Germans Want to Rearm, But Not in Order to Aid Ukraine

Germans narrowly favor rearmament — but not more support for Ukraine — as Europe looks for a Plan B amid U.S. political gridlock
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November 13, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • A slight majority of Germans support rearmament, but most of these same Germans think their country is doing either “too much” or “about the right amount” to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Among Germans who oppose rearming, financial considerations far outstrip historical angst as their primary concern.

  • In addition to other structural shortcomings, these dynamics will contribute to Europe’s inability to backfill U.S. support amid congressional gridlock on Ukraine aid.

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It’s a trope in trans-Atlantic relations that the United States is the indispensable partner. The adage has proven true in supporting Ukraine’s resistance to the ongoing Russian invasion, with America providing the lion’s share of monetary and in-kind support, as well as more intangible leadership. But amid growing fear of lasting congressional gridlock on aid to Ukraine and the diversion of U.S. attention and resources to Israel after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the urgency for European NATO allies to have a viable, if imperfect, Plan B has spiked again. For many Western European countries, the lynchpin of that Plan B is a more robust German military girded by increased spending. 

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the newly minted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz heartened his European counterparts by declaring a pivot, or “Zeitenwende,” toward greater defense spending and leadership. The rhetoric was followed up by action, with Germany releasing its first ever national security strategy, promising that the European economic powerhouse would finally fulfill its NATO commitment of spending 2% of its gross domestic product on defense. 

German society is somewhat divided on whether the time is right for such a pivot. Most Germans think it is time for their country to rearm, but sizable shares also think it should continue to wait.  

A Slim Majority of Germans Support Rearmament, Including Larger Shares of Major Parties

Shares of each group who said Germany should rearm now or wait to rearm
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Survey conducted Oct. 2-5, 2023 among a representative sample of 1,001 German adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

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German adults’ reticence is motivated less by history and more by budgetary constraints

Germany significantly underspends on its NATO commitments — like most Western European alliance members. But Germany has long been considered a somewhat special case. Adding to clear free-riding incentives that lead many NATO allies to fall short of their own spending commitments are Germany’s strong domestic pacifist tendencies, which stem in part from the legacy of the country’s role as aggressor in World War II. Today, however, more Germans who oppose rearmament articulate their opposition in financial, rather than historical, terms. 

Germans Against Rearming Most Commonly Cite Financial Considerations as the Reason

Of the 248 Germans who said it was not time to rearm, the shares who said the following is the reason:
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Survey conducted Oct. 2-5, 2023 among a representative sample of 1,001 German adults, including 248 who think Germany should not rearm now, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-6 percentage points.

The politics of rearmament may not be the same as the politics of support for Ukraine

While the catalyst for the Zeitenwende was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the dynamics of German rearmament may not be conducive to significantly greater military support for Ukraine. In general, German adults across the political spectrum think their government is doing either “too much” (28%) or “about the right amount” (35%) to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Compared with all adults, Germans who believe that now is the time for rearmament (30%) are 9 percentage points more likely to say Germany should be doing more for Ukraine, but the same total share (63%) among each group think Germany is doing enough or too much. 

Majority of Germans Who Favor Rearming Nevertheless Think Berlin Is Doing ‘Too Much’ or Enough for Ukraine

Shares of respondents who said Germany is doing “too much,” about the “right amount” or “not enough” to halt the Russian invasion of Ukraine
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Survey conducted Oct. 2-5, 2023 among a representative sample of 1,001 German adults, including 522 who think Germany should rearm now, with an unweighted margin of error of up to +/-4 percentage points.

The same disconnect between rearming and greater support for Ukraine can be seen when breaking the numbers down by political party. It is particularly dramatic among adherents of  the far-right Alternative for Germany: A slim majority (51%) of their supporters favor rearmament, but 60% think Germany is doing too much for Ukraine. 

German weakness could be a greater threat to Europe than German strength

Unfortunately for advocates of greater European military autonomy, the German pivot has started to look more like a smaller course correction — still important for the future of European security by changing the long-term trajectory, but not a game changer in the short run. Germany’s European neighbors — many of whom have strong historical precedent for fearing German military strength — may nevertheless have greater reason to worry about German weakness as they look at events to the east. In the words of former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, Germany’s European allies have begun to “fear German power less than German inactivity.”

A headshot photograph of Sonnet Frisbie
Sonnet Frisbie
Deputy Head of Political Intelligence

Sonnet Frisbie is the deputy head of political intelligence and leads Morning Consult’s geopolitical risk offering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Sonnet spent over a decade at the U.S. State Department specializing in issues at the intersection of economics, commerce and political risk in Iraq, Central Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She holds an MPP from the University of Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @sonnetfrisbie. Interested in connecting with Sonnet to discuss her analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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