Germany’s defence minister has become an unexpectedly popular figure less than three months into a notoriously difficult job, as he promises to overhaul the nation’s armed forces and champions a strong response to the war in Ukraine.
Boris Pistorius’s zeal for his new role has catapulted him to the top of the public popularity rankings and drew admiration from allies, in stark contrast to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose reputation took a hit in international circles due to his reluctance to approve military aid for Ukraine. Pistorius, meanwhile, has impressed opposition lawmakers, diplomats and defence industry executives.
Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of parliament with the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) and a former colonel, said Pistorius “has shown a heart for the troops and his communication is excellent.
“As a former army guy, I must say in comparison to 13 or 14 defence ministers I’ve experienced since [joining the military in] 1982, he could become a really excellent one.”
Pistorius’s enthusiasm and direct style have made him a hit with the public, with polling by broadcaster ZDF naming him the country’s most popular politician in both February and March.
“He is not the typical political intellectual,” said Dietmar Nietan, an SPD member of parliament who has known Pistorius for years. “He is really someone who can go to a bar or a pub and explain in minutes why it’s right to deliver weapons to Ukraine.”
Pistorius’s predecessor, Christine Lambrecht, who resigned in January after a gaffe-ridden 13 months in office, was widely seen as having little appetite for the defence brief. Pistorius, by contrast, has thrown himself into the role.
The day after he was sworn in, he was thrust into the storm of international anger towards Germany over its reluctance to provide Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv. He joined other defence ministers at the US’s Ramstein air base in western Germany and made headlines by promising to check inventories and see how many tanks could be sent to Ukraine.
His comments were interpreted as a sign that Berlin might soon relent, even as Pistorius said he was not prejudging a final decision but “preparing for the day that might well come”.
The following week, Berlin did agree with Washington to supply Kyiv with Leopard 2s and Abrams tanks, the result of a deal thrashed out by Scholz and US President Joe Biden. But Pistorius was able to bask in the glow of the decision, smiling as he handed his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov a model Leopard 2 on a visit to Kyiv in February.
Back home, he embarked on a tour to meet German troops and spoke of his “youthful admiration” for soldiers as a child growing up in the north-western town of Osnabrück, which was home to a large British garrison during the cold war.
Those who have seen Pistorius operate are optimistic he is serious about tackling the problems of a sprawling bureaucracy, a painfully slow defence procurement process and severe equipment shortages that have hampered the military. “He has an executive mindset,” said one German official. “And he has a very good, strong sense of when senior bureaucrats are telling him fairy tales.”
In what is widely seen as the first step in a broader reshuffle, this month he replaced the country’s top ranking soldier, General Eberhard Zorn, with Major General Carsten Breuer, who earned the nickname “the Corona General” after being brought in by Scholz to help manage the Covid-19 pandemic. He also appointed Nils Hilmer, a longstanding confidant, to drive reform at the ministry.
But analysts and government insiders warn Pistorius will need grit to turn Scholz’s promise of a Zeitenwende, or sea change, in Germany’s European defence and security role into reality.
He is fighting for an extra €10bn a year for his budget — though analysts say even that will be insufficient for Germany to meet the Nato target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. He has also joined defence experts in warning the €100bn promised by Scholz to upgrade equipment for the Bundeswehr — the federal armed forces — will not be enough.
Pistorius has already offered a stark assessment of the challenges, reportedly telling an SPD group meeting earlier this month: “We don’t have armed forces that are . . . capable of defending against an offensive, brutally waged war of aggression.”
Amid the plaudits, one western diplomat urged caution, noting Pistorius had been fortunate in taking over from a predecessor with a poor reputation. “Even if he’d done nothing . . . you could argue he would still be deemed a better fit,” he said.
Germany, hampered by its second world war history and complex past relationship with Russia, was still seen by Nato allies as “struggling with a leadership role” on Ukraine, he added, arguing that Pistorius was unlikely to be able to change that.
Others said the proof would be in what Pistorius achieved rather than what he said, with the budget negotiations being the first big hurdle.
Also untested is his willingness to fight battles with Scholz. But observers argued that, at the age of 62, with most of his political career behind him, the defence minister might feel liberated compared to previous holders of a role that is such a notorious career-ender that it is known as “the ejector seat”.
Pistorius, who staged an unsuccessful bid for the SPD leadership in 2019, is “at the end of his career, so he has nothing to lose”, said Claudia Major, a military analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
It was already clear Pistorius was not afraid of taking decisions or speaking his mind, she said, adding: “Now we’ll see what he’s going to do.”