They also remind us that Germany is at the beginning of a process. Don’t rule out surprises.
There was another big “Wende,” or turning point for Germany in 1989. Die Wende is how Germans describe the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of East German communism. Freedom won. Unification was achieved. Yet democracy and social cohesion in this part of the new Germany have struggled ever since. Today, the authoritarian-populist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) — a hodgepodge of sovereigntists, immigration restrictionists, and right-wing radicals — is a force across the former GDR. Together with the left-wing populist (post-Communist) Die Linke, the two parties account for as much as 40 percent of the vote in many eastern states. Worries about the costs of the war run high. The CDU governor of Saxony is now calling for peace through partition in Ukraine.
It’s different in the west. Public support for Ukraine is strong and steady. CDU chairman Friedrich Merz wants the Scholz government to do even more. Yet German solidarity — consumers and companies — is about to face a stress test this winter over pocketbook issues. A Berliner tells us he and his wife have just received notice that heating bills will go up by 40 percent. They’re shocked, but well off. The government promises to help the needy.
The vice chairman of the Free Democrats — yes, the free enterprise “liberals” have their populist wing — says it’s time to restart Nord Stream 2. The Bavarian CSU has always maintained strong ties to Russia. An editor from the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag warns of Ukraine fatigue and predicts a critical time exactly now through spring.
Germany’s Russia debate is only now beginning. There’s a general recognition among elites that the naive, old Ostpolitik theology must go. And in its place? There’s plenty of history, culture, psychology, and pathology wrapped up in German ties to Russia. Commercial attitudes and interests — and Gazprom philanthropy — are not unwound overnight. A very sympathetic SPD politician stresses how hard it is, still, for Germany to get its head around leading on big strategic issues. Hungary is a problem for the EU. The conservative Polish government is a problem for Berlin’s center-left coalition (and for many Germans for that matter). Italy has elections in two weeks, with pro-Russian forces gathering steam. Zeitenwende takes time. Beware of Vladimir Putin suddenly playing a peace card, warns a member of the Bundestag.
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Keep an eye on our new project with Garry Kasparov. Uriel Epshtein, the executive director of Kasparov’s Renew Democracy Initiative, is with me in Berlin. We’ve just been joined by two colleagues from Kyiv, one working for the president and one for the foreign minister. We’ll be back soon (with Garry, too). Many of the like-minded Germans we speak to here are cautiously optimistic that Germany can stay the course. They worry about American politics.
We’ll soon host by Zoom CDU Bundestag member Norbert Röttgen on many of these issues. Jack Janes has kindly agreed to moderate (we’ve just seen Norbert in Berlin).
Read Peter Graf von Kielmansegg on the Russia problem (Opens in a new window).
Read Bob Asahina in conversation (Opens in a new window) with Frank Fukuyama and Stuart Levey on the wider effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Watch for Russian propaganda and disinformation aimed at splitting unity and furthering our own self-inflicted fragmentation. In Germany, there’s already been a campaign against German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. She’s a strong supporter of Ukraine. “She cares more about Ukraine than she does about German voters,” goes the Russian-instigated line.
We care deeply about American interests. We see national interests at stake in Ukraine. We note this as we’re fully aware of the immense amount of work we all have to do at home in the United States.
Read (Opens in a new window) Michael Poliakoff on academic rigor mortis.
Read (Opens in a new window) Peter Schuck on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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Keep listening to music. This week, short and sweet.
British composer, pianist, and conductor Thomas Adès is just about to have his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. Here’s (Opens in a new window) his concerto for violin and orchestra. Adès is an innovator.
Apropos turning points, Jeannette Sorrell and her fabulous group (Opens in a new window) in Cleveland will take on the Monteverdi Vespers soon. The arts have always had their struggles with innovation, adaptation, and change. Claudio Monteverdi was a leader and a key figure in the transition from Renaissance to Baroque. Monteverdi lived in unsettled times, when, for example, outnumbered Poles defeated Russians and occupied Moscow.
Try this (Opens in a new window), magnificent Monteverdi. He dared to mix the religious and secular, opera with sacred music, all in the search for a new synthesis.