The legacy of World War II, and the resulting “culture of antimilitarism”, has clearly played an important role in German voters’ doubts about military engagement. Nevertheless, a majority endorsed the decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and the overall support for both military assistance and sanctions has increased in recent months. Slowly, the German public appears to be coming to terms with the new realities of European security.
But while many Germans are coming to terms with the need for a hard-power response to Russian aggression, some remain deeply opposed. Especially in the old German Democratic Republic, or DDR. The divide between eastern and western Germany on foreign and defense policy is striking. In the east, 40% think military support for Ukraine is going too far, compared with 28% in the west. Some 46% of eastern Germans are critical of the close cooperation with the US on Ukraine, compared to 23% of western Germans. These numbers, which have remained consistent since the full-scale invasion, demonstrate a clear rift, both in the direction of foreign and defense policy and Berlin’s choice of partners.
This phenomenon is partly explained by the economic and political legacies of Germany’s partition, which are very much alive more than 30 years after reunification. On average, East Germans earn 14% less than their western compatriots, and most large companies and advanced manufacturing plants are still based in the west. The east’s economic and development issues spur resentment, feelings of abandonment, and a sense it is underrepresented in government (westerners meanwhile note the $350bn-plus they have paid in “solidarity” taxes to reconstruct the east.)
East Germans are more likely to turn to extremist parties. According to recent polling, 12.3% support Die Linke, the successor to the DDR’s ruling party, compared to 2.4% in the west. Similarly, 22% support the AfD, a right-wing extremist party, compared with 10.2% in the west.
Nearly 40 years of propaganda have also left a mark on the worldview of citizens in the east. According to German military historian Sönke Neitzel, a considerable part of the East German population “still considers the US to be the real enemy”. As a result, they are less likely to trust the predominantly Western “mainstream” media.
Instead, they turn to sources like Russia Today and Sputnik, which spread Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories. While these sites have been banned since March 2022, individuals and groups, including those connected to AfD, continue to share their articles on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram. According to a survey conducted in October, 59% of respondents in east Germany fully or partly believe that NATO provoked Russia to invade Ukraine, a key Kremlin message, compared to 35% in the west. This divide has grown since a similar poll in April.
As a consequence, the east German public has a more negative assessment of the US on the one hand and more sympathy for Russia on the other. These long-term sentiments combine with short-term influences, like the pacifism and non-interventionism of Die Linke, anti-internationalist sentiments and warmth toward Russia within the AfD, and increased fear of an economic downturn. Together they have caused a reluctance to support Ukraine militarily, uphold or intensify sanctions against Russia, or endorse a more active German foreign and defense policy.
As the debate over the supply of combat aircraft continues, how do these doubts about an assertive foreign policy affect German support for Ukraine?
A skeptical public that demands governments explain their policies and avoid sudden decisions can be a virtue. Although more pronounced in the east, concerns exist across Germany, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his international allies will need to take them seriously, particularly as citizens are becoming more dubious about the functioning of German democracy.
But the government is not solely at the mercy of public opinion. As the increase in public support following the Leopard decision showed, demonstrations of leadership can help to sway public opinion.
And when it comes to specifically eastern German concerns, the government will need to mitigate fears about an economic downturn or military escalation with transparent decision-making — rather than abrupt announcements — as was the case with the Leopard decision. It must also continue work to integrate eastern Germany into the national mainstream and challenge the misinformation from the enemies of liberal democracy. Countering Russian disinformation and increasing information literacy must also become a government priority.
Finally, Germany needs to revamp its narrative about engagement in Central and Eastern Europe by making clear that supporting Ukraine isn’t just about the governments in Kyiv and Moscow. Germany has strong ties — and a historical debt — to the whole of Eastern Europe. By helping Ukraine, Germany is defending all its eastern allies against an imperialist and revisionist power.
More than misconceived pacifism, vigorous solidarity can show the world that Germany has learned the lessons of the darkest chapters of its history.
Thomas Nawrath is an Intern in the Democratic Resilience program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and pursuing a master’s degree in political science at Freie Universität Berlin. Previously, he worked as a consultant for digital political communications and campaigning in Berlin.
Sasha Stone is a Senior Program Officer in the Democratic Resilience program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.