Mind the Wende
When turning, it helps to know where you're going
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to get pleasure out of not only denying Ukraine’s right to exist, but insisting that a country of more than
44 40 million people doesn’t exist at all. When words no longer cut it, he went ahead to try his luck with action.
For years, Putin has often been portrayed in the western (anglo) media as a Jedi master playing chess in four dimensions. Rarely has he been viewed instead as a philosopher. Given his take on Ukraine, he may be more Camus than Kenobi. I mean, does Ukraine exist? What is existence, really? Are the keys I’m pressing to form these words on this screen even real? Am I? Are you, dear reader?
What is anything?
Pull Putin’s thread and it pretty soon unravels from a tight spool of geopolitics into a tangle of existentialism. And given the atomic tenor of the day, that can nosedive into nihilism rather quickly. He may have a point about Ukraine — as far as any country is only as real as it can be collectively willed into being.
Much the same can be said for Russia. Or, for that matter, Germany. All three, as we currently know them, are about the same age, which is younger than me.
Many Germans don’t see their country as such a spring chicken. This is forgivable. After all, they’re credited with inventing the printing press, and that is very old. The difficulty here is that if you don’t start in 1990, when former communist East Germany (DDR) and the republic of West Germany (BRD) became one, then you are left to confront an awkward question: What exactly happened at that point in history — a Wiedervereinigung (reunification) of two parts to establish a new whole, or an Übernahme (takeover) of a failed state by a stronger one?
Seeing that the DDR vanished and the BRD stuck around, things aren’t looking so clean cut for the former and established historiography.
We can go further back — to 1949, 1933, 1918, 1871 … the Holy Roman Empire? — when asking how old Germany is, let alone what it is, each accompanied by its own unpleasant considerations and conundrums. For purposes here, we won’t.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of two Germanys was the first and most famous of several Wenden that the country has gone through. So much so, it is called die Wende — the turning point of turning points, to which all subsequent ones are compared. It’s certainly less dire sounding than Stunde Null (zero hour) of 1945.
That’s because the original Wende is almost universally hailed as a success. The BRD’s “old states” made room for the DDR’s “new states,” and in not much more time than it takes Telekom nowadays to come by to hook up your home internet.
As always, though, expectations are everything, and the bar for success back then was so low that the Wende just had to make sure it didn’t trip getting over it. After four-plus decades of Cold War, the going assumption was Europe would remain divided forever, or only come together in time to freeze from nuclear winter. In the face of total death and destruction, it doesn’t take much to look good.
That the Wende happened without a shot fired was rightful cause for euphoria. Even better, as far as the war’s victorious Allied powers were concerned, Germany got bigger without becoming a menace for a third time. Everyone wins.
Except for a whole lot of people in the former East who didn’t, or at least feel they didn’t. The so-called Wendeverlierer. We see this in the brain drain to the west, and the towns and villages in the east that were left to aging retirees. Major German industry and globally recognized brands have remained largely in the west, with its eastern affiliates more or less taken over by western transplants. Most C-level positions — and political ones — are still filled by Germans hailing from closer to the Rhine than the Elbe, and per capita incomes reflect that. The likes of Tesla and Intel announcing splashy new investments beyond Berlin is a new development.
The disappointments of the Wende are not only economic. A decade ago, some time after I moved to Germany, I gave private English lessons to a dentist from Berlin’s eastern suburbs. The Wende had turned out quite well for him and his family: a nice car, a fine house, a successful practice, and plenty of time and money to travel the world — unthinkable from behind the Iron Curtain.
Yet he would occasionally bitterly complain: “It wasn’t just the Stasi, you know. We had an entire life. We lost an entire way of life.”
That ostalgisch sentiment is not an uncommon refrain. The nuances therein, and a more critical retrospective of what actually happened back then, have only come into serious focus in the last few years. Around the time of the 30th anniversary celebrations, then Chancellor Angela Merkel — herself with ties to former East Germany — publicly acknowledged what polling showed: despite lots of catching up, many people felt like second-class citizens.
It’s no small feat to incorporate a broke, communist system and still emerge as an economic powerhouse with a fair amount of social safety net intact. Still, die Wende is far from complete. It’s hard to say exactly, but Germany is somewhere mid-turn.
But turned enough for the Wende thing to stick, and subsequent political shifts have taken up that torch of terminology. And just like the original, very real shortcomings have styimed the aspirations of the transformation promised.
Where the Energiewende got its start is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. An eponymous website, sponsored by the Öko-Institut based in — where else? — the greenest of Green German cities, Freiburg, traces Germany’s turn away from fossil fuels and towards renewables back 40 years. In 2000, Germany introduced the EEG Umlage, an electricity surcharge to help pay for renewable energy projects. About a decade thereafter, nuclear energy was up for debate, which the Fukushima disaster decisively ended in favor of phasing out Germany’s power plants earlier than planned.
As I covered in a previous post, that decision has been getting relitigated since, and more so with Russia bombing Ukraine. Still, Energiewende made for some nice buzz around Germany and its “climate chancellor," Angela Merkel, who was once the country’s environment minister. Problem was, the numbers didn’t add up. Her government repeatedly missed its own climate goals and, with the atom on its way out, needed more coal and gas to fill the gap.
Meanwhile it was getting sued by the European Union for violating air quality standards — and then sued by the country’s youth for dooming their future (the constitutional court agreed).
The Energiewende has been less a guided turnabout than a white-knuckle swerve that isn’t over yet. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been another detour. Germany now faces a problem similar to the one America faced after 9/11, when it was forced to acknowledge that its reliance on Mideast fossil fuels was helping exacerbate the extremism and instability it was trying to confront.
An immediate difference: The United States has its own coal, gas and oil that Germany does not. Never mind, for the moment, the ecological and climate consequences unleashed by exploiting them. Another difference: The U.S. is oceans away from the Middle East; for Germany and the European Union, Russia is one house over.
The environmentalist Greens who helped put Germany on a no-nuclear path a decade ago now have to be the ones to go searching for more oil and gas. It’s an awkward time, to say the least, to find themselves in power. The discomfort expressed by Economy and Climate Action Minister, Robert Habeck, the former Green’s co-chief, on his trip last week to Gulf Arab states to strike petro deals is duly noted.
While he and the boss he’s vice to have worked to assuage fears that any of this comes at the cost of renewable energy and efficiency ambitions — to the contrary, they want to double down on them — the specifics are a little fuzzy. Much of Habeck’s plan to quickly and dramatically undo years of built-up dependence on Russian fossil fuels relies on canceling contracts with no obvious alternative, boosting production from elsewhere in an already stretched or to-be-developed supply chain, or advising business and households to watch their energy use.
The last point dovetails with another of Germany’s underwhelming Wende: the Verkehrswende. This one got popular around the time of Dieselgate, which made it difficult for Germany’s giant auto industry to keep lying about the environmental advantages of the diesel-powered combustion engine.
Germany’s economy would have trouble getting by without its cars, as would many Germans who live outside urban areas where viable public transit is lacking. While electric cars are having a moment, widespread uptake is a long way off and comes with its own ecological headaches. A successful Wende for transport leans on a successful Wende for energy. The more EVs out there, the more renewable or low-carbon energy you need to power them if they’re to deliver their “clean” promise.
It will be interesting to see how a forthcoming subsidy for public transport, which will make riding it for a month about the cost of a day ticket now, changes behavior and attitudes. Otherwise, very little is being asked of the German household or car owner. Any talk of lowering the thermostat at home or the accelerometer on the road has been couched largely in volunatry or theoretical terms. Autobahn speed limits remain a nonstarter, even though there’s little dispute that they are an easy way to save gas. The president of DIW Berlin, an economics research institute, thinks Germany has little chance of staunching the flow of Russian gas without serious cutbacks or significant economic pain.
Even before the invasion, Germany’s revamped climate-change-fighting goals were facing constitutional restrictions on debt spending. The latest Wende presents an even greater challenge.
In the term’s most recent usage, Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to shake up the very nature of time itself by declaring a Zeitenwende in response to Russia’s invasion. Talk of an epochal turn may not be the worst construct for the moment. For many, the war feels like a time machine with which Europe is reliving the 20th century, only not linearly as most of us tend to experience time, but contracted into a single point.
It’s 1939 in Ukraine, 1945 in Germany and 1933 in Putin’s mind. In President Joe Biden’s, it’s the whole of the Cold War happening at once, only with less arms control and more accidental suggestions of regime change.
Scholz’s Zeitenwende means an immediate €100 billion more for the German armed forces, and defense spending of at least 2% of GDP from here on out — a NATO guideline since 2014 that Germany was regularly harangued for falling short of. The country that balked at military might since it conquered Europe is about to boast Europe’s largest military budget. And that has received a hearty welcome from neighbors, which Germany has spent decades struggling to assure that everything is cool now.
If past is prologue, however, the rhetoric of this Wende may get ahead of what such a turnaround can actually deliver. Scholz can get his flashy top up with his government’s parliamentary majority, but it’s a higher threshold to get it around the debt rules. That may take some negotiating time with opposition parties, which CDU godfather, Wolfgang Schäuble, hinted may not be so easy.
And then what to do with all that cash? The United States, with defense budgets that can make a librarian weep, serves as a cautionary tale, with a long history of political pet projects, wasteful R&D and cost overruns.
Germany already has its tales of weapons woe, such as past concerns about the reliability of the Bundeswehr’s popular assault rifle; a report by the parliamentary armed forces commissioner from earlier this month that noted widespread deficiencies in equipment and readiness; and just last week, German media reported that the military spent €250 million too much on two tanker ships, ignoring warnings from its own auditors that it was getting a bad deal.
Russia’s bizarre and brutal war in Ukraine presents an opportunity to bring Germany’s many Wenden together — a Superwende, if you like: military power to match its economic strength; renewable energy and efficiency as the only real solution to petro thuggery and climate disaster, which goes hand-in-glove with the electrification of transport; and a final shake loose of Ostpolitik and far-right anti-politics that has settled especially, but by no means exclusively, in Germany’s eastern states.
But let’s not count our Pils before they’re gezapft. As young Germany’s great shifts in direction show, proclaiming a turn is not the same as knowing where you’re going once you do.