The Cold War roots of Scholz’s tank trauma

Olaf Scholz’s long dithering before sending tanks is symptomatic of a deep-seated mindset that détente won the Cold War, not Reagan’s belligerence.

In early January of 1984, an aspiring 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 time in the Cold War with the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at a fever pitch. Even so, the young man’s entourage was welcomed with open arms and even spared the rigors of East Germany’s border guards; after all, he was a friend.

At the meeting between the young socialists and East Germany’s communist leadership, the young man, a Hamburg law student in his mid-20s named Olaf Scholz, could be seen sitting directly across from Egon Krenz, the protégé of East German leader Erich Honecker.

Details of the visit featured prominently on East Germany’s main TV news program and the next day it was front-page news in Neues Deutschland, the communist regime’s newspaper.

Scholz is once again front page news this week over his reversal on sending tanks to Ukraine. To understand that decision — and the stubborn refusals that preceded it — one needs to delve into his past.

Back in the early 1980s, Scholz and the communists shared a common goal: to block the U.S. from stationing mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe. The U.S. plans, triggered by a similar step from the Soviets, had unleashed some of the largest and most violent protests West Germany had seen in decades. The organizers of the protests, including Scholz, who was then a deputy leader of the socialist youth movement, viewed then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan as a loose cannon and worried he might start a nuclear war.

In their meetings with the East German officials, Scholz’s group called on the USSR to respond in kind by “putting something on America’s doorstep,” i.e. nuclear weapons, because the Soviet missiles pointed at Europe “were not an adequate threat to the U.S.A.,” according to a detailed report on the visit complied by East Germany’s Stasi secret police.

Throughout the 1980s, Scholz made at least nine trips to the DDR, according to the records, including a 1986 visit to Krenz, who succeeded Honecker as East Germany’s leader shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. (In 1997, Krenz was convicted of manslaughter in four cases connected to the killing of East Germans trying to flee the country.)

Scholz, who was finance minister in Angela Merkel’s last government before succeeding her as chancellor at the end of 2021, has largely dodged questions about his dealings in East Germany (including the circumstances around a visit to a sauna he made during a weeklong retreat with communist youth leaders 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 during which he was regarded as a moderate.

Yet there are strong echoes between Scholz’s steadfast refusal to take a more resolute stance on Russia over Ukraine and his youthful enthusiasm for socialism and the Soviet-led sphere which was accompanied by fervent anti-Americanism.

After months of stubborn resistance, Scholz has cleared the way for Germany and other countries that own German-made Leopard tanks to send them to Ukraine. As welcome as his about-face is, it comes only after Scholz triggered a massive row both within NATO and in his own German coalition over the issue.

For Scholz and his cohorts in the 1980s, the communists were allies and NATO the aggressor. Scholz, who was regarded as a leftist within the Social Democratic Party, pushed his party to consider a West German exit from NATO, which he characterized as “aggressive and imperial.”

In recent weeks, as Germany’s allies tried to pressure Berlin to lift its veto on sending German-made battle tanks to Ukraine, some western officials and analysts have posited that the resistance is rooted in the country’s World War II history and its invasion of the Soviet Union. That argument rings hollow, however, if one considers the millions of Ukrainians the Germans killed in the war. If Germany’s World War II ghosts were really driving Scholz’s policy, he should equally be doing whatever he could to defend Ukraine.

Nonetheless, the Nazi card has been an effective tool for Germany to shirk its responsibility for Europe’s security and Scholz knows better than anyone what buttons to push at home and abroad.

That doesn’t change the fact that his own views and actions are shaped more by the Cold War and a fear of antagonizing Russia.

He’s not alone. Rolf Mützenich, the leader of Scholz’s Social Democrats in the German parliament who came of age 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 old comrade.

The Scholz-Mützenich approach to Vladimir Putin’s Russia is rooted in the prevailing German narrative about what ended the Cold War and led to reunification. In the German mind, it was Ostpolitik, the détente policies introduced by Chancellor Willy Brandt in the early 1970s. It was Germany’s engagement with the Soviets, both economic and diplomatic, that led to a peaceful end to the Cold War and not Reagan’s belligerence.

That view is not just at odds with America’s historical understanding of the period, it also runs counter to what most eastern Europeans believe. For Poland, it was the courage of the Solidarity movement to stand up to their communist masters that ushered in 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. Remember ex-Chancellor Merkel’s years-long insistence on pursuing fruitless “dialogue” with Putin instead of standing up to him?

Scholz too has shown that the only thing allies can count on Germany for is that it will drag its feet, parse every decision large or small and then play what Germans like to call a “beleidigte Leberwurst” (an offended liver sausage), demanding more “respect.”

Yes, Scholz is now willing to send Ukraine tanks, but only after a year of pressure and in numbers (14 in total) that leave something to be desired

Putin’s erstwhile socialist comrades in Berlin may not be willing to ignore the atrocities he has committed in Ukraine, but as the German chancellor has proved over the past year, the Russian leader can at the very least count on them to buy him more time. Scholz’s spinmeisters are now declaring “All’s well that ends well.” That may provide some comfort to the chancellor and his inner circle.

But considering the daily carnage Ukrainian forces face on the front lines as a result of the delays, it shouldn’t.

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