When Putin’s tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border on 24th February 2022, the new government in Berlin immediately felt the shock. Germany is Europe’s industrial powerhouse and was its biggest buyer of Russian gas and oil—energy imports that not only kept households warm but fuelled the industries behind its economic success. As it became clear that this was, indeed, a full-scale war, two questions came to the fore: how had Germany become so dangerously dependent on Russian energy and how could it get out of it? Less than a year later Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, declared the second question resolved. The first continues to reverberate through the country’s fractious domestic politics.
Energy politics have long been fiercely debated in Germany. In the early 1970s the word energiewende, or energy transition, denoted the phaseout of nuclear power championed by Germany’s vocal anti-nuclear movement. In 1979, the Social Democrat Party (SPD) in the Schleswig-Holstein region adopted the phrase to describe a combined policy of nuclear phaseout, energy efficiency and a reduction of imported oil. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, chancellor Angela Merkel committed to shutting down nuclear plants and to a low-carbon transition that would also end coal use.