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Analysis | Why do Germans lose their enthusiasm to help Ukraine?


Will skyrocketing energy costs, particularly high in Germany, erode European support for aid to Ukraine’s war effort against Russia? Russia – in its attempt to use energy as a weapon – has cut gas supplies to Europe. As a result, prices have risen up to ten times what they were before and stocks are simply running out. It is therefore not surprising that many look to Germany – the EU’s largest economy – as the test case for continued European involvement in Ukraine. Will the astronomical gas bills and cold winter lead Germans to pressure their government to reduce or withdraw its support for Ukraine?

To investigate this, we conducted an opinion poll — and found that energy prices are not the main issue. We have learned, as other studies show, that while Germans support Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion, they believe that Germany has already done enough. Two factors – their historical memory of German aggression in World War II and concern about the cost of hosting refugees – are more important than energy prices in German public opinion about helping Ukraine.

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We’re sympathetic, but we’ve done enough

We surveyed an opt-in sample of 1,000 Germans online between September 14 and October 6, 2022. We used statistical tools to obtain results that reflect the German population in age, gender and state. We asked a series of questions about the war in Ukraine and what respondents thought of Germany’s efforts to help.

We then asked to what extent they supported four specific policies (none, a little, a little, very, or extremely):

  • Increased sanctions against Russia and Putin, even though these sanctions could lead to further increases in food and gas prices;
  • Sending more missiles and other military equipment to Ukraine, even if it increased Germany’s military budget;
  • Admitting more refugees from Ukraine, even if that puts extra pressure on the economy;
  • Allowing Ukraine to join NATO, even if it means committing ourselves to defending Ukraine militarily in the future.

Most Germans (91 percent) expressed at least some sympathy for the Ukrainians. However, a majority (54 percent) believe their country is doing enough (37 percent) or too much (17 percent) to help Ukraine’s military efforts and its refugees.

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Lukewarm support for further military intervention and admitting more refugees

Overall, about 30 percent of Germans oppose each of the four policies, while about 70 percent expressed some degree of support. But if we break down support by intensity (strong or weak), with strong measured as “very” or “extreme” and weak measured as “somewhat” or “a little”, we find significant variation.

While less than half (40 percent) strongly support more sanctions, even fewer people are in favor of supplying more weapons to Ukraine or admitting more refugees (only 31 percent strongly support either policy). Strong support for Ukraine’s admission to NATO is even lower at just 26 percent.

In other words, German support for increasing military aid or humanitarian aid is lukewarm.

Former East Germans are even less willing to support Ukraine than those in the West

However, this national snapshot hides important differences between the former East and West Germany. East Germans are more against all four policies than West Germans by a wide margin. For example, while only 27 percent of West German respondents are against more military aid to Ukraine, 52 percent of East Germans are of this opinion. This corresponds to a more benevolent attitude towards Russia and a greater skepticism towards NATO among that group.

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If not for energy costs, what determines the German attitude towards Ukraine?

But if Germans are more willing to sacrifice their family budget than send weapons or take in refugees, energy costs are clearly not as crucial as observers have suggested. We believe two other factors are key.

The first is the commitment to military non-intervention that the nation has cultivated since the end of World War II. The legacy of that war leads many Germans to adopt an attitude of military restraint and aversion to military involvement. Meanwhile, Germany’s self-image as a “citizen power” has become a core part of its identity, which is difficult to change. That same history — including the memory of German cities that were bombed — could also influence Germans’ reluctance to be directly involved in the conflict.

In this regard, the German government’s decision to send arms to Ukraine to combat Russian aggression has been a revolutionary change in its foreign policy, which has a fundamental commitment not to intervene militarily beyond its borders. German fighter jets and troops took part in the 1999 NATO-led operation in Kosovo, helping to end the Serbian forces’ genocide against the Albanians. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Germany sent troops to the US-led military operation in Afghanistan. But these implementations were unpopular from the start and the government faced massive protests as a result.

When German Chancellor Olaf Schulz announced that Germany would supply arms to Ukraine, the public overwhelmingly supported him. But as the war continues, Germans are more hesitant to get involved militarily. That is also what happened during the war in Afghanistan: German support for direct involvement declined sharply over time, further reducing the appetite for military intervention anywhere.

The second key factor is refugee fatigue. Now that the social and fiscal realities of hosting refugees have become clearer, Germans are losing enthusiasm to admit more Ukrainians. This could have dire consequences in the coming months, as Russia’s continued bombing campaign is likely to result in more Ukrainians fleeing to European countries – which could further weaken support for Ukraine.

While falling gas prices since October, partly due to warmer temperatures, have given Europe a respite, this may not be enough to maintain the current level of support to Ukraine. In Germany, the government has announced a plan to pay December’s gas bills for households and small to medium-sized businesses. But even that may not be enough to increase German public support for supplying arms and admitting more Ukrainian refugees.

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Yehonatan Abramson (@YoniAbramson) is a lecturer (assistant professor) in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Dan Dulay (@deandulay) is an assistant professor of political science at Singapore Management University.

Anil Menon (@armenon_memorie) is a Klarman Postdoctoral Fellow at Cornell University.

Pauline Jones (@PaulineJonesPhD) is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan and Edie N. Goldenberg Endowed Director of the Michigan in Washington Program.

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