For German defence minister Christine Lambrecht, 2023 started with a bang. With so many bangers, in fact, that her Instagram New Year’s message was nearly inaudible. But to her great misfortune, her words weren’t fully drowned by the noise.
Watching the video with eyes closed (you won’t miss much in terms of visuals – only ministerial hair being tousled in the wind), you might think she was in Ukraine surrounded by flak. And not on the streets of Berlin, where the fireworks and sirens were too loud to allow the recording to get near to any professional standard.
But with difficulty, you can still make out what is the most bizarre and self-important post since German politicians discovered social media.
Here’s a sample of what Lambrecht felt she needed to share with the world about her year, on her “private” account: “A war is raging at the heart of Europe. Linked to it were many special impressions I was able to gain, many, many encounters with interesting and great people. For this, I heartily say Danke schön.”
No mention of Ukrainian suffering and courage, so not so Instagramable after all. Unless you want your defence minister reflecting on atrocities and crises in a Forrest Gump style: “War is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”. Germany surely got the wrong woman for the job.
Political observers and the opposition attacked Lambrecht for her cynicism in treating the Ukraine war as some kind of advanced training programme for self-discovery. Her colleagues didn’t really come to her defence, so allow me: she needs some basic training about the military. Hence her choice of footwear while visiting Bundeswehr soldiers in Mali (high heels, matching the sand) and her boasts about sending 5,000 helmets to Ukraine being a “clear signal”.
Then there is her astonishing claim that the Gepard Panzer (Cheetah tank) “isn’t a tank” at all, because it only “shoots in the air with its barrel” (in other words, it’s a tank used for anti-aircraft defence).
The self-importance seems to run in the family. Last summer, Lambrecht’s 21-year-old son posted a photo on Instagram of himself inside a Luftwaffe helicopter. On her orders, the ministry denied any information on who had taken the picture, stating it was a private affair.
Journalists had to invoke the Freedom of Information Act and got a court order (using taxpayers’ money) to find out that, yes, the proud mother took the photo. It was taken on her flight to an unnecessary appointment up north, with the sole purpose seemingly being that a helicopter could get Lambrecht and son closer to the holiday island Sylt than a regular plane.
I’m not going too far out on a limb to say that chancellor Olaf Scholz would never have appointed Christine Lambrecht if he had really cared about the state of the German army, navy and air force when choosing his cabinet (a few months before Putin’s attack).
Even his Social Democrats actually have people who know that infantry has nothing to do with infants. But Scholz needed to keep his promise of a gender-balanced government – so Lambrecht got the job because she qualified as a woman (with government experience as a former justice minister).
Scholz, not unlike Angela Merkel, is now continuing the German tradition of never sacking a cabinet member unless it’s the last resort. He doesn’t like admitting mistakes. But 13% approval ratings for Lambrecht in the polls and 70% demanding her resignation clearly indicate that the public recognises his error of judgment.
And this, not the embarrassing Instagram post, is the core problem: The Bundeswehr (German armed forces) has suffered decades of neglect by various governments, including Merkel’s, with the pacifist wing of the SPD regularly blocking proper funding and advanced equipment, such as armed drones. The stories are legend:
Soldiers expected to shout “peng!” (“bang!”) and “bum!” (“boom!”) during field exercises instead of shooting, thanks to ammunition shortage; German infantrymen having to ask comrades from smaller Nato countries for stable tents; only 10% of Luftwaffe equipment being fit for action; budgetary tricks in early October to prevent the Bundeswehr from running out of fuel; the order of much needed F-35 jets from the US, at double the price the Swiss are paying (they ordered before the war…); and just this month, while preparing for a Nato manoeuvre, the malfunctioning of 18 Puma tanks. Out of 18.
The Bundeswehr deserved a qualified minister with a sufficient budget long before the war on Ukraine. But perhaps this war will turn out to be the German military’s biggest ally.