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Zelenskyy speech sparks soul-searching in Germany

For Germany’s political and media classes, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s condemnation of their country’s response to the Ukraine war triggered a bout of national self-reproach. 

In his speech to the Bundestag on Thursday, the Ukrainian president took a swipe at what he called Germany’s “worthless” lip service regarding the Holocaust, a bitter charge for his audience to hear.

Zelenskyy, the Jewish president of a nation scarred by millions of dead in World War II and the Holocaust, said Germany was prioritizing its own economy and energy purchases from Russia over a moral obligation to try to end the war.

It was an address that should have prompted an urgent and honest debate among parliamentarians, commentators wrote in Friday’s newspapers. And it was “shameful” and “a disgrace” that such a debate never came, they said.

“Zelenskyy’s speech was historic. The reaction in the Bundestag afterwards was a historic low point, wrote Johannes Boie, editor-in-chief at Bild, Germany’s largest tabloid, referring to the German parliament’s decision to just move on to other topics after the emotional speech.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the country’s foremost broadsheets, ran as its headline Zelenskyy’s quote from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan “Tear down this wall,” while their chancellery correspondent Nico Fried asked in an op-ed: “What are peace and freedom worth to us which we would not have if others had not intervened at the time?” He added that “especially after Zelenskyy’s speech, the discussion about this would have been the debate about a real question of conscience — unlike the debate about compulsory vaccination, to which the parliament devoted itself with fervor instead.”

On the evening news at public broadcaster ARD, Berlin bureau chief Matthias Deiß said the speech would “resonate for a long time in the Reichstag building with its eventful history.” Touching on Zelenskyy’s history references, he added that the Ukrainian president “skilfully argued with our past to make clear what is at stake for all of us today.”

In the left-leaning taz, Sabine am Orde wrote that “It would not have been easy to confront this speech. But the fact that neither the chancellor nor any of the ministers took the floor afterwards is shameful.”

Berlin daily Tagesspiegel also focused on the chancellor’s failure to react to Zelenskyy’s words. “These are days when Scholz does not seem very strong in leadership, when he lacks the right instinct,” wrote Georg Ismar. “The day before, Zelenskyy had spoken to Congress and US President Joe Biden then, unlike Scholz, quickly announced another $800 million package of anti-aircraft missiles, drones and thousands of anti-tank weapons,” he added.

Die Welt‘s parliament correspondent Robin Alexander called Thursday a “black day for [Olaf Scholz’s] coalition” as well as “a disgrace for parliament.” Alexander argued that “any admitted helplessness and cluelessness would have been better than the incredibly embarrassing point-of-order debate that followed [the speech].”

The German government attempted to defend itself against the Ukrainian president’s criticism.

“Mr. Zelenskyy’s speech was touching, insulting, accusatory and certainly completely justified from his point of view,” German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said when grilled on public broadcaster ZDF on Thursday. “From the point of view of the federal government in Germany, not completely justified, because Germany is doing a lot to support Ukraine and many things that we considered impossible weeks ago.”

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