Controversial discussions about the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine continue. Germany is delaying the process, critics say. “I’m not Kaiser Wilhelm,” replies Olaf Scholz, alluding to the beginning of the First World War – a historical comparison that is misleading.
Controversial discussions about the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine continue. Russian gains in Luhansk Oblast and heavy casualties in Ukraine’s armed forces are likely to exacerbate this debate in the coming weeks. Critics say the federal government is delaying delivery.
Olaf Scholz held against it. He said a few days ago, “I’m not Kaiser Wilhelm,” and he wasn’t the chancellor who accidentally let Germany slide into war. So Scholz is alluding to July 1914, when the world, as Australian historian Christopher Clark put it, “sleepwalked” into World War I. But is the current situation really comparable to the fateful summer days over 100 years ago?
At first glance, it seems doubtful that the acting heads of state and politicians accidentally brought about a major war in 1914. When tensions between the Habsburg Empire and Serbia increased massively after the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, most politicians in Europe still considered the outbreak of war to be unlikely. But very soon they were all ready to risk it. In previous years, the number of international crises had increased significantly. The idea of installing a system of collective security in Europe no longer existed. Instead, the powers that be relied on deterrence, believing that this would secure peace.
Sönke Neitzel has been a professor of military and cultural history of violence at the University of Potsdam since 2015. Before that, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the London School of Economics, among others.
After the assassination in Sarajevo, all the great powers raised the Austro-Serbian antagonism to the question of war and peace. One gambled, believing that the other would balk at the great showdown, and if not, then war—which many believed to be inevitable—was better waged now than later.
Kaiser Wilhelm II thought the same thing when he issued the Austrians the so-called blank check on July 5, 1914 – in other words, he promised Vienna diplomatic and military backing, no matter how they reacted to the assassination attempt on their heir to the throne. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg could have stopped this foolish policy of Wilhelm II, but he encouraged the Kaiser and thus Vienna’s risky course, which finally culminated in the outbreak of war. At the time, no one in the Reich leadership was willing to put a stop to the escalation.
Today the situation is different: in February 2022, the impending war did not trigger any military ultimatums from the NATO countries, but rather a lively travel diplomacy to keep Russia in the European peace order. But these attempts failed miserably. And further: No NATO state and certainly not the Federal Republic of Germany are willing to go to war for Ukraine. This was made very clear from the start and has been repeated like a mantra ever since. Unlike in 1914, there were no partial or general mobilizations either. While the danger of war was probably initially underestimated back then, but the general willingness to go into battle for the prestige of one’s own nation was always there, today war as a means of politics is outlawed in Europe and the danger of an international escalation is immediate been calculated.
When politicians make historical comparisons, they are almost always very wrong. Of course, it’s not about a differentiated examination of history, but simply about using historical catchphrases to legitimize one’s own politics. The federal government was always looking for explanations to legitimize its inaction in a meaningful way. First it was the German crimes in World War II, when that no longer mattered, it was concern for the Bundeswehr, which should not be weakened because of its NATO obligations. As if that ever mattered in this republic. And now the concern is sliding into a Third World War. Kaiser Wilhelm II is well suited as a bogeyman.
Does Germany risk being drawn into the war if it supplies heavy weapons? No one can predict what Putin will do next, but based on the publicly available information, that concern seems unfounded. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia have delivered T-72 main battle tanks to Ukraine without the situation escalating. In comparison, Marder or Leopard-1 armored personnel carriers, which Ukraine is requesting from Germany, are of much lesser value militarily. So Germany could, but doesn’t want to.
The delivery of anti-aircraft tanks Gepard has been announced, but when it will take place is anyone’s guess. Apparently no preparations have been made for the complex training of the crews. Making the Marder infantry fighting vehicle available – even if it is in a ring exchange with East Central European countries – is apparently off the table. So it stays with the seven self-propelled howitzers. That’s it for heavy weapons. They won’t be deployed until July and maybe there will be a ceasefire by then. Then we can “finally concentrate on other issues”, as Rolf Mützenich recently said.