“Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.
– Albert Einstein
‘Live in the moment,’ we are often told. Yet, in moments of consequence, we often draw on our past for guidance. Nations are not so different, for they are governed by individuals and, collectively, by their past.
Yet history can be a cruel teacher. The weight of history can shackle us, preventing us from choosing what is right.
In moments of consequence individuals and nations must seek a higher truth. Moral action—drawing a clear distinction between right and wrong—becomes paramount when we are confronted by inhumanity.
That point has arrived. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not merely a land grab. It is an action that poses grave risks to ordinary Ukrainians and simultaneously threatens the postwar stability of Europe. The appropriate response is not just diplomatic, nor it is only sanctions, however helpful. Rather, in consequential times we have a moral obligation to do what is right, even if the imperative challenges our conscience and our history.
No collective conscience is more troubled than Germany’s. History and an abiding sense of guilt for the worst tragedies of the 20th century weigh on the German psyche. Those feelings can lead to paralysis. Yet if Germany is to truly learn from history, it must come to terms with the concept of a just war. The horrors of its past must not blind it from that truth.
The war in the Ukraine is at a turning point. Russia is preparing for a new offensive and Ukraine needs bigger and more powerful weapons to defend itself. Most of all, it needs tanks and specifically the German Leopard 2 tank.
Germany has hundreds of these capable tanks but is unwilling to send them. Moreover, Germany refuses to allow allied nations that use the Leopard 2 to send their tanks to Ukraine.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz is caught in what must feel like an impossible situation. Whatever he does, he risks massive blowback.
On the one hand, Germany’s history has fundamentally conditioned its population (especially anyone over the age of 40, still the majority of Germans) not to be the aggressor and never to use its military weapons to kill the people of a foreign nation. Such feelings are particularly acute as regards Russia, a nation that lost more than any other to the atrocities of the Nazis.
Polls indicate that most Germans do not want to send tanks to Ukraine. Pacifism is one reason, but there is also a justified expectation that Germany will eventually need to resume good relations with Russia after the war, which also underpins the reluctance by many Germans to be seen as escalators of bellicosity.
But not since the Nazis has there been a war of such clear right and wrong in Europe. Putin’s crimes against Ukraine, and humanity, are clear. Almost daily, Russian missiles kill civilians and eviscerate villages and cities.
Also, Germany has already jettisoned its cloak of pacifism. Days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz embarked on his country’s biggest rearmament program since the Cold War, pledging to spend 100 billion euros annually on modernizing its military, more than doubling its military outlays. To-date, Germany has provided the third largest tranche of military aid to Ukraine.
Still, Chancellor Scholz is trapped in what must feel like a no-win situation, exacerbated by the cautious, incremental nature of his personality as well as that of the German psyche. Yet for all the weight of history, morality is clear.
Indeed, Scholz and all Germans who prevaricate would be wise to consider the words of Socrates: “Once a man knows good from evil, nothing on earth can compel him to act against that knowledge.”
Or as John Stuart Mill wrote: “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case, he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
When confronted by inhumanity, a moral compass becomes an internalized set of values that guides us to make the ethical decision. Like any compass, it can be used in the fog. It does not weigh pros and cons, but always points to the right direction.
Putin is killing hundreds of thousands of people. He must be stopped. Germany can take action to stop the barbarity and is morally obligated to do so. The moral imperative guides Germany to authorize other nations to send their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to furnish Ukrainians with as many of its own tanks and ammunition as possible.
The 20th century was defined, in many ways, by the worst of Germany. The 21st can yet be defined by its best moral self.