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Germany Has Never Been a Pacifist Power: Contrary to the Popular Historical Narrative, the Country has Always Prepared for War

Author: Jakub Eberle

Affiliation: Research Director at the Institute of International Relations Prague, and Lecturer at Prague University of Economics and Business

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Policy 

Date/Place: April 4, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Article 

Word Count: 2040



Keywords: German Foreign Policy, Myth of Pacifism, Bundeswehr, Liberalism in IR, War




There is a common belief among scholars and observers about Germany that imagines the country’s foreign policy since the end of World War II has been based on “pacifism”, opposing in principle the use of force, armaments, building armies, and participating in wars. This popular narrative is a historical myth, as the author argues. The post-World War II German foreign policy was never shaped on the foundations of pacifism, but rather through an eclectic mix of liberal beliefs. Germany has been in constant readiness for war.


The article comes in the context of a speech delivered by the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, a few days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which he announced fundamental changes in Germany’s approach to military power, as Germany will finally deliver weapons to Ukraine after a long period of non-delivery of weapons to conflict zones. Schulz also promised to spend at least 2% of the country’s GDP on defense, as well as a commitment to NATO and the creation of a $113 billion special fund to upgrade the German army (Bundeswehr). Analysts and critics have described Schulz’s speech as an “epochal shift,” or even a “revolution” in German foreign policy. They say that Germans have “turn[ed] their backs on pacifism,”  and that Germany has deviated from the pacifist spirit it has inhabited since World War II. However, the author sees such descriptions as an exaggeration that lacks an accurate historical reading, as Germany has not been a pacifist power at any moment since 1949. It is true that Germany has been more reluctant to use force than the United States, Britain, and France, but it has always prepared for war, including nuclear war.


Throughout the article, the author boosts his position by presenting historical arguments. He follows German policy since the Potsdam Agreement of 1945, which imposed “complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany”. However, the necessities of the Cold War made the 1949 constitution prohibit (Western) Germany from “wars of aggression”, and does not say anything about other types of wars such as “self-defense” wars. It also stipulated the possibility of the country’s participation in military alliances. In 1955 West Germany joined NATO, established its Bundeswehr, and had the largest permanent NATO army in Western Europe. In 1957 the United States agreed to place its nuclear weapons stationed in Germany under the control of the Bonn government and at the same time trained the German army to deploy them in the event of a possible conflict with the Soviet bloc. In the period between 1969 and 1974, the defense budget increased by 50% under the rule of Chancellor Willy Brandt and the Social Democratic Party, and West Germany remained dependent on NATO power. The successor Helmut Schmidt deployed a new generation of American nuclear missiles on German soil to deter the Soviets and their similar plan in Eastern Europe. The case created what was known as the “European missile crisis”, with the year 1987 smashing the period of détente between East and West and creating the prospect of a renewed nuclear arms race in the heart of Europe. Despite the end of the Soviet threat, Germany remained involved in the new wars led by the United States, as it found itself forced to take positions in these wars in Yugoslavia, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and outside NATO territory, which made it difficult to consider them as “wars of self-defense” in the traditional sense. In 1994, the German Federal Constitutional Court allowed the German armed forces to deploy “out of area” under certain conditions. Thus, the German army participated in direct combat as part of NATO forces in Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis and in Afghanistan since 2001 with 150,000 soldiers, which is the second-highest number after the United States. However, the German military engagement became more discreet, as it appeared during the Iraq war in 2003 and the NATO intervention in Libya. Here, the author does not attribute the oppositional stance of most German politicians regarding these two wars to their “pacifist” commitments, but rather to their reliance on other justifications related to the adverse impacts on the international order. In his view, ‘pacifism’ was not something that actually existed. 


The author concludes by emphasizing the dominance of the basic assumptions of liberalism in IR on German foreign policy after World War II, which is rooted in Berlin’s political culture. This policy was built on trust in the virtues of economic interdependence and change of illiberal regimes through trade. It also too optimistically assumes the efficacy of diplomatic tools in resolving conflict—and “perhaps also about Berlin’s unique skills in applying them.” “In this worldview, settling for a compromise is always better than risking a war, even if you are negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Finally, the author believes that the “changes” Schulz is making express a German skepticism about the liberalist assumptions and the effectiveness of its tools, not a questioning of pacifism, as Germany has never been a pacifist power. Today, however, Germany may not be ready to become a conventional military power, especially after a lengthy ordoliberal obsession that characterized the Merkel period, in which the Bundeswehr suffered from underinvestment, neglect, and dysfunction. Therefore, “Germany’s search for a new place in the world is likely to be much more painful—and slower—than many would like to see.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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