Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday picked little-known Boris Pistorius to be Germany’s new defence minister, saying he is the “right person” to steer the armed forces through an era of momentous change.
The appointment follows the resignation of Christine Lambrecht at a crucial time for the ministry, with Germany under intense pressure to send battle tanks to Ukraine.
Pistorius, 62, who is a member of Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) and interior minister of Lower Saxony state, is a surprise choice for the post.
Much better known politicians had been thought to be in the running, such as Eva Hoegl, the parliamentary commissioner on armed forces, and Employment Minister Hubertus Heil.
But the chancellor insisted Pistorius was the right man for the job at a time when Germany is looking to overhaul and revive its armed forces in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Pistorius is an extremely experienced politician who has administrative experience, has been involved in security policy for years and, with his competence, assertiveness and big heart, is exactly the right person to lead the Bundeswehr (armed forces) through this era of change,” Scholz said.
– ‘Well connected’ –
The appointment ends a streak of three female defence ministers, as well as upending a promise by Scholz to keep his cabinet gender-balanced when he became chancellor in 2021.
Born in Osnabrueck, Pistorius studied law and worked as a lawyer before entering politics in the 1990s, eventually becoming mayor of his native town.
In Lower Saxony, Pistorius has gained a reputation for his work in renewing the police force and boosting it to combat extremism.
Der Spiegel magazine noted he is “the most visible” of the state interior ministers, and is “well connected with the security authorities”.
He had previously been rumoured to be in the running for the post of federal interior minister, which looks set to be vacated later this year by current postholder Nancy Faeser.
The appointment will see him follow in the footsteps of other high-profile politicians who graduated to national politics from Lower Saxony, such as Sigmar Gabriel and Gerhard Schroeder.
Pistorius has a huge task on his hands, taking up the new post at a time of sweeping change for the Bundeswehr and days ahead of a crucial meeting of defence ministers from Ukraine’s allies.
The Ukraine Defence Contact Group, which coordinates arms supplies to Kyiv, is due to meet at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday.
– Military revival –
Germany has repeatedly come under fire since the start of the war for dithering over which weapons to send to Ukraine, and is currently under pressure from Kyiv to agree to supply battle tanks.
Russia’s invasion prompted Scholz to announce a drastic overhaul of the military in Germany after years of chronic underinvestment — something that Pistorius would now have to oversee.
The chancellor pledged to raise military spending to two percent of GDP and to revive the ailing army with a special fund of 100 billion euros ($108 billion).
But Lambrecht, appointed as defence minister in the chancellor’s first cabinet, had increasingly looked as though she was not up to the task.
As early as January 2022, Lambrecht had been mocked for an announcement that Germany would send 5,000 helmets to Kyiv, when the Ukrainian government was seeking weapons to ward off Moscow.
A series of personal gaffes also added fuel to fire at a time when defence had become not just a national but a European priority.
Patience for Lambrecht finally ran out when she posted a New Year’s video on social media in which she lauded her “special experiences” as defence minister in 2022 against a backdrop of loud fireworks.
The resulting media uproar finally led Lambrecht to announce her resignation on Monday.
Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who heads the parliamentary defence commission said Pistorius was someone who “knows the issue of security and how to work with those who are committed to our security”.
“He will be judged in Berlin on whether he understands the needs of the troops and is assertive in representing them at the chancellery and the defence ministry,” she told Rheinische Post.