Germany’s defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, has resigned after enduring a year of heavy criticism over repeated public blunders, her response to the war in Ukraine, and the slow progress of a planned military buildup.
Ms. Lambrecht is the highest-ranking member of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government to resign so far, and her departure is likely to be seen as a blow to him and his party, the Social Democrats, the senior members of his three-way government coalition.
Mr. Scholz had repeatedly defended Ms. Lambrecht, a former justice minister and a fellow Social Democrat, calling her a “first-rate defense minister” in a recent interview with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Since taking up the post when Mr. Scholz’s government entered office last year, Ms. Lambrecht had been dogged by criticism, and she became a focal point of attack for the conservative Christian Democrats, the leading opposition party.
She had no previous experience of the military, and was widely seen by fellow politicians and security experts as lacking interest in heading the defense ministry. According to Germany’s best-selling daily, Bild, Ms. Lambrecht had been unable to name the German military ranks in an interview with the paper.
“The monthslong media focus on me as a person hardly allows for objective reporting and discussion about the servicemen and women, the German armed forces and security policy decisions in the interest of the citizens of Germany,” Ms. Lambrecht said in a statement released Monday morning.
The resignation has come at a difficult moment for Mr. Scholz, whose government is facing mounting pressure to send Ukraine its heavy Leopard 2 tanks — or to give permission to other European nations to send their Leopard tanks. The countries are required to receive approval from Berlin before sending on any German-made weapons. But it is not expected that her departure will change Germany’s reluctance thus far to send tanks: That decision was always seen as lying with the chancellery.
Mr. Scholz promised to name a replacement soon for Ms. Lambrecht, who he said had shown “tremendous dedication” to the job.
“The Federal Ministry of Defense, the military, and everyone, everyone who is concerned about defense in our country deserves to have this clarified quickly,” he said. “Today is not the day to report on what will happen next. But I will tell you this: I have a clear idea.”
Finding a successor could pose another challenge for Mr. Scholz. The defense ministry is often very difficult to fill in Germany, particularly from the ranks of the Social Democrats, a party still struggling internally to relinquish a pacifist foreign policy stance in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Another option he has is to reshuffle the cabinet.
Ms. Lambrecht had faced growing public scorn since the war in Ukraine erupted. As European nations debated sending weapons to Kyiv in the early days of the invasion, Ms. Lambrecht was trumpeting a delivery of 5,000 helmets. She was the face of the government’s repeated foot-dragging over sending weapons, despite the fact she was carrying out a policy largely driven by Mr. Scholz.
“She wasn’t the right person for the job at such a critical moment, when everyone was looking toward Europe’s biggest power to do more,” said Ulrike Franke, a German defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Criticism ramped up last summer when it emerged that Ms. Lambrecht had used a government helicopter to take her son on a family vacation.
More recently, opposition parties in Germany have argued that Ms. Lambrecht is responsible for the slow rollout of a defense fund worth 100 billion euros, about $108 billion, as part of a plan by the government to dramatically bolster its military in response to the war in Ukraine. Germany has limited stores of basic ammunition, enough for only hours or days of combat.
Ms. Franke said that while the outgoing defense minister had often come under attack over decisions actually led by the chancellery, Ms. Lambrecht’s main failing was her inability or reluctance to take up the chancellor’s proclaimed project of a “Zeitenwende,” or turning point, in Germany’s foreign and military policy.
One of the main targets Mr. Scholz set out was to prepare the German armed forces for an era of increased insecurity in Europe, in the wake of Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
“She didn’t seem to want to drive real reform efforts,” Ms. Franke said. “With the Zeitenwende, there was a real opening to change things, and it didn’t seem she had any ambition to do that.”
The final straw appears to have been an awkward video released on New Year’s Eve on Ms. Lambrecht’s personal Instagram account. In it, Ms. Lambrecht discussed the war in Ukraine and offered seasonal greetings amid a raucous backdrop of fireworks in Berlin. Critics called it tone deaf, and even her own ministry distanced itself from the video, saying it was a personal statement.
Last week, the cover article of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel took aim at the government’s progress in revitalizing the military, and in it Ms. Lambrecht again fell under heavy criticism, with members of German forces accusing her of letting the army fall into a state of “sepsis.”
In her statement, Ms. Lambrecht said that she hoped her resignation would put the public focus back where it belonged. “The valuable work of the soldiers and the many motivated people in the area of operations must be in the foreground,” she said.
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.