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German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz accepts his defense minister's resignation

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht resigned yesterday. She's the highest ranking member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Cabinet to do so, and her departure is shining a spotlight on what many see as Germany's lackluster support of Ukraine and its fight against Russia. Germany announced today that she'll be replaced by politician Boris Pistorius. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin. Rob, Lambrecht served just over a year as the country's top defense minister. Why did she resign?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, A, like several former German defense ministers, Christine Lambrecht did not have any military experience. And that lack of experience showed after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a $100 billion boost in spending to Germany's armed forces, which suddenly cast a spotlight on Germany's military.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, you just said that several past defense ministers in Germany didn't have military experience.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right.

MARTÍNEZ: So what about her replacement? Does he have any military experience?

SCHMITZ: Barely. He did what, at the time, was mandatory military service for all Germans for just one year. And that's pretty typical, A. Unlike the U.S., where the secretary of defense typically has deep military credentials, here in Germany, the Ministry of Defense has, since reunification, been underfunded. And the role of defense minister is not seen as a really prestigious Cabinet position. In fact, this position is typically filled with someone who the chancellor either sees as a potential adversary and wants to make them go away or someone who has experience heading another ministry and can manage things relatively well. Constantin Wissmann (ph) who's a military expert here in Berlin, calls the position a career shredder.

CONSTANTIN WISSMANN: The chance of staying in office for a long time there is about as great as that of a drummer in a rock band in the '70s. So one former defense secretary, he has called the whole thing an ejection seat, a snake pit and a sack full of mines.

SCHMITZ: That's a pretty colorful description. And unlike some rock drummers in the 1970s, it's not drugs or booze that kills the career of a German defense minister, but it's typically the back-biting nature of the ministry itself. One internal government report characterized it as organized irresponsibility prevails there. And much of this boils down to the ministry's lack of funding.

MARTÍNEZ: But isn't this lack of funding maybe now changing that there's a war not too far away from Germany's borders?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and that was part of Christine Lambrecht's problem. Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz promised a hundred-billion-dollar boost to funding. He called it a (speaking German), German for historical turning point. And that suddenly meant that Lambrecht was overseeing this historical transformation of the military and that all eyes were suddenly on her. And that scrutiny exposed her inexperience. She made several embarrassing gaffes. Early on in the war, when Germany's NATO allies were calling on it to send heavy weaponry into Ukraine, she announced Germany would instead send 5,000 helmets, assuring it would fulfill Ukraine's war objectives. The last straw came on New Year's Eve when she posted an end-of-the-year video message on Instagram. She reflected on the war in Ukraine and all the, quote, "interesting people" she's met since the war started. Here's some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINE LAMBRECHT: (Speaking German).

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, Rob, I can barely hear her over those fireworks.

SCHMITZ: Yup. It was an amateur video in every respect. She was off mic. She was trying to send a heartfelt message to those suffering in a war while she was standing in front of New Year's Eve revellers in Berlin who were setting off fireworks in celebration. The whole message was just completely tone deaf, and she was skewered in the German press for this. Even her own ministry distanced itself from her. And then calls for her resignation just reached a point of no return.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz, joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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