The Cold War roots of Scholz’s tank trauma – POLITICO
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In early January 1984, a budding young West German socialist with a shoulder-length curly mane traveled by train to East Berlin with his comrades for an important meeting.
It was a tense period of the Cold War with the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union at its height. Despite everything, the young man’s entourage was welcomed with open arms and even spared themselves the rigors of the East German border guards; after all, he was a friend.
During the meeting between the young socialists and the communist leadership of East Germany, the young man, a law student from Hamburg in his twenties named Olaf Scholz, could be seen sitting directly opposite Egon Krenz , the protege of East German leader Erich Honecker.
Details of the visit were featured prominently on East Germany’s main television news program and the next day were the front page of Neues Deutschland, the communist regime’s newspaper.
Scholz is making headlines again this week over his U-turn on sending tanks to Ukraine. To understand this decision – and the stubborn refusals that preceded it – we must delve into its past.
In the early 1980s, Scholz and the Communists shared a common goal: to prevent the United States from stationing medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe. The US plans, sparked by a similar move by the Soviets, had sparked some of the largest and most violent protests West Germany had seen in decades. Protest organizers, including Scholz, who was then deputy leader of the socialist youth movement, saw then-US President Ronald Reagan as a loose cannon and feared he could start a nuclear war.
In their meetings with East German officials, Scholz’s group called on the USSR to respond in the same way by “putting something at America’s doorstep”, i.e. nuclear weapons, as Soviet missiles pointed at Europe “did not pose an adequate threat to the United States”. according to a detailed report on the visit compiled by the East German Stasi secret police.
Throughout the 1980s, Scholz made at least nine trips to the GDR, records show, including a 1986 visit to Krenz, who succeeded Honecker as East German leader shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (In 1997, Krenz was convicted of manslaughter in four cases related to the murder of East Germans attempting to flee the country.)
Scholz, who was finance minister in Angela Merkel’s last government before succeeding her as chancellor in late 2021, has largely dodged questions about his dealings with East Germany (including the circumstances surrounding a visit in a sauna he did during a one-week retreat with communist youth workers in 1983).
Scholz’s supporters have characterized his history as a Marxist trying to undo capitalism as a youthful indiscretion and point to his later political career in which he was seen as a moderate.
Yet there are strong echoes between Scholz’s staunch refusal to take a more resolute stance on Russia over Ukraine and his youthful enthusiasm for socialism and the Soviet-led sphere that came with a fervent anti-Americanism.
After months of stubborn resistance, Scholz paved the way for Germany and other countries that have German-made Leopard tanks to send to Ukraine. As welcome as his about-face is, it comes only after Scholz sparked a huge row both within NATO and in his own German coalition over the issue.
For Scholz and his cronies in the 1980s, the Communists were allies and NATO the aggressor. Scholz, who was seen as a leftist within the Social Democratic Party, pushed his party to consider a West German exit from NATO, which he called “aggressive and imperial”.
In recent weeks, as Germany’s allies have tried to pressure Berlin to lift its veto on sending German-made battle tanks to Ukraine, some Western officials and analysts have argued that resistance is rooted in the country’s history during World War II and its invasion of the Soviet Union. Union. This argument rings hollow, however, when one considers the millions of Ukrainians the Germans killed during the war. If the German ghosts of World War II were really behind Scholz’s policies, he should also do all he could to defend Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the Nazi map was an effective tool for Germany to shirk its responsibility for the security of Europe, and Scholz knows better than anyone what buttons to press at home and abroad.
That doesn’t change the fact that his own opinions and actions are shaped more by the Cold War and the fear of antagonizing Russia.
He is not alone. Rolf Mützenich, the leader of Scholz’s Social Democrats in the German parliament who reached a majority at the same time as the Chancellor, has spent decades trying to rid Germany of American nuclear weapons. Amid the tank debate, he played a crucial role in playing defense for his former comrade.
The Scholz-Mützenich approach to Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rooted in the mainstream German narrative about what ended the Cold War and led to reunification. In the German mind, this was Ostpolitik, the policy of detente introduced by Chancellor Willy Brandt in the early 1970s. This is Germany’s engagement with the Soviets, both economically and diplomatically, that led to a peaceful end to the Cold War and not Reagan’s belligerence.
This view not only contradicts America’s historical understanding of the period, it also goes against what most Eastern Europeans believe. For Poland, it was the courage of the Solidarity movement to stand up to its communist masters that brought about change, for example.
Yet Germany’s perception of how and why the Cold War ended has become its reality and informs both policy-making and public opinion. Do you remember the years of insistence by ex-Chancellor Merkel on pursuing an unsuccessful “dialogue” with Putin instead of standing up to him?
Scholz also showed that the only thing the allies can count on Germany for is that it will drag its feet, analyze every decision, big or small, and then play what the Germans like to call a “beleidigte Leberwurst”. (an offended liver sausage), demanding more “respect.”
Yes, Scholz is now ready to send Ukrainian tanks, but only after a year of pressure and in numbers (14 in total) that leave something to be desired
Putin’s former socialist comrades in Berlin may not be willing to ignore his atrocities in Ukraine, but as the German Chancellor has proven over the past year, the Russian leader can at least count on them to save him more time. The Scholz spinmeisters now declare “All’s well that ends well”. This can reassure the chancellor and his entourage.
But given the daily carnage Ukrainian forces face on the front lines due to delays, it shouldn’t.