Germans want their government to do more for Ukraine

Ordinary Germans are taking a harder line on Russia than at any point in the country’s post-war history.

By: /
31 May, 2022
A 'Stop War' message on the front of the Wohninvest Weserstadion in Bremen, Germany on May 24, 2022.
Martin Rose/Getty Images
Aaron Gasch Burnett
By: Aaron Gasch Burnett
Berlin-based German-Canadian journalist and Security Policy Fellow for the European Resilience Initiative Center

Germany’s allies could be forgiven for asking where Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s promised “Zeitenwende” is. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Scholz used the word, roughly translated as “turning point,” to signal nothing less than a new era for German foreign and security policy. He abruptly cancelled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and told the German Bundestag the country was abandoning its brand of light pacifism and would meet NATO’s target to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence. Scholz made the announcement before the first post-invasion public opinion polls were released. He left his own governing coalition in the dark as well—telling only his finance minister beforehand. Given that Scholz is normally a very cautious politician, he was taking an enormous risk.

Nearly three months later, Olaf Scholz seems to have reverted to his risk-averse self.

But his Zeitenwende is showing up somewhere else—namely, in German public opinion and a domestic debate that looks very different from the one to which we are accustomed. That’s healthy. Criticism of the Scholz government on Ukraine is understandable. But too many people, both outside and inside Germany, have failed to notice that German public opinion is increasingly diverging from their government’s policy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted ordinary Germans to take a harder line on Russia than at perhaps any point in the country’s post-war history. This is a trend that should be encouraged, by giving credit to the German public.

At January’s end, 73 percent of Germans were opposed to providing Ukraine with any weapons at all. In April, Scholz dithered over the question of whether Germany should send Ukraine heavy weapons like tanks, even as the country had been sending lighter weapons for months. At one “emergency” press update in mid-April, Berlin journalists speculated over whether Scholz would finally send heavy weaponry, but he announced no new policy changes. This was in sharp contrast to a poll that found 55 percent of Germans in favour of heavy weapon deliveries, with a majority of the public saying the Scholz government wasn’t doing enough to help Ukraine. Three influential politicians from the parties in his own governing coalition used that public support to pressure Scholz. At the time, hardly a night passed without Bundestag Defence Committee Chair Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, Europe Committee Chair Toni Hofreiter, or Foreign Affairs Chair Michael Roth on the country’s popular roundtable talk shows, arguing their case for heavy weapon deliveries. Fresh off a visit to meet with Ukrainian parliamentarians, the three recounted their emotional visit to a Lviv hospital. Sensing an opportunity, the opposition put forth its own weapons resolution—betting that enough government parliamentarians might rebel, and prodding Scholz to finally support a cross-party resolution.

Cross-party support isn’t just evident among parliamentarians either. Supporters of Germany’s mainstream parties, including Scholz’s own Social Democrats, his coalition partners in the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens, as well as the opposition Christian Democrats—all register majorities in favour of maintaining support for Ukraine. On the low end for mainstream parties, 59 percent of regular SPD voters say support for Ukraine should continue despite any threats to Germany. Among regular Green voters, that number jumps to 78 percent.

Supporters of Germany’s mainstream parties all register majorities in favour of maintaining support for Ukraine.

The public’s shift on weapons is perhaps the most notable. Ordinary Germans have traditionally been skeptical of any sort of military solution. Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, security and defence expert Ulrike Franke argued that Germans simply didn’t understand the concept of deterrence. Even now, German intellectual and political elites bizarrely debate whether weapon shipments might somehow draw Germany into the war. They have had some impact on public opinion. 63 percent of Germans say they worry about being dragged into the war. But now that heavy weapons are to be delivered, more than half still say the country should maintain its support for Ukraine. About a third think the government should go even further. Only 13 percent say Germany should do less.

But the change goes even deeper than that.

To see why, it’s first crucial to understand how both the country’s general population and its political elites view foreign policy and national security. While military deterrence is built into the security cultures of English-speaking countries in particular, Germans have tended to champion a “Wandel durch Handel” or “change through trade” strategy to foreign policy. After all, today’s European Union has economically and politically integrated countries that used to fight each other every few years. Whatever the EU’s other challenges, it’s been so successful in its main mission that war between members is essentially impossible. Through European economic and political integration, Germany stabilized all nine of its borders without military conflict. In a way, its foreign policy has been trying to replicate the model ever since, often defending its use with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. And while many German politicians and business elites have used “Wandel durch Handel” as a smokescreen for short-term commercial interests, a sizeable number of Germans genuinely bought into the concept.

There’s more and more evidence now that Russia’s war in Ukraine has made Germans skeptical of the geoeconomic model they once championed in large numbers. While the reversal on weapons policy is perhaps more noticeable to outside observers, the change in popular opinion regarding geoeconomics is arguably more significant. In late January, close to 60 percent of Germans supported continuing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would have bypassed eastern Europe and delivered Russian gas directly to Germany. The country was also divided on whether Russia’s pre-invasion military movements should be met with harsher sanctions. More than three-quarters now say they want independence from Russian energy, either immediately or step-by-step over the next few months. Eighty-three percent want Germany to reduce its economic dependence on China. The public’s changing mindset is having political consequences as well. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock—a hawkish Green who opposed NS2 for years and was one of the first to call for heavy weapon deliveries—has become the country’s most popular politician as Scholz’s own approval ratings sink. The message from regular Germans is clear—they now want a foreign policy that places values on centre stage.

It’s still too early to say how much of the new mindset among regular Germans will endure. But despite resistance, public opinion has—together with outside pressure from Germany’s allies—helped move the Scholz Chancellery into doing more for Ukraine than it otherwise might have. It’s also a development that’s been curiously underreported, given its potentially immense significance. It’s time to fix that mistake, take note of where Ukraine has moved the German public, and help encourage the trend where possible.

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