Scholz’s caution over tanks for Ukraine echoed on Berlin streets

<span>Photograph: Moritz Frankenberg/AP</span>
Photograph: Moritz Frankenberg/AP

The hesitation with which the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, arrived at Wednesday’s decision to send a company of Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, also allowing other European states to deliver more, has frustrated partners in Europe and puzzled political allies in Berlin. But to Hilde Blücher the pace was just right.

“I thought it was likable that he was wavering”, said the 73-year-old pensioner from the Düsseldorf area, passing by the Russian embassy on Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard on a visit to the capital. “I think the decision is right, but it was also right to take time to think it through.”

Her friend said: “My husband always says, we need to remember that we lost the second world war to the Russians. And if Russia has decided to continue that conflict, then Germany must at least not be in charge of wading in.”

Scholz’s declaration of a Zeitenwende, or “epochal turn”, in German security policy last February raised expectations that the EU’s largest economy had overcome its historical reluctance on military matters and learned to lead from the front when it came to aiding Ukraine’s effort against Russia’s war of aggression.

Since then, debates about weapons exports have followed a familiar – and to many allies frustrating – pattern, in which Berlin prevaricates over different categories of hardware while it waits for other countries, especially the US, to take the lead.

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But Scholz’s restrained approach is not unreflective of attitudes among the German public, especially among the 64-year-old’s age cohort. “I think what Scholz did over the last week was politically very well thought-through”, said Karl-Ludwig, 63, who had stopped outside the Russian embassy to look at a display of candles and photographs showing ruined Ukrainian cities.

“In terms of communication, they made an absolute mess of something they could have sold as a success”, he said. “But it wouldn’t have been good for Germany to be first to deliver battle tanks.”

According to Jan Claas Behrends, a historian of eastern Europe at the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History, attitudes to the Ukraine war have laid bare a generational divide between younger Germans, who back swift military action, and “peacenik boomers” whose views are still shaped by fear – mainly of Russian unpredictability in the former east, and of nuclear escalation in the former west.

German critics of tank deliveries, such as the Left party firebrand Sahra Wagenknecht, say that supplying Ukraine with ever heavier arms will create an escalatory spiral that will eventually drag Germany into an all-out war with a familiar end. The Leopards decision, Wagenknecht said on Wednesday, was “a madness that could end in catastrophe”.

On the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, two men in their 50s walked their dog past the Soviet war memorial, where two decommissioned T34 tanks and a large bronze Red Army soldier commemorate the 80,000 Soviet fighters who died in the Battle of Berlin in spring 1945. Asked what they thought of the decision to send Leopard tanks to Kyiv, one of the men shook his head.

“Putin would never concede defeat, he’s too old for that,” he said, declining to give his name. “He’d rather unleash a nuclear war.” “Or he’ll be taken out first by one of his own”, his friend proposed. “No no, that won’t happen, his troops are far too loyal,” the man with his hand on the lead declared, and walked on.

Related: Western unity is critical, but Ukraine needs more than tanks to win this war

Only 400 metres to the north, a politician for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was giving a speech in the Bundestag in which he named the rusty T34s of the war memorial as proof of the chancellor’s reckless decision-making.

“German tanks against Russia in Ukraine?” said Petr Bystron. “Your grandfathers tried that and what was the result? Deplorable suffering, millions upon millions of dead on both sides, and at the end, Russian tanks here in Berlin. Two of which, near here, you are expected to go past every morning and remember.”

Behrends said: “One of the creeds of the 1980s peace movement was that no conflict can be won by military means. Over time, that view became government policy and is still held by many of the boomers in positions of power and influence now.”

Even so, Wednesday’s decision and decisive support for weapons exports among younger politicians in the Green party, the Free Democratic party (FDP) and even the Social Democrats, showed that Germany was capable of change, he said.

Opinion polls only two weeks ago had shown a clear majority of Germans opposed to sending battle tanks to Ukraine. Surveys published this week, before Wednesday’s announcement, indicated a shift, with 44% of those surveyed by the broadcaster RTL in favour of sending Leopards to Kyiv and 45% opposed.