The Birth of the Sixth Germany and the Turning Point in Foreign and Military Policy "Zeitenwende"

Policy Analysis | The analysis tackles the new shift in Germany's foreign policy, announced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in his speech to the Federal Legislative Council "Bundestag" on February 27, 2022. The analysis examines the dimensions of this transformation, and its external repercussions, especially on the Middle East.

by Bahaa Mahmoud
  • Release Date – Dec 11, 2022

German historian, Fritz Stern, wrote about the "Five Germanies":  Weimar's Germany, the Third Reich Germany, West Germany post WW II, East Germany, and finally the unified Germany after the fall of Berlin's wall. Stern passed the way in 2016, a year before the end of Merkel's third legislative term. Today, there is an approach that sees the rebirth of a "sixth Germany" commencing from the German Chancellor Schulz's speech on February 27, 2022 to the Federal Legislative Council (Bundestag), in which he announced major decisions, tantamount abandoning Merkel's foreign policies and management mechanism of hers regarding Germany's relations with major countries, especially Russia and the United States. The outputs of the German chancellor's speech varied between decisions that will affect Germany's army, energy's security, the position on the Ukrainian crisis, changing Germany's reading of its foreign policy. Hence, this paper aims to examine the term "Sixth Germany".

The shift "Zeitenwende" comes as a new approach to Germany's management of its international relations, representing a new start different from those ensuing the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the prevailing alliances up to Merkel's tenure, taking also in consideration the resulting trends of Germany's position in Europe and globally.

The Birth of New Germany and "Zeitenwende"

The document of the German coalition- consisting of parties (Socialists, Greens, and Liberals) on November 25, 2021 drew an approach that seems to be an intermediate one between recognizing the importance of Russia and the necessity of the relations with it on a hand, and between opposing Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, besides Germany's desire to reach a peaceful solution and return to the Minsk agreements that sought a political solution between the Ukrainian army and separatists in eastern Ukraine on another hand. As of February 24, 2022, the German government counted on activating the diplomatic approach to resolve the crisis between Ukraine and Russia. But only three days after Russia began its military operations inside Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced, before the Bundestag, a number of new decisions, which are not only related to the shift in Germany's position towards Russia and the war, but also represented a change in Germany's orientation abroad. Henceforth, the term "Zeitenwende", which means the "turning point", as such historical watershed moment carries a fundamental transformation to Germany, the matter that justified the naming and the appearance of the term sixth Germany, even in Foreign Policy magazine. The first manifestations of German transformations were as follows:

1- Freezing the Nord Stream 2 project of transferring the Russian gas to Germany.

2- Approving dismissing the Russian banks from the SWIFT system.

3- Establishing a defense investment fund, with 100 billion euros worth.

4- Raising Germany's minimum military spending beyond 2% of its GDP.

5- Seeking to reduce dependence on the Russian gas, and building liquefied gas stations.

The previous decisions can be seen as the beginning of abandoning Merkel's policies in managing foreign relations, which maintained a kind of balance between East and West, along with completely distancing from Germany's military legacy during the Nazi era. Perhaps reducing the military spending, over the past years, and relying on the approach of economic development, has preserved Germany's position as an economic pole, but it has brought it a number of contentious issues with its Western partners, whether the United States or some European countries, especially Poland. In order to make a conclusion to answer the question of new Germany's birth, or the Sixth Germany, two dimensions should be considered:

The first dimension is related to the nature of the reasons that prompted the German government to change Merkel's approach and era, which the Socialists – as partners - were with her in three previous electoral terms (governments of 2005-2013-2017), the most important of which are the following:

1- The continuation of Western pressure on the German government to change its position towards Russia, especially after the Biden administration provided support to Germany, and canceled the sanctions imposed by Trump on the Nord Stream 2 project. The Democrats conditioned imposing new sanctions on Russia with the actual attack on Ukraine, in a way that serves German interests. Thus, after February 24, there is no longer a justification to support the Biden's administration on Nord Stream 2 project, nor there is a justification to activate Russia's isolation from the SWIFT system, which means that Germany would remained alone in front of the West's position unity towards Russia.

2- The crisis of European leadership: After Merkel left the office, Western writings limited the competition on assuming the leadership of Europe after the former German Chancellor - Merkel - in three main figures, the first one is the French President "Emmanuel Macron", who faced domestic and foreign difficulties and crises throughout his first presidency, then, at the beginning, lost the absolute majority in the French House of Representatives his second presidential term, which restricted his powers. Macron did not reach a consensus project - with Germany - over the past years to reform the European Union. The second figure is former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who came to power without a party supporter. A year passed with Draghi as prime minister, then his government was dissolved. The far right replaced him and exited the competition. The German Chancellor "Olaf Schulz" comes as the third figure, who needed some elements to support his chances as a new leader of Europe, the most important of which is getting rid of the permanent criticism of Germany that it prefers its interests at the expense of the European Union, as well as the ability to find a consensus project with most of the leaders of European countries. All of that requires a rapprochement with countries that seemed dissatisfied with the nature of German and Russian relations, the most important of which are Poland and Lithuania. The Ukraine war was a good opportunity for Scholz to gain the space to lead, especially since Germany -by increasing its military spending- will support the European military power, that was lost by Brexit.


The second dimension is related to the type of the decisions taken since the start of the Russian military operation. Were such decisions directed in one track, or did they take into account handling Merkel's previous policies errors?

This question can be answered by a first look that classifies German decisions as gradual in the long and short term, Army modernization will not take place in a few months, rather, it requires years of spending and training, especially since the persistence of inflation in Germany at 7.5% or more, jeopardizes declared military spending. On the part of investing in the special fund: it needs a finance that contradicts the debt-curbing goal, set out in the coalition document, which the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a partner in the government, supposedly promised its voters to keep the debt in bed starting from 2023.

On the other hand, the required military spending ratio, which amounts to 2% of the national product, will not be achieved this year or next, rather, it will be achieved through an average of up to five years, which means that increasing German military spending, to the extent desired by the United States and NATO, may not be realized before 2027, meanwhile, there are hitches in the investments of the defense fund, set at 100 billion euros. This also may be challenged with the risks of inflation and operating costs, especially since the wage clause only acquires 50% of military spending set forth in the federal defense budget.

Thus, Germany will strengthen its position among its allies, based on that it does not prefer its immediate interests at the expense of the Western position unity against Russia. Germany took into account not to close all doors in the face of Russia, so it did not accept the ban on the import of Russian gas currently, rather it sought reducing the dependence on the Russian gas while providing new alternatives, continuing the diplomatic approach, which means that there is space for independence of the German decision. Therefore, it can be said that February 27 marks the end of Merkel's era and policies, and the beginning of the New Germany's birth.

 Repercussions on the foreign Level

German relations with (Russia, China, and the United States) represent the cornerstone of Germany at the economic, military, and energy security levels, as China is Germany's first trading partner, importing the largest proportion of oil and gas from Russia, while about 52,000 American soldiers are located in military bases in Germany.

German-American relations went through tension under former President Donald Trump, then began to improve after Joe Biden reached the power, as Biden carried the agenda of improving relations with NATO countries, including Germany. However, the Biden administration had reservations about the ruling coalition in Germany after taking office. Such reservations emerged in matters of relations with Russia and China, also the increase in military spending by 2% as agreed on during the NATO summit in Wales 2014. But the Ukrainian crisis, and the German position on it, by approving the export of weapons to Ukraine, the suspension of Nord Stream 2, and the rest of the decisions, led to the emergence of repercussions that will affect the nature of relations with the United States and Russia on the one hand, imposing a different approach to relations with China, the third pillar in the required transformation, according to "Zeitenwende" on the other hand, and this can be discussed as follows:

First: The End of "OstPoltik" Policy

Since Chancellor Willy Brandt's rule, German-Russian relations were under the policy of "Ost Politik", which was formulated with the aim of bringing the Soviet Union closer to Europe. Germany has remained the bridge between West and East. The end of the policy of Ost Politik calls for the loss of Russia's most important ally, Germany, which has long seen the need for Russia's integration into Europe through economic cooperation, especially in the field of energy.

 Second: The Legacy of World Wars

German politicians inherited a historical reservation towards Russia, on the background of the First and Second Wars' victims. The victims exceeded more than 20 million citizens of Russia and the rest of the USSR republics. This legacy may have been a reason -among other reasons- for Germany's refusal to export defensive weapons to Ukraine to confront Russia. With the German government's agreement to provide Ukraine with anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles, Germany gradually started a phase out the guilt complex towards Russia, taking into account that Germany is still reluctant to send the type of weapons required in Ukraine, whether for financial or technical value, under various pretexts ranging delaying the entry of some weapons for several months, or for some weapons are not anymore in the agreed lists, or even sending them without ammunition, in addition to the fact that Western weapons, in general, augment Ukrainian defense - not the offensive- capabilities, especially with the following German type of weapons (15 anti-aircraft tanks, three rocket launchers, portable anti-tanks, howitzers). In general, the comparison between the size of what Germany has sent, as Europe's largest economy, is much lower than that of others such as the Baltic states.

Third: Support for Eastern Europe

The German Chancellor's speech before the Bundestag on February 27 carried positive indications towards the countries (Armenia - Georgia - Moldova - Ukraine) in light of their desire to join the European Union - especially Ukraine - in a way that enhances Germany's building of a new perspective towards those countries, different from the Russian vision. Two tracks came as result, the first: tightening the noose on Russia in the post-Soviet space,  and the second: the rapprochement with the Baltic states and Poland, especially with the latter, which has long opposed the Nord Stream 2 project, arguing that it will increase Germany's dependence on Russian gas, although Poland's position is likely based on depriving it of the transit fees, that it was supposed to earn if the Nord Stream 2 pipeline passed through its territory, such as the Yamal Europe gas pipeline, that starts from Russia, then Belarus, Poland, and Germany.


Fourth: Liberalization of the Energy Sector

Germany imports about 55% of its gas from Russia, the matter supports the Russian economy which relies heavily on gas sales. The German government is planning to follow three tracks that will reduce dependence on Russian gas, and possibly dispense with it in the future. These tracks are to support the transition towards green energy, and to build liquefied gas stations to import it from major exporting countries, such as (the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, and Iran). The third track supports Germany's retention of some nuclear plants, as an alternative to power generation, which was reflected in the announcement of postponing the closure of two nuclear plants to continue operating until April 2023, that were supposed to close by the end of 2022. These tracks would gradually free the German energy sector from dependence on Russia.

Fifth: Supporting U.S. Gains

In return for the damage to Russia, due to Germany's new orientation, the gains of the United States will increase. The U.S. demands for Germany's to increase its military spending are fulfilled, which necessarily means obtaining advanced arms deals. No side is better than the United States to be Germany's main supplier in its quest to modernize its military. This was reflected in the announcement that Germany had purchased F-35A jets from the United States, in order to meet its commitments to NATO, and as an investment in its new defense fund.

The United States demands to Germany to reduce dependence on Russian gas were also achieved, which contributes to increasing the production of liquefied gas by the United States, and then increasing its sales to European countries, led by Germany, which was translated into the United States' announcement of its intention to increase the quantities of liquefied gas to Europe by 15 billion cubic meters during 2022, provided that the planned volume annually reaches about 50 billion cubic meters starting from 2030.

Sixth: The Different Approach to China

Although "Zeitenwende" requires the triple elimination of Germany's dependence on energy from Russia, security from the United States, and trade from China, Scholz began a different approach towards China, starting with the German government allowing the Chinese shipping company COSCO, on October 26, 2022 to buy about 24.99% of the most important port in Hamburg, which increases China's expansion to obtain economic capabilities in Germany, contrary to the previous complaint about China’s pursuit to get the German technology exclusivity. That deal was followed by the German chancellor's visit to China on November 4, 2022, and Scholz's moves received no support from either his partner the Green Party, or from the conservative right. However, some explanations tackled Scholz's position, the first of which is that trade and investment with China is necessary after the Covid-19 and Ukrainian crises, as well as the subsequent slowdown in the German economy which depends on on industry and the export of surplus production. China's importance is highlighted in being the largest global market, and being a strategic location in supply chains, owning many branches of Western factories on its territory. In addition, the volume of trade exchange, between Germany and China, is very large, as China accounts for about 12.4% of German imports and accounts for 7.4% of its exports, making China be Germany's first trading partner. Increasing Germany's military spending requires massive and sustained investment, which makes investment and trade with China vital.

Security and Defense Impacts

German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, summed up the state of his country's army, saying, "A military force of soldiers equipped with inappropriate guns, planes that cannot fly, and ships that cannot sail" and not only that, but the commander of the German army, Alfons Mais, added what confirms the bad situation of the German army, through his statement on the social networking site "LinkedIn", saying: "In the forty-first year of my military service, and in peacetime, I did not think that I would have to test a war, and the German army, that I have the honor of leading it fairly, is empty-handed. The options we can offer the government to support NATO are very limited". In addition to saying "the current military strength of the German army is only 200,000 soldiers out of 500,000 before German reunification", so it was justified that German forces did not engage in many military missions and only American and NATO forces to protect Germany's security.


Based on the nature of the German army, the military dimension in Germany's foreign policy seemed to be limited to arms deals, especially since Germany is the fourth largest exporter of weapons between 2017 and 2021, accounting for 4.5% of the total arms exports in the world. In total, Germany exported weapons to about 55 countries. Consequently, the modernization and rearmament of the Bundeswehr is reflected in a number of points that contribute to the status of German military power and its role regionally and internationally, as follows:

First: Realism and Power

Recently, coinciding with the Ukrainian crisis, Western analyses appeared, that seemed interested in interpreting military operations, in the light of the international relations rhetoric’s. such analysis were of two directions, the first: what Francis Fukuyama wrote about Putin's war against the liberal order, which interpreted the war as a war on the values of Western democracy and the liberal order led by the United States, while the second: was what was published by "Stephen Walt" and "John Mearsheimer", two supporters of the realism school, which believes that force is the main driver of international relations, and that countries use military force to protect their national security due to fearing a potential threat, besides believing that the world is chaotic, with no consideration institutions, such as the Security Council and the United Nations. By projecting this on the Ukrainian crisis, Russia resorted to war to protect its national security from the threat of NATO on its borders. On the same scale, Germany, the largest European economic power, does not have a military force to protect its security. On the other hand, the Ukrainian crisis, even is geographically far from the borders of Germany, threatens the European states countries including Germany. Therefore, the decision to modernize and rebuild the German army is closer to completing the equation of forces (military + economy), which serves as a theoretical explanation for Germany's move. The issue of liberal and democratic values, promoted by supporters of the liberal school as an explanation of international relations, is no longer suitable for Germany, and has not prevented the Ukrainian crisis from taking place, so realism is the best for Germany's new military approach.

Second: Defense Independence

Europe depends mainly for its security on U.S. forces and military bases located in a number of European countries, including Germany. The European-American relations have always been strained during Trump's tenure as president of the United States, against the backdrop of his threat to reduce U.S. forces from Germany, and the latter's demand to bear the burdens of defending Europe and raising its military spending, which was offset by the French president's demands to establish the Unified European Army. Meanwhile, Merkel's government did not see the need to increase military spending, while there was no consensus on the French proposal, especially from the Baltic states, which prefer to rely on the United States for their security, rather than a European army, led by France and Germany. The modernization of the German army, which requires several years of military training and spending to become a military force with its long-term status, is a step towards European defense independence, as the value, allocated by Germany to defense investments, will make it the third highest country in the world in terms of military spending, after the United States and China, making it the most important military power in Europe in the future.

Third: Strengthening NATO

Increasing Germany's military power is in the interest of strengthening NATO, strengthening its foreign missions, protecting its territory, and diversifying its spaces of action, particularly in the presence of French powers that may want to become more involved in NATO with a new presence for Germany. The German government has pledged to strengthen its contribution to NATO's collective defence by upgrading its battalion in Lithuania to major general, with the addition of tanks, 15,000 troops, 65 aircraft and 20 warships.

Fourth: Military Tasks

Germany does not have major military missions abroad, it has always refused to engage militarily in various conflicts, and is only present in the tasks approved by the Bundestag under the auspices of the United Nations, some missions have been extended this year, such as the forces in Iraq, and some have stopped working, like Syria. The decisive factor in the military tasks of the German forces depends on two main dimensions:

The first is related to the nature of German interests abroad, and the limits of the military role in foreign policy, in light of the future status of German forces, and the second is related to the tasks success of the forces themselves, especially in areas of crises and conflicts suffered by German forces, such as: their presence in the Sahel region, specifically Mali, which Germany announced on November 16 it will end its duties by the end of the year.

Implications for the Middle East

The Middle East occupies an important place in German arms deals, as it was the second largest recipient of German weapons with 23% during the period from 2016 to 2020, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, as Egypt and Algeria alone have about 19% of Germany's sales in the region. At the Golf level, Germany is not the main supplier, especially since the main suppliers of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are (the United States, Britain, France) respectively, while the countries (United States, France, Russia) are in the same order the main exporting countries to the UAE during the period from 2016 to 2020.

Germany imposed export restrictions on some Arab countries, against the backdrop of reports related to human rights, and the involvement of some countries in military conflicts in the region. Germany reasoned that it restricted exports, in line with its basic law, that prohibits the export of weapons to conflict areas, although according to a report published by the website "Deutsche Welle" attributed to the German Ministry of Economy, Germany exported weapons to countries involved in the Libyan conflict worth 330 million euros, in the period after the Berlin conference in January 2020 until May of the same year, that is, it has a contradictory policy regarding conflict areas. At the level of energy derivatives, Germany does not rely on the Golf countries and the Arab region to meet its needs effectively, as it depends on Russia by 56%, and Norway and the Netherlands by 43.3%.

Accordingly, the initial repercussions of Germany's new policy on the Middle East and the Golf States are as follows:


First: Germany needs freedom from Russian energy dependency. Netherlands and Norway cannot compensate for Russia's percentage of gas supplies, because they produce their maximum, knowing that during the Ukrainian crisis, Russia's share of the German gas market fell to about 30%, as a result of reducing Russian supplies, and intensifying Norwegian supplies, which covered about a third of German needs. The construction of new LNG plants in Germany will contribute to strengthening the capacity of the Arab region, which has liquefied gas reserves, especially The State of Qatar, which topped the list of gas suppliers in 2021, equivalent to 22% of the global liquefied gas trade. The Ukraine crisis has contributed to the West's turn to Qatar as one of the possible alternatives if Russia cuts off gas supplies to Europe.  At the level of non-liquefied natural gas, Germany could consider stalled natural gas transport projects such as the EastMed pipeline, as well as the Moroccan-Nigerian gas pipeline, and the Algeria-Spain gas pipeline that passes through Morocco. Germany has also sought investment in green hydrogen projects, especially with Egypt and the Golf as well. In addition to the above, the German government concluded on September 25, 2022, an extensive partnership with the UAE, under which the latter will export liquefied gas shipments to Germany to be delivered by the end of 2022 in the context of the trial operation of the floating gas terminal in the German city of Brunseutel.

Second: Germany is likely to change its policy related to restricting arms exports to the Arab region, especially since the gas leaf is a pressure factor that pushes it to be relatively flexible, and thus could increase the Arab region's share of German arms imports, especially since the German budget will need to compensate for military spending on the German army.

In conclusion, despite the stated goals of the birth of the sixth Germany and the  turning point "Zeitenwende", which calls for a triple liberalization from Russia, China and the United States, in the fields of energy, security, and trade. However, the context of the recent trend towards China, the lack of sufficient alternatives so far from gas, the reluctance to support Ukraine militarily, as well as the context of the difficulty of providing the necessary financial resources to modernize the German army and commit to a spending rate of 2% of GDP, all factors prove that the sixth Germany has not yet been born. There were some initial signs, and the real turning point has not yet come, although a change in Germany's orientation and foreign policies would restore the balance of power in the European region and be a good opportunity to reshape Arab-German relations for both win-wins, in case Germany can really go forward.

Bahaa Mahmoud

Researcher specializing in European affairs