Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s reluctance to supply tanks to Ukraine is partly due to German history. But Scholz’s style of government also plays a role. “The whole of Europe is waiting for a decision.”
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When Olaf Scholz took office as Chancellor on December 8, 2021, he boasted that his cabinet was one of the most progressive in decades. His government would implement the largest industrial modernization in more than a century to green Germany. It was also the first cabinet with an equal number of male and female ministers, and there were ambitious plans to make immigration easier.
But less than three months later, Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine and Scholz suddenly had to work as ‘crisis chancellor’. The Social Democrat was forced to keep nuclear power stations open longer, to expand coal firing, to invest large-scale in defense and to allocate billions for aid to citizens and companies.
In his recent New Year’s message, Scholz therefore spoke of ‘a difficult year’. He called the Russian invasion “a trial for us and for our country.”
The slim, balding Scholz (64), originally a lawyer, has been a member of the center-left SPD for almost half a century and is married to a fellow party member. He is considered pragmatic, straightforward and a bit colorless. He was once nicknamed ‘Scholzomat’ because he would come across as robotic.
Within the SPD, Scholz belongs to the moderate wing. He is one of Germany’s most experienced politicians, having made his mark as mayor of Hamburg and as finance minister and vice chancellor under his predecessor Angela Merkel.
Scholz’s response to the war over the past eleven months has earned him both praise and criticism. For example, he garnered much appreciation at home and abroad for the historic speech he gave three days after the Russian invasion in the Bundestag, the German parliament. In it he spoke of a Zeitenwende, a turning point in history, and the need to drastically strengthen the armed forces.
His government also quickly made the country independent of Russian gas, which constituted 55 percent of the supply before the invasion. Within ten months, the Germans built a large terminal for the import of liquefied gas, a project that would normally have taken years. His government also raised the minimum wage and implemented a major reform of unemployment benefits.
But at the same time, criticism is increasing, especially about the way his government supports Ukraine. Germany has now become one of the largest European supporters of Ukraine. But with almost every decision about new weapons, Scholz hesitates and only comes across the bridge after others have made commitments.
This is also the case with the international wrangling over the supply of tanks. The Ukrainians have been begging for some time for Western-made tanks, hoping to use them to break through Russian lines and drive them out. But Scholz is hesitant about the delivery of German Leopard tanks and other European countries that own Leopards are not yet getting permission from Scholz to send them to Ukraine.
Much to the chagrin of Ukrainians. “The indecisiveness is causing more of our people to be killed,” a top adviser to President Zelensky tweeted last weekend. “Every day of delay is the death of more Ukrainians.”
Olaf Scholz in the Chancellery in Berlin. Photo: AP
Scholz’s hesitations stem in part from history. Because Germany has been militarily reticent since the Second World War and old pacifist reflexes live in its SPD. ‘Nie wieder’ is still the mantra: no more war. Moreover, the German Social Democrats traditionally maintain relatively good ties with Moscow, Scholz’s former teacher and Gazprom director Gerhard Schröder leading the charge.
In addition, according to observers, his cautious style of government plays a role. Some now jokingly call it ‘Scholzen’, a reference to the equally thoughtful ‘Merkelen’ of its predecessor. The chancellor knows that the German population is strongly divided about the supply of tanks.
But irritation at Scholz’s delay is growing, not only among his foreign allies, but also among his coalition partners. The ruling liberal party FDP called the chancellor’s communication about the tanks “a catastrophe”. And the Greens are increasingly openly advocating delivery. Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Greens, caused confusion on Sunday evening by saying in an interview on French TV that Germany “would not stand in the way” of Poland wanting to deliver its Leopard tanks to Ukraine.
The main opposition party, the Christian Democratic CDU, has also called on Scholz to quickly come across the bridge with the tanks. “The whole of Europe is waiting for a German decision,” CDU parliamentarian Johann Wadephul tweeted.