Small-Town Revolt Reveals Larger German Concerns About Arming Ukraine

When government leaders in Saxony learned that Rheinmetall, Germany’s most prominent arms manufacturer, was considering building a new munitions factory in the former East German state, they saw visions of economic boom.

It was a chance, they thought, to capitalize on the city’s storied airfield — home to the Red Baron in World War I, the Nazis in World War II and the Soviets in the decades that followed — to bring in hundreds of jobs and a slice of a huge infusion of federal funds to rebuild Germany’s depleted armed forces.

Some in the chosen city of Grossenhain, with a population approaching 20,000, saw it differently.

Sixteen of 22 members of the City Council signed a letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz urging him to block the project. The local wing of Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the resurgent far-right political party, held a rally in June where speakers railed against arms sales to Ukraine. Residents lined up to sign a petition circulated by the city’s Left Party.

“We reject a further economic-military use after years of military use,” the petition read. “We do not want to be involved in wars all over the world in a roundabout way.”

Perhaps easily dismissed as small-town politics, the revolt in tiny Grossenhain in fact reveals far larger unease among some Germans, particularly in the former Communist East, about their country’s commitment to arming Ukraine, despite the chancellor’s professed “Zeitenwende,” or turning point, toward a more assertive foreign policy.

A technician at a Rheinmetall factory in Unterlüss, Germany, working in June on ammunition to be delivered to soldiers in Ukraine. Credit…Axel Heimken/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Support for that pivot has been muted by the decades East Germany spent as a Soviet satellite during the Cold War, which left the region with both a lingering fear of Russia and an affinity for it.

More broadly, many Germans still hold a deep aversion to war and to defense spending in a country whose Nazi past has made it reluctant to invest in military power. The view from Berlin is one thing; the political realities on the ground are another.

“Lots of people are coming from the ’80s, or the ’70s, or the ’60s — that, ‘We don’t want weapons anymore. We don’t want an army anymore. This is not needed anymore. We want to live in peace with Russia,’” said Sebastian Fischer, a member of Saxony’s state legislature who held listening sessions with voters about their concerns regarding the factory. “It’s very difficult to explain to people why we should defend Ukraine.”

The opposition to a proposed factory in Grossenhain began almost immediately after Rheinmetall’s chief executive, Armin Papperger, said in an interview in January that he was in discussions with the federal government about building a powder munitions plant in Saxony to meet a surge in demand caused by the efforts of Kyiv and its Western allies to resist the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some in Grossenhain feared that the factory would anger President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who spent nearly five years as a K.G.B. agent in nearby Dresden, and make their city a military target.

“He knows exactly where the airfield is,” Kerstin Lauterbach, the city councilor from the Left Party who led efforts to protest the factory, said of Mr. Putin. “The population is very, very sensitive to such arguments. The history and the powder factory — it’s inseparable.”

Today, the 360-acre airfield, the largest tract of industrial-use land in eastern Germany, is home to warehouses and a small flight club, but old Soviet helicopters and jets still rest at the edges of the runways.

A stele erected in Grossenhain by Soviet forces shortly before their withdrawal in March 1993.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

Grossenhainers remember the Soviet presence as sometimes menacing, recounting stories of the base siphoning residents’ electricity and generating a persistent din of jets roaring overhead. But the base’s very existence also instilled fear.

Caught between two nuclear powers, the Soviets to the east and the Americans to the west, Grossenhainers fretted that the air base would put them on the front lines if nuclear war broke out. Records later released by the C.I.A. show that Americans did, in fact, scrutinize the city and base in the early 1950s, with officials filing reports on the activity there.

Ms. Lauterbach was horrified by the idea that the airfield would return to military use. When the Soviets left, residents “were relieved that there was no longer a military there,” she said.

As a leftist, Ms. Lauterbach said that she was opposed to all arms sales — not just ones to Ukraine — and that she condemned “the war of aggression” by Russia.

Yet Ms. Lauterbach said she placed some blame with European and American leaders for failing to resolve the conflict “peacefully” before it turned into a hot war. “I can imagine that Putin is feeling squeezed,” she said, “because NATO is slipping closer and closer.”

Kerstin Lauterbach, city councilor for the Left Party in Grossenhain, in her office, showing signed petitions and leaflets opposing the munitions factory.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

Armin Benicke, a former pilot, became a prominent voice opposing the factory, arguing that it was unsafe to build a plant producing chemicals so close to the city. He said he supported efforts to rearm Germany but was unhappy to see Berlin send so much aid to Ukraine when Germany’s own economy was struggling.

“This special fund for the Bundeswehr — 100 billion so that you can now buy a decent amount of weapons,” Mr. Benicke said, using the name for the German armed forces and referring to euros. “I say that’s a mistake, because the weapons you buy go to Ukraine.”

Jens Lehmann, who represents Saxony in the German Parliament, said in an interview that decades of trade and “socialization” with the Soviets during the Cold War had left many East Germans with a “pragmatic” view of Russia.

“People have been trading with Russia since the end of” World War II, said Mr. Lehmann. “Even after German reunification, we always got cheap and reliable Russian gas. That’s why people say about the war, ‘We have to negotiate, we have to find a diplomatic way.’”

Little information was made available to the public about what a factory in Grossenhain would look like, allowing rumors to run rampant. Dirk Diedrich, Saxony’s commissioner for strategic investment projects, said that he and other state leaders were shut out of discussions with Rheinmetall.

An old helicopter at the Grossenhain airfield in September.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

“What made it very difficult for us is that we could not put facts into the discussions,” Mr. Diedrich said. “No one could say what exactly are the plans of the company.”

If those discussions had taken place, he said, “We could have convinced the majority that this is a good investment.”

Instead, the AfD party, classified in Saxony as a suspected right-wing extremist organization, seized on the debate. Nearly 200 people attended its rally, carrying cardboard hearts in the party’s signature blue that read “PEACE!”

André Wendt, an AfD member of Saxony’s state parliament, accused Western governments of “putting us all at risk” and “mobilizing for war” by sending arms to Ukraine.

“It is scandalous and ahistoric when the media celebrates the move of German Leopard tanks against Russia in newsreel fashion and critics of these arms deliveries and this war are portrayed as extremist,” Mr. Wendt said in a speech at the rally.

A street in Grossenhain. Sixteen of Grossenhain’s 22 City Council members signed a letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz urging him to block the Rheinmetall factory.Credit…Ingmar Nolting for The New York Times

The scene prompted fuming from politicians who saw the prospect of a multimillion-euro factory as an opportunity to attract Western companies that are increasingly building in eastern Germany. Early estimates suggested that Rheinmetall’s factory would have brought an investment of about $840 million and as many as 600 jobs to the region.

In the end, Rheinmetall decided against building a new factory — at least for now — in favor of expanding its existing plant on Germany’s southern border. It was an economic decision, Mr. Papperger said, concluding that a new plant would be commercially viable only with a huge new contract or a major infusion of state aid.

Mr. Lehmann said that was a shame. “The big companies are in Munich, in North Rhine-Westphalia, in Berlin, in northern Germany, somewhere on the coast. But in the east, there are relatively few defense and security companies.”

“With the Zeitenwende, there is a political will to develop the security and defense industry,” he added. “It would be a pity if this did not happen somewhere in eastern Germany.”

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