German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as French President Emmanuel Macron, looks on before a meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine

Many Germans fear ‘active participation in war’ as country increases military aid to Ukraine

The German public has been reluctant to become involved in Ukraine’s war. But the government in Berlin plans to deliver on a promise that Chancellor Olaf Scholz made in February to supply military assistance, citing a “turning point” for Europe.

The first delivery of heavy weapons from Germany arrived in Ukraine two weeks ago, marking the end of a long-standing German policy — in a country where history looms large — to not send lethal aid into active conflict zones.

The move delivers on a promise that Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz made in February, just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, when he said that the European continent had reached a “turning point.”

Germany has also been beefing up its military in response to the war in Ukraine, with plans to pump more than $100 billion into the military this year alone.

In the shadow of the country’s history, many Germans are uneasy with these changes, and the country’s new proximity to war. 

Alex Hoberg, who works at a hospital in the western German city of Paderborn, is among those who’s worried about supplying arms and training Ukrainian soldiers.

“I fear this will be an active participation of war,” and could bring the conflict to German soil, Hoberg said.

“We have been involved in two wars, I think it’s enough. For me, it’s enough.”

Alex Hoberg, hospital worker in Paderborn, Germany

“We have been involved in two wars, I think it’s enough. For me, it’s enough,” she said. 

The specter of Germany’s role as an aggressor in two world wars remains in the minds of many Germans.

So does the more recent memory of nuclear threats during the Cold War.

“The most scary situation I could imagine is that there will be atom bombs that will destroy everything here,” said optician Fabine Neumann, who was born after the fall of the Iron Curtain and has known only peace in Germany.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that an intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear capabilities and a range that could easily reach Germany will be deployed by the end of the year.

“The possibility of nuclear war was far from us over [the] last 30 years, and now it has come close again. This is something of concern, of course,” said Karsten Otte, a fruit farmer in western Germany.

“I’m feeling less secure, but I’m not afraid. In case we have to fight, we will fight,” he said. 

In response to the war being waged some 500 miles away, Germany has pledged to finally meet the NATO target of spending 2% of its gross domestic product on defense.

That’s something it hasn’t done since the end of the Cold War in 1991.

And Humboldt University historian Martin Lutz said that it comes after decades of underinvestment.

“To put it more bluntly, I think there are very good reasons to say that Germany has been free-riding on the security infrastructure, for example, established by NATO,” Lutz said. 

The country’s emergency preparedness systems for civilian protection, Lutz said, have also fallen into “neglect and decline.”

The number of emergency sirens working today is down to a fraction of Cold War figures. And the same is true for bunkers and nuclear fallout shelters, which the government stopped maintaining in 2007.

The Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance says calls from concerned citizens and requests for its guidebook on emergency preparedness have spiked. 

Kay Heyne, a guide with the Berlin Underworlds Association, said his tour company also got a lot of calls following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, not from the usual visitors looking to book a tour of an old bunker, but from locals asking where their nearest shelter is. 

“The threat of war coming from the east is now more clear for everybody. This is a turning point for many, many people, I think.”

Kay Heyne, guide with the Berlin Underworlds Association

“The threat of war coming from the east is now more clear for everybody. This is a turning point for many, many people, I think,” Heyne said.

Heyne gives tours of old nuclear fallout shelters, like the one completed in a Berlin subway station in 1977, where visitors can see heavy-duty air-tight doors, rooms filled with bunk beds, a stocked kitchen and bed linens wrapped in their original plastic packaging.

There were about 2,000 public bunkers at the height of the Cold War. The federal government says that 599 still exist today, but it’s unclear how many of those would still protect people after the government stopped maintaining them more than a decade ago.

Since the Russian war started, the federal government has suspended the decommissioning program for bunkers and dedicated an additional more than $68 million for emergency preparedness and humanitarian aid. It’s establishing standalone emergency shelters, buying generators and investing in emergency drinking water wells.

The government’s disaster assistance office also launched a webpage after the invasion of Ukraine urging citizens to buy nonperishable foods and prepare a “go bag.”

Heyne, the tour guide, believes that it’s time for Germany and its military to be better prepared.

I don’t like the idea, but perhaps you have to spend a lot more money for the military,” he said.  “It’s like this old saying, if you seek peace, prepare for war.”

The World spoke to other Germans this past spring, and none of them said they were scoping out emergency shelters or stockpiling food yet, but most expressed a new sense of insecurity.

Berliner Andre Pfeiffer remembers learning to march and take cover from atomic bombs at a boys’ military training camp in the former East Germany, but he said this war feels a lot more real to him.

“In the ’80s, it was much more in the papers and news, but there was no difference in life,” he said. “Today, it’s much more our own life. We see the empty shelves in the shops and the Ukrainian refugees in the streets of Berlin. So, it’s much more feel-able.”

Right now, Pfeiffer’s main concern is rising fuel prices and the future of the economy. Western nations have placed heavy sanctions on Moscow, disrupting the energy market. Meanwhile, the export of wheat from Russia and Ukraine to many countries dependent on them around the world have also been disrupted.

Those are concerns shared by many Germans, as inflation rises and the government inches closer to rationing natural gas in response to reduced supplies from Russia.

Related: Body armor factories in the Americas are sending gear to war-torn Ukraine

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.