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Krautsource #6 - When Germans go to War

Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl
Germany officially honors its soldiers that fought and died in Afghanistan. But the relationship between the country and its men in uniform is awkward.

I stumbled over this quote by Winston Churchill from 1941 about the Holocaust and the war Germany brought upon its neighbors: “Since the Mongol invasions of Europe in the 16th century, there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale or approaching such a scale. We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” The Nazi crimes he put in stark prose are the context in which to understand the debate about Germany’s army and its operations abroad.
Germans’ complicated relationship with its military came back into public view with a vengeance this summer, when the biggest German military operation after the Second World War action ended. From Afghanistan, the last Bundeswehr soldiers returned to Germany, and the question of whether the country should offer a home to Afghans who helped them - which makes them targets of Taliban revenge - was not the only one that the government could not answer to everyones satisfaction. 20 years after Germany joined the Unites States in its retaliation attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not only are the Taliban back in power. Germans - among them soldiers who came back from Afghanistan injured or traumatized - ask the question: What were we fighting for again?
This Wednesday, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel, defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (you do not even have to remember her abbreviation “AKK”, as she surely will not be part of the next government that is being negotiated these days) and other top politicians got together in front of the parliament in Berlin for the rare occasion of watching German soldiers march with brass instruments, drums and lots of torches.
Der Große Zapfenstreich is the highest German military ceremonial. Originally, it was a ritual with whom a high-ranking officer declared the beer taps closed for all soldiers, signaling: “the party is over” (by the way, the English translation is “great tattoo” and has nothing to do with ink under your skin). The ceremony this week was ignored by many Germans, frowned upon as old-fashioned or even triggering memories of the horrible past of germanys military.
These reactions showed how estranged the country is from its military. I personally prefer this to a militarized society. However, this evolution of a country that was once in love with no-fun-at-all Prussian militarism and attacking almost all of its neighbors is highly relevant today. As Germany projects its economic power more and more (just ask the Greeks), it will also be confronted more and more with demands to take part in military operations across the globe.
The new German pacifism is rooted not only in lasting guilt about the Nazi crimes, but also in the collective memory of the destruction of many German cities by allied bombs and the following, decade-long fear of a nuclear escalation between the Soviet Union and the United States. In most scenarios, Germany (West and East) was seen as the main frontline. Many US nuclear rockets were stationed in Germany. Even today, there is still a double-digit number of them on the German military base in Büchel, something many younger Germans are not aware of as they did not live through the peace and anti-nuclear movements of the Seventies and Eighties (which gave birth to the Green party).
In Germany, you grow up with pacifism. Dystopian books about living in the post-nuclear-apocalypse were required reading at my school. You also will not find another country where fear about the fallout from the Chernobyl catastrophe was bigger than in Germany - probably not even in Ukraine.
I felt weird this summer again in Italy, where soldiers with trucks and big rifles were guarding sights in Florence and Rome. In Germany one rarely sees soldiers “working”. Growing up in Southern Germany - the former American occupied sector -, I saw more US than German military personnel. For example, when soldiers got into fights in bars and the US military police came to pick them up (rumor was this mostly consisted of beating everybody up a second time. German police does not have priority jurisdiction over crimes by US soldiers). This has changed a bit in recent years, as one now sees more German soldiers on trains. This is most likely due to the outgoing government giving them free ticket subscriptions, in a populist move to make traditional conservatives happy.
The military draft ended as a farce
For decades after the Allies allowed Germany to built a new army in 1955, contact between the general population and the army mostly took place when young men received a letter “inviting” them to the physical examination as part of the army draft. But there was already a certain indifference towards the draft when it was my turn around the Millennium. Friends of mine came home from the examination and told us that everyone who showed up that day was not drafted and they were sent home wholesale.
I refused to do military service on conscientious reasons and did civil service. But I soon felt nobody really cared for me there, either. When the seniors’ meeting space I worked at was privatized, my boss kept me around to “work” for her - there was not enough to do for more than one hour each day. It was a farce. I was not surprised when the parliament abolished the draft altogether in 2011.
The ceremony on Wednesday was also held for the 59 German soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. Kramp-Karrenbauer lauded that 20 years of engagement in the country did at least offer some stability for the people there and some international security. She did not say that when it all began, Germany did not have a plan ready.
Bombing Serbia, again
After 9/11, the country stumbled into the invasion of Afghanistan simply out of loyalty to the Transatlantic alliance. Something similar had happened two years before, when German soldiers took part in the Kosovo war. This was especially controversial as fighting the Serbian army meant fighting in a country which Hitler’s army had invaded and devastated during the Second World War. It was also a historical turning point for the Greens, then part of the federal government for the first time. The party joined the consensus that the Bundeswehr should use weapons in some cases, as long as it is does so as part of a military alliance like Nato.
So while all relevant parties - SPD, CDU, FDP and Greens - are ready to sent the Bundeswehr abroad, one third of the population remains steadfastly against military operations (see the most recent study by the army itself). Still, the percentage of people in favor of combat missions as part of Germany’s foreign policy is up 6 percent, having risen to 33 percent. The number is also much higher than 15 years ago, when many people where appalled by American actions in Iraq and the obvious shortcomings of the post-9/11 wars. Memories of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo seem to fade, as does the memory of the biggest disaster of the German operation in Afghanistan: the killing of up to 100 Afghan civilians after a - wrong - decision by a German colonel to call in US air support in 2009.
The torches burn like they are showing the way, but 20 years after the beginning of the Afghanistan war and 59 dead soldiers later, Germany is still looking for good reasons to fight its wars.
German soldiers during a "Großer Zapfenstreich" ceremony in 2014. (Source: US Army Europe)
German soldiers during a "Großer Zapfenstreich" ceremony in 2014. (Source: US Army Europe)
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Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl @jbruehl

This is my newsletter about German politics and history for an international audience. Why stay national and not take journalism to the global stage? Expect a lot of Realpolitik, plenty of Zeitgeist and maybe even some Schadenfreude.

I have been a journalist for more than a decade, working in New York City, Berlin and Cologne, and now head the technology news team at a major German media house in Munich. I hold a Masters degree in Political Science and American Cultural Studies. And I like rap music.

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