BERLIN — Olaf Scholz promised Germans direct, no-nonsense politics. Yet befuddlement and obfuscation have often reigned since the chancellor started selling his approach to the war in Ukraine.
In recent months, Scholz has left many scratching their heads with various policy pronouncements, justifications and defenses. Even as the chancellor has helmed a historic military shift for Germany, he has still found himself mired in criticism — often over how he is pitching that epochal change.
Sometimes, the issue is simply Scholz’s enigmatic sentences — the chancellor long ago earned the nickname “Scholzomat” for his mechanic, austere speaking style.
Other times, he has been caught over-promising or changing his story. At various points, the chancellor has offered misleading claims about Germany’s aid to Ukraine, given multiple accounts of why he hasn’t visited Kyiv yet and shifted the timelines for important weapons deliveries.
Most recently, Scholz raised eyebrows with the bold — and untrue — claim that “no one” had supplied Ukraine “on a similar scale as Germany does.”
“You have to be careful that such communication doesn’t come across as strange,” said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the German parliament’s defense committee and a member of the Free Democrats (FDP), which governs in a coalition with Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens.
People with knowledge of Scholz’s thinking say the chancellor is merely trying to avoid escalatory rhetoric. They note the chancellor is aware his communication style doesn’t always produce applause, but that he’s willing to withstand the criticism if it means keeping things more even-keeled. Scholz himself has told journalists he does not want to repeat the mistakes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor who aided Europe’s descent into World War I.
But the result has been that Scholz’s government — despite being a major donor for Ukraine, injecting vast sums into its own military and soon supplying Ukraine with state-of-the-art German howitzers — is getting slammed at home and internationally. The opprobrium seems to have even had a spillover effect at the polls, with Scholz’s SPD recently falling behind the Greens in a national poll for the first time in months.
“By making unclear statements, Olaf Scholz leaves himself room for maneuver internally, but externally he leaves the impression of a vague policy and weak leadership,” said Frank Brettschneider, a communications expert at Hohenheim University.
Scholz’s recent remarks about Germany’s financial generosity sounded especially awkward as they came during a visit to Lithuania.
Like that of its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania’s military aid to Ukraine dwarfs Germany’s when measured against each country’s economic output.
“If you put Germany’s military support to Ukraine in relation to our economic importance, then what has been done so far is rather moderate,” Strack-Zimmermann noted.