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German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht resigns

January 16, 2023

Christine Lambrecht has resigned as Germany's defense minister following a much-criticized New Year's eve message. Her year in office became a succession of minor scandals and statements that many saw as tone-deaf.

Deutschland Ex-Verteidigungsministerin Christine Lambrecht Sohn Alexander
Defense minister Christine Lambrecht, seen here with her son (left), announced her resignationImage: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Germany's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), on Monday formally announced her resignation, following a weekend of speculation about her future. 

Lambrecht had been under intense pressure over a video she posted on Instagram on New Year's Day from the streets of Berlin, in which she attempted to recapitulate her experiences of the war in Ukraine but was almost drowned out by the noise of fireworks exploding around her.

Members of the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) called out the message as tone-deaf and urged her to resign.

"The months-long media focus on my person hardly allows for objective reporting and discussion about the servicemen and women, the Bundeswehr, and security policy decisions in the interest of the citizens of Germany," Lambrecht wrote in a statement on Monday.

Scholz: Replacement to be announced swiftly

Chancellor Olaf Scholz had remained loyal to Lambrecht until the end, describing her as "first-class" as recently as December.

Scholz said on Monday that he had a "clear idea" about plans to replace Lambrecht and that he would make his intentions known quickly, but said it was too early to discuss it on Monday. He praised Lambrecht for her work trying to usher in reforms at one of Germany's most notoriously difficult ministries. 

"She worked with immense engagement to get away from the paths trodden for decades so that we could manage the major restart that's necessary both for national defense and also for Ukraine," he said. 

A difficult year in defense

Lambrecht's tenure, even before the war in Ukraine, began inauspiciously. Military experts were uncertain about her experience, and her year in office became a succession of minor scandals. Lambrecht also had to field much of the criticism for the German government's hesitation in sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

But it did not help that she took her adult son on an official trip to a military unit in northern Germany in a German Armed Forces helicopter, only to continue with him on vacation in Sylt.

But perhaps more significant than family scandals was an apparent loss of confidence in the armed forces, with leaks appearing in German media in recent weeks.

One source told Der Spiegel this weekend that the Defense Ministry had fallen into a "deep lethargy" under Lambrecht's leadership. "What ultimately caused her to resign is essentially complete loss of authority in the Defense Ministry," said Rafael Loss, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relation (ECFR). "I think that suggested that even if she had continued as a minister it would have been largely a lost cause."

Scholz will be hoping that his new appointment will provide some stability to the ministry. Candidates being suggested in the German media include SPD leader Lars Klingbeil, long-time Labor Minister Hubertus Heil, and Eva Högl, the special parliamentary commissioner for the Bundeswehr military. A successor is all but certain to hail from Scholz's SPD, to maintain the balance in Cabinet agreed upon during coalition negotiations. Scholz has also promised to maintain gender parity between men and women in his Cabinet.

Big job for the new person

Whoever the new minister is, they will have to hit the ground running. The first order of business will be to prepare for a "Ukraine contact group" of NATO defense ministers on Friday, at the US Air Force base in Ramstein, western Germany.

Loss at ECFR thinks that Scholz could use that meeting to reset Germany's policy on Ukraine, which has come under pressure internationally.

"The resignation opens the opportunity for Scholz to change the narrative around Germany's support for Ukraine," he told DW. "If he had any interest in showing more leadership ahead of the Ramstein air base meeting, then I think this resignation gives him a chance to spin a narrative about how everything will change."

Whoever it is, the German defense minister will ultimately have little say in major decisions about which weapons are sent to Ukraine, but will have much to deal with.

"NATO has already set significant burdens for the Bundeswehr in terms of the current deployment," said Loss. "The next couple of years will significantly increase the operational tempo and requirements for the Bundeswehr, and it's going to be a challenge to deliver. The next defense minister's job will be to manage all of this, while not losing the support of the armed forces, as seemingly Christine Lambrecht did."

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