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.
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 II.
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 twentieth century still influence its foreign policy today.
Thousands of German firms do business there. Many Germans – including Angela Merkel – grew up behind the Iron Curtain, learning Russian at school. Her ability to communicate regularly with Vladimir Putin when other leaders could not, was often attributed to their shared experience of life in the Communist East.
What puzzles – and angers – many around the world (and a fair few in Germany too) is why Chancellor Scholz isn’t playing his most obvious card.
The two countries’ economic ties are perhaps most controversially embodied in the Nordstream 2 pipeline, which, if and when it comes online, would double the amount of Russian gas coming into Europe via Germany.
Chancellor Scholz is under pressure to scrap the project by way of a sanction against Russia. That he has not yet done so is, critics argue, emblematic of Germany’s self-interest.
It’s a sore topic for his government. His social democrats, who say the pipeline is a private economic project, are behind it. But his partners, the FDP, say it’s political and the Greens would dearly love to let it go.
Mr Scholz has indicated that, should Russia invade Ukraine, all options will be on the table, including the pipeline. But, in his quietly spoken way, has gone no further, prompting some to wonder whether history will judge him canny or weak and hesitant.
“It’s wise to have a certain level of strategic ambiguity so that Putin cannot start calculating which price he would have to pay in case of doing this or that,” says Nils Schmidt. “That’s why is so important to have all these options on the table.”
And, in the meantime, as Vladimir Putin tests the nerves of the West, Germany faces fundamental questions about its pacifist instincts.
Even towards the end of the Merkel era, calls were growing for Germany to take on a more substantial military role on the world stage.
And, as visitors to Seelow Heights, who imagine the screams of Katyusha rockets and the shouts of dying men, will understand, Germany knows very well what is at stake – and the cost of getting it wrong.
By: Jenny Hill
BBC Berlin correspondent