Is Germany’s Muzzled Military Moving into a New Era?

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Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Members of the Bundeswehr, or the German military, run toward two Patriot missile launching systems at the Luftwaffe Warbelow training center in Warbelow, Germany, on on Dec. 18, 2012

On March 1, the German Parliament will debate sending 80 soldiers to Mali to provide medical care and help French soldiers train Malian government troops to clear mines and build bridges. That may not seem like a big task for the world’s fourth largest economy, but it represents a significant change for a country that has spent the past 68 years trying to live down its martial past. The mooted deployment looks likely to be waved through by the Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament, though not without controversy.

Germany’s politicians are then expected to discuss a proposal, made earlier this month by German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, to work with France to develop a European killer drone. On Jan. 31, Parliament overwhelmingly voted to extend Germany’s decadelong Afghanistan mission by 13 months, a commitment that surpasses Germany’s swashbuckling French neighbor, which ended its Afghan mission in November.

For people who fear a resurgence of German military might — and Germans themselves may top that list — the German constitution provided reassurance. In 1956, the Allies allowed West Germany to establish a military but troops stayed at home unless the German public could be convinced to back neutral peacekeeping or humanitarian missions.

These days, with nearly 6,000 troops deployed outside its borders, Germany has the second largest such commitment among Europeans after the U.K. That includes more than 4,260 personnel serving in the NATO-led coalition in northern Afghanistan, soon to be reduced to 3,500. In Kosovo, Germany’s 816 peacekeepers make up the largest national contingent. The rest patrol for pirates off the Horn of Africa, man Patriot antimissile batteries in Turkey — which Chancellor Angela Merkel toured on Feb. 24 — and perform peacekeeping and training missions in Lebanon, the two Sudans, Uganda and Congo.

(MORE: What Does the Future Hold for the Sudans: An Assessment by America’s Envoy)

The scale of these deployments attracts some criticism in foreign capitals, not for being too big but for being small in proportion to Germany’s economic muscle. Officials in the U.K. especially, as well as in France and the U.S., bemoan Germany’s cautiousness, both in joining missions and its strict rules of engagement when the Bundeswehr, or the Federal Defense, does deploy. Though German per capita defense spending increased from $461 in 2007 to $500 in ’11, the country spent between 1.3% to 1.4% per annum of its gross domestic product during the decade ending in ’11, according to an annual NATO survey. That percentage was lower than Britain, France or even Greece. Unlike other Westerners, who generally see their military as a vital component of government, Germans have tended to view theirs as a necessary evil.

“As a consequence of two World Wars begun and lost by Germany, there’s a deeply rooted understanding in society that military means are not a normal part of the political arsenal, as other European countries tend to see it,” says Thomas Wiegold, a longtime defense journalist who runs Augen Geradeaus! (Eyes Forward!), a website on the German military. “Military conflict is something to be avoided at all costs.”

Two years ago, when the U.N. Security Council authorized aerial force against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, France rushed in while Germany demurred. It was no surprise, coming less than a year after Germany had paid compensation to families of 91 Afghan civilians reported killed in a 2009 airstrike ordered by a German commander in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. The tragedy forced the government to admit that it was fighting a war and not just building schools, clinics and wells as the deployment had been initially spun to the German public.

With German elections anticipated at the end of September, one could reasonably expect a revival of nonintervention politics, the kind that helped then Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder win on an anti–Iraq War platform in 2002 when his fellow Social Democrats went as far as comparing President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy to Hitler’s lead-up to World War II. Merkel and de Maizière have made it clear that the government will send only support personnel to Mali, not combat troops. While this is an important distinction for German politicians, Islamist insurgents have shown in Afghanistan and elsewhere that they don’t differentiate between the two in choosing their targets. The elections will certainly be a test of the thesis that Germany has become comfortable with the necessity of foreign military adventures.

(MORE: Why Everybody Loves to Hate Angela Merkel)

The German Ministry of Defense says attitudes have changed. “German contributions to these worldwide missions are supported by the Bundestag and the German public to an extent that was unimaginable in the past,” says ministry spokesman Withold Pieta. “After the sometimes lively discussions that had taken place as a matter of principle in the beginning of the ’90s,” he says, such missions are now “a matter of course.” In a 2012 survey, the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences reported that 68% of Germans think the Bundeswehr does a good job in its overseas missions, while a quarter did not. This was up from 66% the previous year.

Ultimately, though, this year’s elections are expected to be more about economic challenges far closer to home — military imbroglios aren’t high on the agenda. That’s partly because Germany suspended its mandatory military-service requirement for young Germans in 2011.

“With the end of conscription, massive troop reductions and base closures, [news of] foreign missions are the few moments when many Germans might be aware they still have armed forces,” Weigold says. Politicians and soldiers say they desire, but don’t expect, a wider military-policy debate.

Why the acquiescence over the latest deployments? Many say that one reason is that Berlin wants to transcend the asphyxiating public image of just being the conductor of the euro crisis, and committing its military assets in aid of allies is part of that makeover.

“We carry a special responsibility, a responsibility to the soldiers who are on mission in Afghanistan, a responsibility for the international aid workers and especially a responsibility to the people of Afghanistan,” said Social Democrat MP Stefan Rebmann during the extension debate. His left-of-center opposition party supported the extension, while more liberal Greens party MPs abstained.

(MORE: The Afghan Endgame … and Where It Will Lead)

Army Major Andre Wuestner, who is preparing to head the German Military Association, which represents soldiers, says the public needs to be made more aware of Germany’s global responsibility. “That’s where we sometimes lack the courage to say, ‘Our role is getting more important than ever.’ The security structures change,” he says. “We need to show our colors.’”

Constanze Stelzenmueller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, also gives credit to the per diem of more than $130 a day volunteers get while stationed in Afghanistan. “The German public got the impression [that] people were being paid quite well to expose themselves to risk,” she says. “And that changed the culture and the public perception.”

While the quagmire of Afghanistan has dampened the U.S.’s appetite for foreign intervention, it hasn’t had the same effect for Germany. In 10 years, the long-muzzled successor to Europe’s most feared war machine has moved out of the Cold War into the geopolitical terrain of the 21st century. The question that remains for future conflicts is how far its tether will reach.

18 comments
Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

"While the quagmire of Afghanistan has dampened the U.S.’s appetite for foreign intervention, it hasn’t had the same effect for Germany."

Perhaps this had something to do with it--
Deaths by Nationality
Germany -- 53
US  -- 2178

Perhaps that's why Germany's "appetite for foreign intervention" hasn't dampened. Germany hasn't really engaged in it.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

One can understand why Germany would be so hesitant to have it's military grow and become more active. Their country was decimated after WWII. I'm sure a growing German military would not go down well with the Russians either given their experience with Germany. Of course, these Constitutional restrictions on use of the nations's military for both Germany and Japan provide a nice reason for them to avoid spending money on it, and have more money available for domestic needs. We spend more every year than the next nine countries combined on our military budget.  Tough being the world's only superpower isn't it.

delta5297
delta5297

If Germans are so hesitant about using their military, should they even have one at all? The money spent on military hardware would be better off used on humanitarian aid or infrastructure building or whatever rather than on fighter jets or tanks that they don't use.

asimike
asimike

Why is it that everyone says Germany Started WWI. This is not the case. It was started when Arch Duke Ferdinand was assassinated. Austria started the war when it declared war on Serbia.  The whole thing went to hell from there with Russia, France, Britain and Germany declaring war on each other because of the alliances that had been set up.  Maybe this is way they are so careful. It was these alliances that caused everything to spiral out of control. They are correct in being careful what they do so this does not happen again.

pmourassa
pmourassa

The Western thieves always look out for one another,now they are supporting an illegitimate government with no shame,these are the same that are always crying about so call Democracy when convenient,what a world.

Minerals in that part of the world,is real important to french Nuclear plants,so they have to send the troops to protect them.

corey.davidson2001
corey.davidson2001

Germany deserves an elevated status on all fronts. They are a strong country with outstanding ingenuity. WWII was a long time ago and the German military and government of today bears no resemblance and has no ties to the Nazi era.  The world could really use a more powerful Germany.

Rotosnitter
Rotosnitter

We need Germany to become much more involved in world defense activities. They are very well suited to that necessity and the US can no longer shoulder the entire burden.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

I agree with the authors of this article.  Even though World War II ended in 1945, the German military has been under obvious constraints.

Yet, it's been 70 years since WWII's end.  Figuratively speaking, the German military is, 'up for parole, and may be released on good behavior.'  However, that 'release' will be limited to smaller international/intercontinental engagements, and will certainly never allow Germany to blitzkrieg ('steamroll') its way all over Europe.

This cautious growth of the modern German military will be the trend through the end of this century, and potentially beyond.

Don_Bacon
Don_Bacon

And that's only Afghanistan.

jerry48
jerry48

@SmoothEdward1 don't forget the sense of guilt the post WWII german generations have, as for the constitutional restrictions we can't blame them for something we imposed on them !

KlarissaVandendool
KlarissaVandendool

@asimike Ok that is true for WWI but what about WWII?  Also to say Germany shared no responsibility for WWI is to be naive of history.  The growing arms race between Euro nations at that time combined with the cavalier attitude they all shared for war contributed to it more than the assassination.  That was merely the excuse most of the countries used to go to war.  Almost like a bar fight they saw someone in the corner get decked and so they grabbed the nearest person and started throwing punches.

goldenceresio
goldenceresio

@klarissaVandendool No one denies that Germany carried resonsibility for what happenend in WW I, (as well as the other involved greater powers of that time) but they didn't start that war, regardless how often this assertion may be repeated.

It's a different thing, of course, with WW II, but, as dramatic as it is, the start of the second world war related directly to the lies of WW I and the unfair and giant repayment burdens that were imposed on Germany by the self-anointed victors of the first war, which almost broke the back of the German economy. Sorry, but facts are facts.

asimike
asimike

@KlarissaVandendool @asimike I didn't say Germany had no responsibility. All those involved did there best to make this fight happen. As for WWII. The debate has always been, if there had not been the first WW would the second one have happened. It's moot anyway what's done is done. The point is it shouldn't happen again. We continue the madness that is war. We make up reason (lies)  to go to war along with the just causes to fight a war. I guess we just can't stop killing each other.

KlarissaVandendool
KlarissaVandendool

@goldenceresio Yes facts are facts and to state one of the primary belligerents of the two world wars is a victim and not part of the issue is to ignore facts. Facts don't just work to support your arguments and nothing else.

The facts are that all the nations leading up to ww1 had been engaged in an arms race and Germany was eager to put a dent in britains sea dominance. This is a fact. All the nations involved had the options of withdrawing or suing for peace or not being involved at all. That war should never have happened. But Germany was not the victim. They were one of many reasons why those wars happened.

What is dangerous in your comments is u are saying they are innocent victims in ww1 and justified in the nazi regime because they got spanked economically for losing Ww1. Last I checked the loser in any war never makes out better than the winner. U can revive your economy without committing genocide

goldenceresio
goldenceresio

@asimike@klarissaVandendool

It used to  be a very convenient mechanism for decades to firstly stating that Germany started WW I and then WW II and secondly saying that they might become warmongers again if the world lets them loose again.

@asimike is right when he underscores that Germany did not start WW I, but, of course, shared much resposibility - as other involved countries as well. And the start of WW II, for which Germany was responsible, related directly to the unfair gigantic burdens that Germany was supposed to carry after WW I and which almost broke the back of the country's economy. 

If Germans are still cautious with regard to military engagements, many countries tend to discredit German soldiers as cowards or opportunists.

So Germans could, after all, do what they want to - it's never right. What about that, Ms. VandenDool ?