Germans increasingly support a ban on Russian oil and gas imports, putting the public at odds with the federal government’s policy of a stepwise reduction in coal, oil and gas from Ukraine’s aggressor.
Politicians and representatives of Germany’s powerful industrial lobby say quickly switching off Russian natural gas supplies would have catastrophic impacts on the European economy, but public opinion polls show that a slim majority of Germans support the move, even as the war pushes gas and electricity prices to record highs.
“After the Second World War, Germany really gave the promise ‘never again.’ And now, terrible atrocities are happening every day. Children get killed, hospitals get bombed. And right now, we’re standing by and we’re even financing the aggressor.”
“After the Second World War, Germany really gave the promise ‘never again,’” said Berliner Sebastian Rötters, who campaigns for an embargo at his job with the German environmental nonprofit Urgewald. “And now, terrible atrocities are happening every day. Children get killed, hospitals get bombed. And right now, we’re standing by and we’re even financing the aggressor.”
Ukraine has called on Europe to stop funding Russia’s war chest with its energy purchases, and European pressure is increasing on Germany, one of the staunchest opponents of a full embargo.
Pressure is heating up inside Germany’s borders as well, with vocal politicians and the public calling for a complete embargo on Russian fossil fuels.
Like many Germans, Rötters has started conserving energy at home — in his case, by taking cold showers — but he’s convinced that individual actions are not the answer to this collective problem.
“This is a moral question, it’s a humanitarian question, to really do whatever we can to stop this,” he said.
Germany has for years been moving away from fossil fuels in an effort to combat climate change, and now gets more than 40% of its electricity from renewables.
But moving off of coal and nuclear power has left it hugely reliant on Russian energy.
Until recently, about half of Germany’s coal and natural gas — and about a third of its oil — came from Russia.
Those shares have declined since Russia invaded Ukraine and Berlin scrambled for alternative suppliers.
Now, Germany is slated to stop importing Russian coal by August, in accordance with the latest batch of EU sanctions, and the German government says it can wean itself off of Russian oil by the end of the year.
But Russian natural gas, the government says, will take longer to phase out.
And until then, many Germans will continue indirectly supporting a war they oppose.
“It's, of course, weird to be using Russian energy, but it's not really like we have an option to change it.”
“It's, of course, weird to be using Russian energy, but it's not really like we have an option to change it,” said Johnathan Spitz, who together with his Ukrainian wife is hosting two Ukrainian refugees in their home in southern Germany.
Their home is heated by gas, which across Germany means it’s partly heated by Russian fuel.
To avoid contributing more than necessary to the Russian war chest, the family has turned down some of their radiators.
And Spitz, who’s the founder of a small startup that uses artificial intelligence to help manufacturers make their operations more efficient, has offered his services for free to businesses trying to wean themselves off Russian gas. (No one has taken him up on the offer yet.)
“My focus has mainly been on the industry side, which I think is even more important than the way that homes are heated,” Spitz said.
The Federation of German Industries, which represents 37 industry associations and claims to represent some 8 million employees, says cutting off imports of Russian natural gas before alternate supplies are secured would have “unforeseeable consequences for supply security, growth, employment and our ability to act politically.”
In a speech to the Bundestag last month, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it would plunge not just Germany but all of Europe into recession; put hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk and endanger German industry.
Today, economic institutes advising the German government warned of a $240 billion hit to the German economy if Russian energy supplies are immediately interrupted.
To Spitz, that kind of economic sacrifice can’t compare to the existential ones being made in Ukraine.
“I still think it's much better to be without a job than without a life. Having even 10% more unemployment is not as bad as women being raped, children getting killed, homes being destroyed.”
“I still think it's much better to be without a job than without a life,” Spitz said. “Having even 10% more unemployment is not as bad as women being raped, children getting killed, homes being destroyed.”
Oliver Grosscurth, a high school English teacher in northern Germany who now counts Ukrainian refugees among his students, sat down with his wife at the beginning of the war to think about how they could help.
“I follow the news because this war, it hits home,” he said. “And we talked about what can we do as one household.”
His family has turned down the thermostat about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), reduced the number of hours the heat is on, cut down on trips in their gas-powered car and relied more on their bikes and electric vehicle to get around.
Grosscurth doesn’t support a full ban on Russian energy, but does hope the government pays attention to public opinion and dramatically slashes imports.
“The German people, I think, have a different attitude toward this whole boycott, cutting down imports, than most of the politicians have,” he said.
Late last month, the minister of economy and climate action, Robert Habeck, took to Instagram to urge Germans to conserve energy, saying with every cubic meter of gas saved, the country was becoming more independent of Russia.
But some want the government to take more concrete steps to promote energy efficiency.
The German Federation of Sustainable Economy, for example, is calling for a speed limit on German roads that don’t have one, including its famed autobahn.
“We use a lot of fossil fuels because we are driving, or some people are driving very fast,” said the Federation’s Phoebe Köster, “and we could reduce them by having speed limits. And this would be very low-hanging fruit.”
The group is also pushing for car-free Sundays.
“This could be one measurement which actually would reduce the use of cars,” Köster said, “but also start this [process] of rethinking mobility.”
The German governing coalition last week unveiled a legislative package aimed at speeding up the country’s transition to renewable energy over the next decade.
But it maintains, as the German ambassador to the US, Emily Haber, tweeted on Wednesday, that “going cold turkey on fossil fuels from Russia would cause a massive, instant disruption,” especially to German industry. “You cannot turn modern industrial plants on and off like a light switch.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rationale for attacking Ukraine, she added, is “not the result of a classic cost-benefit analysis.”
Ceasing energy imports, she said, would have unclear impacts on Russia, but the impact on the German economy would have knock-on effects around the world.