Germany’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine has puzzled and angered some allies. But the reasons why Europe’s most powerful country is standing back are historical and complex.
By Jenny Hill, BBC Berlin correspondent, is trying to answer this question “Why Germany isn’t sending weapons to Ukraine?” in her article published by BBC News explaining the nature of modern German pacifism.
There’s a great grassy plain to the east of Berlin where the soil tells terrible stories.
As farmers plough, their blades disturb human bones, weapons; the fragments of one of the most brutal battles of World War Two.
It was spring 1945. Hitler was hiding in a bunker in Berlin, his troops in retreat. Soviet forces advanced from the east across the plain but, above them on a hill called the Seelow Heights, the Nazis had taken up a defensive position.
It was, by all accounts, a muddy, chaotic bloodbath. The Soviets eventually prevailed, hastening the end of the war, but it’s estimated up to 30,000 of their soldiers were killed.
To visit the memorial at Seelow Heights is to understand how deeply entrenched this country’s history remains in the minds of many Germans – and how the horrors of the 20th Century still influence its foreign policy today.
It is one of the reasons Germany has refused to send weapons to Ukraine, prompting a furious response from politicians there.
This is, by and large, a nation of pacifists.
An annual survey reveals that most Germans believe diplomatic negotiation is the best way to resolve conflict. German troops rarely participate in anything other than peacekeeping missions; there are few exceptions – and they were controversial – including the Balkans in the 90s and, more recently, Afghanistan.
It’s also, ironically, one of the world’s biggest arms exporters (though its output is dwarfed by that of the US and Russia). And it has strict controls over where weapons are sent, even if Angela Merkel’s government was sometimes accused of not sticking to those rules.
“Germany has a longstanding policy of restraint when it comes to military conflict of all sorts and weapons export is seen as fuelling conflict rather than reducing conflict,” says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff from the German Marshall Fund. “This longstanding policy says that Germany does not export arms into conflict zones.”
Germany has departed from that principle, to arm Peshmerga fighters battling IS in Northern Iraq. But the situation in Ukraine is different, he says. The reason is history – the Nazi killings of millions of people in Ukraine and Russia.
“To export arms into the bloodlands that Germany helped to create, to supply one part of the bloodlands with arms… against the other part of the bloodlands… is an anathema in the German political debate.”
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Germany was responsible for the death of approximately six million Ukrainians during WWII (including 1.2 million victims of the Holocaust). To atone for this, Germany opposes and blocks NATO from providing Ukraine weapons that could prevent the death of untold thousands today.