gIVEN THE compound nouns of daunting length and complexity that abound in German, Wende may seem like a modest concept. Yet a Wende– a turning point, a turning point, crossing a Rubicon – is a big, important, daunting thing. It’s when deeply held beliefs are let go for what was once unthinkable. When communism collapsed, it was pass away Wende this made reunification inevitable, sweeping away the assumption that Germany would remain permanently divided between East and West. the Energiewende marked the rash decision a decade ago to abandon nuclear power, replacing it partly with renewables, but also with coal and more Russian gas. Automakers speak of a Verkehrswendeor transport revolution, which will send combustion engines, the heart of their business, to the scrapyard.
Today’s Europe is living its own Wende. Much of what was accepted as fact before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 now seems hopelessly outdated. the EU, at its heart a “peace project”, now touches on the vocabulary of war. A continent often hampered by its propensity to bicker has found a common voice. The once great powers, aware of their slippery role in the world and therefore fearful of the future, seemed oddly comfortable as decades of geopolitics unfolded in a matter of days. European institutions more generally engrossed in harmonizing phone charger regulations found themselves plotting the best way to get fighter jets into the hands of the Ukrainian Air Force.
At the heart of the Wende is Germany. It was something few people had expected. While other European allies echoed US calls for tough sanctions on Russia, Germany initially preferred not to push too hard, lest its own industry and households feel the pain. When Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, delayed the start of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline from Russia, it was hailed as an unusually resolute step. Always mindful of its history, Germany engaged in serious pacifism that meant not only refusing to deliver weapons to Ukraine, but also preventing others from passing on German-made equipment. The new leader seemed committed to the incrementalist ways of Angela Merkel, his predecessor, who during the eurozone crisis perfected the art of putting off decisions for as long as possible.
And then, nothing. A special parliamentary session on Sunday February 27 began with a tradition-defying standing ovation for the Ukrainian ambassador. By the time Mr. Scholz finished his speech, a number of additional traditions had been abandoned. What he was proposing was nothing less than a Zeitenwende, a change in time, a new era. Defense spending would quickly rise to NATO target of 2% GDP– a level that challenges the idea that Germany is somehow exempted from playing a full role in the world. Forget the ban on other countries transmitting German weapons; Germany has decided to send equipment directly to Ukraine. Even the sacrosanct budget balancing rules have not proven to be an obstacle to additional money for the army. Two new gas import terminals will reduce dependence on Russian energy. “What Olaf Scholz announced was the biggest sea change in German policy since reunification,” said Tyson Barker of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Entering this “new era,” as Mr. Scholz put it, means that what seemed tolerable before can no longer be tolerated. Once privately and quietly criticized, Gerhard Schröder, a former chancellor turned Russian energy accomplice, has been publicly denounced, including by former allies in his own party. (In addition, staff in his taxpayer-funded office quit.) Ostpolitik, the decades-old strategy of dealing with Russia, based in part on the hope that gas pipelines could foster mutual dependence and thus peace, is now dead. The self-serving idea that Germany could hold its own nose while trading with despots – that it could bring about “change through trade” – took a possibly fatal blow. Chinese diplomats will wonder what this means for their relations with Germany and Europe.
The magic of the moment
A kind of Europewende is the inevitable corollary of Germany’s new tactics. For decades, the EUThe largest member of faded away. Being constructive in Europe, its voice being just one of many, was Germany’s way of repenting of World War II. Now he may have no choice but to take on the big role EU need it to play. In his speech, Mr. Scholz took up the language long used by France on the need for Europe to be “sovereign”. This cannot be so without Germany asserting its weight.
The rest of Europe also seems poised for change. Many sacred cows from across the continent were slaughtered with German cows. the EU budget will be used to finance the purchase of weapons for the first time. The Scandinavian countries overcame their own pacifism to arm Ukraine; in Sweden and Finland, public opinion has shifted strongly in favor of joining NATO. Poland, in recent years an avid sower in the union, has pushed for cooperation against Mr. Putin. Hungary could have gone off the rails EU sanctions with its veto, but decided to play along. And while the arrival of a wave of war refugees in 2015 caused a crisis (as many member states demanded that everyone but themselves do more), this time plans to welcome millions of desperate Ukrainians have hatched in harmony. Ukraine demanded accelerated accession to the EU— and found support in many national capitals.
It’s something that warms the heart. There is a determination among European diplomats converging on Brussels that Charlemagne has never felt before. Some of them may not materialize: Ukraine will not be a EU Member of Parliament anytime soon, and the idea of sending fighter jets there fizzled out in a matter of days. Yet Europe is rolling through gears it didn’t know it had. Later, he will wonder where he went wrong, what mistakes have plunged Europe into the terrible crisis that suddenly changes. But for now, the mood is that of a continent that is in the middle ofWende, and kiss her. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
Europe is the continent of free-riders (February 26)
Europe uses new powers to align Poland (February 19)
European fight erupts over food labels (February 12)
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “The Watershed”