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Germany is under increased pressure to send its Leopard tanks to Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Germany is under increasing pressure to send its Leopard tanks to Ukraine and to allow other countries like Poland to do the same. Germany fears such a move could escalate the war, but there are also deeper cultural reasons behind its hesitance. After Germany's defeat in World War II, the country adopted a firmly anti-militaristic stance and set strict rules about how and when it exports weapons. For more on this, I'm joined by Stefan Liebich, who represented the Left Party in the German Parliament for 12 years. He joins us from Berlin. Good morning.

STEFAN LIEBICH: Good morning, Leila. And hello, Washington, D.C.

FADEL: So good. So nice to have you here with us. So let's start with these tanks. Why is this such a difficult decision for Germany?

LIEBICH: I can give you at least 2 1/2 reasons. Let me start with history. So Germany started the worst war in human history that killed 60 million people, and most of them Russians. And after Germany's defeat in 1945, the Allied forces, and especially the U.S. Americans, enforced pacifism for good reasons. And it worked. So until Germany's reunification in 1990, no German soldier took part in a war. So West Germany was part of the NATO and did have armed forces, but they never sent soldiers abroad. And the same was true for East Germany, where I grew up. So it was only 2009 when the first German soldier was killed in Afghanistan. So the German society is not used to such things.

FADEL: Has that changed though, now with the war in Ukraine? Because a recent poll shows this is a really divisive issue and half of Germany's population is pro sending these tanks.

LIEBICH: Yeah, totally. Since February 24, 2022, the beginning of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine, everything is upside down here. So the German chancellor gave a speech a few days later announcing a zeitenwende, a historic turning point, with an increase of spending for defense up to 100 billion euros. We have never spent so much since the end of the Cold War. And yes, the majority of people in Germany is sad and angry about Russia's actions, and they supporting the delivering of weapons. And actually, Germany delivered a lot of weapons. So Germany with U.K. is No. 2 after the U.S. in supporting the Ukrainian defense with tanks, with an air defense system, with bazookas. But the Leopard 2 is a different thing.

FADEL: Why is it different?

LIEBICH: So the Leopard 2 is one of the most modern tanks in the world. And that was what crossed another red line. And like the U.S., Germany tries to avoid to be directly involved in that war. So the German government would like to see a decision by the U.S. government that we do that together so that if the U.S. wants us to do that and understands the reasons for it, then they should send their M1 Abrams tanks, too. And there's another reason the German defense industry is afraid that the U.S. has an interest to replace the Leopards with their tanks. So there are economical reasons, too.

FADEL: I want to ask specifically about your party, which has called to abolish NATO in favor of a collective security alliance that involves Russia. And your party's roots go back to the party that ruled East Germany in the Soviet era. So does that influence your view of sending Leopard tanks to Ukraine?

LIEBICH: Of course, our party has, like, two legs. There's a West German leg that's the split of the Social Democratic Party. And you are right, there is a East German leg from the former Communist Party. But right now, we have a lot of younger people, too. They are not so much influenced by that anymore. So we have divided opinions about the support of Ukraine. So some of our members are supporting it and some are more reluctant because of the past.

FADEL: And what is your viewpoint?

LIEBICH: So if our party is against illegal invasions, against breaking international law, then we should be very clear about Russia's illegal actions here, too. And that happened, obviously. And so I think the country that is attacked by Russia right now should be supported. That is my opinion.

FADEL: Now, you grew up in East Germany, and I'd love to understand - are feelings toward Russia more complicated in that part of the country than they are in the West?

LIEBICH: If you look at the polls, there is a majority in East Germany against delivering of the Leopard 2 tanks. And in West Germany, there's a majority in favor of it. I think you have to understand that 40 years of the German Democratic Republic, these years have changed things. So all people in East Germany learned Russian in school. There were a lot of contacts with the Soviet Union and, of course, with Russian people, too. So there are different and sometimes deeper connections in East Germany than in West Germany, and that may explain the higher reluctance.

FADEL: Stefan Liebich, who represented the Left Party in the German Parliament for 12 years, thank you so much for your time.

LIEBICH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.