I went viral in Germany for a meme about Scholzing

Timothy Garton Ash

Acouple of weeks ago, at a moment of huge frustration over Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s foot-dragging on allowing Europe’s German-made Leopard tanks to go to Ukraine, a Ukrainian friend WhatsApped me a satirical mockup on “Scholzing”. Next to a photograph of the chancellor, it defined Scholzing, dictionary-style, as: “verb: communicating good intentions only to use/find/invent any reason imaginable to delay these and/or prevent them from happening”. I found this sharp and amusing, quickly retweeted it, and thought no more about it. My Twitter account seemed to be buzzing, but then I’d been writing a lot about the issue myself.
Six days later, I was watching an interview with Scholz on Germany’s ZDF television channel when the interviewer confronted him with “Scholzing”, attributing the coinage to “a British historian”. I went back to my Twitter feed to find that this one quick tweet had been viewed 1.1m times. In German and international media, the definition was being widely quoted as mine. Since, as we all know, the internet never lies, it has now become a historical fact that I thus defined “Scholzing”. (I had incautiously tweeted the meme directly from WhatsApp, so it didn’t show up as something sent from Ukraine. I subsequently clarified this on Twitter, but of course no one reads the clarification.)
I asked my Ukrainian friend if he knew who was actually behind this satirical mockup. He didn’t, but Ukrainians have been using the word for months. Already last June, a tweet from @biz_ukraine_mag reported that “to ‘Scholz’ is now an accepted term in Ukraine meaning to continually promise something without ever actually having any intention of doing it”.
Still and all, the reactions have been interesting. One of the editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s leading conservative paper, wrote a semi-humorous editorial commentary in which he said that “our English-speaking friends” would be better advised to reflect first on “Bidening, Trumping, Trussing and Johnsoning, not to mention Harrying and Meghaning”. The clear implication, albeit lightly expressed, was that we Anglo-Saxons should mind our own business. (By contrast, I would welcome any German satirical swipe at Johnsoning, although support for Ukraine happens to be the one and only issue on which Boris Johnson deserves respect.) Since, however, the coinage comes from Ukraine, not the UK, this little German-Anglosphere sideswipe need bother us no longer.
Much more significant was Scholz’s own response on ZDF’s What now …? programme. Having dilated on the amount of support Germany has given to Ukraine, he said, in what had every appearance of being a line prepared with his spin doctor, “the translation of Scholzing is ‘Germany is doing the most’”. It’s true that German support for Ukraine has indeed been very considerable, as you would hope from the democracy with the biggest economy in the EU and the most extensive ties to eastern Europe. Yet to say “Germany is doing the most” is not merely self-satisfied, even self-righteous, but also self-evidently false.
It’s the United States that has done the most. Indeed, for all the amazing courage and skill of the Ukrainian armed forces, were it not for the scale and speed of US military support much more of Ukraine might today be occupied by Russia. So really we Europeans – all of us, Brits very much included – should be reflecting on why it is that, nearly 80 years after 1945, we still rely on Uncle Sam to defend European soil, European freedom and European security.
Meanwhile, a huge tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. What we – and democratic Germany more than anyone – swore after 1945 would “never again” (Nie Wieder!) happen is happening again: a European country is subjected to a war of terror that has clearly genocidal aspects, including multiple atrocities committed against civilians, dehumanising rhetoric and forced Russification in occupied territories. Some 14 million Ukrainians have fled their homes. I recently attended a funeral of young soldiers in Ukraine, spoke to some of their wounded comrades, heard the wrenching tears of a refugee from Mariupol.
Now a new Russian offensive seems imminent. More people will be killed, maimed, orphaned, marked for an entire lifetime. In such a situation, time is of the essence – and delay makes time work for Putin. “Scholzing”, in the sense of careful, slow, managerial decision-making, is fine in peacetime economic policymaking, but it gives the other side the advantage in war. (In fairness, one should note that there are a few Scholzers inside the Biden administration, and more in some other European capitals.) It would have been possible to start preparing a European Leopard initiative six months ago. Germany would not have been “going it alone”. It would have been at the heart of a European concert of nations. This would have been true “European sovereignty” in practice – and welcome German leadership.
Nobody knows what will happen on the battlefield this year, but one quite probable result of the slowness and hesitancy exemplified by the German chancellor is a kind of escalating stalemate, with ongoing trench warfare resembling that of the first world war. When the shooting war eventually winds down, there could be a semi-frozen conflict, with Russia hanging on to a significant part of the territory it has occupied by force since 24 February 2022. At home, Putin could then claim a kind of victory, a historic reconquest of at least part of Catherine the Great’s Novorossiya (New Russia), thus also extending the life of his tyranny. His example would encourage Xi Jinping to have a go at Taiwan, driving an even bigger nail into the coffin of a “rules-based international order”. In short, this would be the negation of everything democratic Germany has stood for.
These are the real stakes, the reason “Scholzing” is no laughing matter. I believe passionately that Germany should be in the lead, not the rear, in a shared, Euro-Atlantic effort to end the largest war in Europe since 1945 in the only way that will bring lasting peace. If the term actually came to signify “Germany is doing the most” – meaning also acting fast and decisively – I would be the first to sing hymns of praise to Scholzing. If only it would be true.