Today, it often seems that significant political transformation only occurs in the wake of a crisis. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Germany. After all, it took Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the German government to change its decades-old approach to foreign and defense policy. Indeed, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called his decision to increase military spending and send arms to Ukraine a Zeitenwende – that is to say the beginning of a new era.
The same process can also be observed with respect to other crises, from climate change to the pandemic. They provide the impetus for dramatic changes in policy-making. It sometimes feels like it takes an apocalypse-level event to see a change in Germany.
There’s a good reason for that. Such explosive events cut through the layers of bureaucracy and technocracy that weigh heavily on Western nation states today. And, for a short time, these crisis events provide momentum. In doing so, they show how sclerotic political life is normally in Western democracies. This raises an uncomfortable question: why does it take a crisis for political change to occur? Why, for example, is the Federal Government suddenly able to find a special fund of 100 billion euros to modernize the German armed forces after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when it is unable to find even a fraction of that amount to improve health care or education?
It is fundamentally a problem of political will. Western societies too often seem incapable of forming and even less of implementing political will. Governments seem disoriented and state mechanisms lack the capacity to advance the interests of the community as a whole.
As far as German society is concerned, several social trends reinforce the feeling of political powerlessness, in particular: widespread atomization; daily hyperregulation; the bureaucratization of political processes; and the emergence of closed parallel societies on ethnic or religious grounds.
All of these trends tend to reinforce and exacerbate the depoliticization and democratic fatigue that have characterized Germany, as well as other Western states, in recent decades. In the past, the West considered its attachment to democracy and freedom as the source of its economic and social progress. But today, these same values are seen as weaknesses. Indeed, many Western commentators praise and perhaps even envy China’s non-democratic command economy for its efficiency. Western arrogance gave way to deep insecurity and self-doubt.
But now there is a feeling of euphoria in Germany. As a result, a political change seems possible. Fundamental foreign policy beliefs that seemed unshakeable just a few weeks ago have transformed overnight. It is as if a dynamism, hidden for decades, had suddenly become visible in the German state.
However, there is also a hollow in this newfound dynamism. This is because the abrupt change in political vision did not occur from within, through the critical self-analysis specific to democratic debate. It was produced externally, in response to external events – in this case, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Germany’s fundamental change of course was of course not democratically determined by German citizens, it was imposed on us, regardless of what we want.
Moreover, while a crisis may cause a shift in policy, it is likely to leave people’s core opinions and beliefs untouched. So if Robert Habeck of the Gren party, German vice-chancellor and economics minister, suddenly starts talking about extending licenses to operate coal-fired power plants, it’s not because he has abandoned his environmentalist zeal. It only responds pragmatically to external events – in this case, a need for energy in the absence of Russian gas. Indeed, he is likely to resume his former pledge to decarbonise Germany’s energy supply should tensions with Russia ease.
So unless society seizes this crisis as an opportunity to rethink its own direction and values, any change, no matter how dramatic, is likely to be short-lived.
If we really want to reinvigorate our democracy and seriously think about our foreign policy, we have to deal with the uncomfortable questions raised by the Ukraine crisis. And we need to examine how seriously we treat these two principles that Ukrainians are fighting for today: freedom and democracy.
Too often freedom and democracy are treated as mere slogans. We must begin to see them rather as the fundamental maxims around which we organize social and political life. To do this, we must champion dissent, promote tolerance, and bring those with whom we disagree to the table. This is what we need to create a vibrant political sphere.
The revival of democratic life will not come from established political parties. It will have to come from society and ordinary people. Scholz called Germany’s change in foreign policy a Zeitenwende. But for a truly new era, we must embrace freedom and democracy. The Ukrainian people are fighting for these principles. It was time we did too.
Matthias Heitman is a freelance journalist and author of several publications in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Visit the Heitmann website here.