The SPD has rediscovered something: security policy. At least part of the SPD, the Scholz-und-Klingbeil-SPD, has rediscovered this vital policy area. How relevant security policy really is was not illustrated in the first place by Ukraine’s struggle for survival. However, the post-heroic (or better: anti-heroic) German society as a whole was happy to suppress the indispensability of security policy both internally and externally. This is historically understandable and also sympathetic, but it is unrealistic and naive. The Merkel CDU thought and acted no wiser.
Since Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, Olaf Scholz and Lars Klingbeil’s SPD has been reinventing itself – even if sometimes only declamatory. The keywords are “a turning point” (Scholz) and “normality in dealing with our soldiers” (Klingbeil).
This confirms that the previous handling of the Bundeswehr in the era of the Union and SPD was not “normal”. It should be remembered that the SPD was co-governing at that time, with Olaf Scholz as vice chancellor. But, how gratifying, Scholz and Klingbeil learned from founding Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (CDU): “What do I care about my gossip from yesterday?” What we learn from: Learning from mistakes is wise. But wouldn’t it be even wiser to prevent mistakes through knowledge of human nature and foresighted life knowledge?
The current rediscovery of security policy by the SPD is of course not the first of its kind. On June 30, 1960, the ex-Stalinist Herbert Wehner in the Bundestag, on behalf of the SPD, for the first time committed himself to the security policy foundations of the Federal Republic of Germany: to the West ties and thus also to the Bundeswehr and Nato. With and despite “Peace Chancellor” Willy Brandt (1969-1974), SPD defense ministers such as Helmut Schmidt, Georg Leber and Hans Apel ensured an unreservedly – in Klingbeil German – “normal” relationship with “our soldiers” (because there were not yet).
Willy Brandt pulled off a rogue play in October 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. When the USA and NATO feared an attack by the Warsaw Pact on the Federal Republic, alarmed US soldiers secured the West German borders to the east. At the same time, however, the Brandt government forbade its US protecting power to carry out the American arms supplies Israel urgently needed from and via Germany. Alliance loyalty is spelled differently.
Helmut Schmidt saw things no differently when he was chancellor between 1974 and 1982. Against the massive opposition of his SPD, he tried to push through the double-track NATO agreement, which served to rearm the communist bloc in the West. He failed miserably. At the SPD party conference in Cologne in November 1983 (Helmut Kohl had been in power since October 1982), only 14 out of 400 delegates voted for Helmut Schmidt’s “normal” security policy. He was vilified by party leftists as a “useful idiot for US attack warriors”.
But before that, in the late summer of 1980, Schmidt had resisted US President Jimmy Carter’s wish for Germany to participate in an international naval association to ensure free shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. Claim protection yes, deductible no.
As the opposition, the SPD hovered in security cloud cuckoo land from 1982 to 1998. This was followed by the red-green years of government from 1998 to 2005. The security policy of the SPD promptly “normalized”. First under Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, who failed because of himself, but not because of his and his colleagues’ security policy.
He was followed by the completely “normal”, bone dry, no-nonsense Defense Minister Peter Struck, who without any political strategy extended the Bundeswehr’s security policy radius to the Hindu Kush, i.e. to the end of the world. Quote from March 11, 2004: “Our security is not only defended, but also in the Hindu Kush.” A year earlier, the Schröder-Fischer coalition had refused the USA in the Iraq war. Again: taking protection yes, granting it to the protector no.
With little sense and reason, the Merkel coalition (twelve years with the SPD) and the allies in the Afghan war continued the seemingly normal and – as we have known since the summer of 2021 at the latest – totally unsuccessful policy. Apart from the unspeakable and deeply immoral withdrawal, the German public paid little attention to this war, because our soldiers who were killed fell on duty, so to speak, as professional fighters with occupational risks and not as conscripts “like you and me”.
The rude awakening came on February 24, 2022. The almost unthinkable, but actually unthinkable, happened: War on our own doorstep, the Russian Goliath attacked the Ukrainian David. Three days later, SPD Chancellor Scholz announced, to be on the safe side, without prior party coordination, the “turn of the era”. The party soldiers (and insiders) were almost speechless from the shock. Nothing sharpens the sense of reality as much as reality, and in order to be able to continue enjoying the delicacies of the government meatpots, the comrades swallowed the security policy toad: massive increase in funds for the Bundeswehr. But no shock lasts forever, which is why SPD leader Klingbeil followed up on June 25.
Normality and reality, not wishful thinking as a guideline for security policy. A (military) “strong Europe in which Germany takes the lead”. Military strength plus leadership (!) of Germany. These were not just unfamiliar tones from the SPD. But were they realistic? Not a bit. Because if any states are “leading” Europe militarily, then the nuclear powers France and England. Both will certainly not follow the other German leader, even if he acts kosher, democratic and Western. Please less boastful!
According to Klingbeil, “we” had not listened enough to the “eastern EU countries”. That is “the biggest accusation that we have to make self-critically as a Federal Republic”. At once. Otherwise, Poland and Hungary in particular were seen as the devil and Beelzebub at the same time. So what applies? What is or what was stupid gossip? Yesterday or today?
“I don’t know what a positive relationship to armor is supposed to be,” explains Klingbeil, and adds: “What we need is a realistic view of the world.” Unfortunately, armor in the sense of being able to defend yourself for survival is a realistic lesson from human history , so positive. The SPD chairman should know that, tell his party and all Germans instead of banging around. But “we have recognized that we have invested too little in national and alliance defense in recent years.” Good morning!
So is armor positive or negative? What counts? Clarity please! The pseudo-knowing both-and is hard to bear even among scholars, but even less so among politicians who are responsible. And if Klingbeil doesn’t know whether armor is positive in terms of military capability or not, why invest in armor after all? Complexity of thinking is a virtue, but inherent analytical and ethical inconsistencies are thought salad. Should this be Germany’s future security policy compass?
Michael Wolffsohn is a historian. He taught modern history at the Bundeswehr University in Munich until 2012. Most recently he published “Another Jewish World History” (Herder).