Die friedliebenden Deutschen

by classickbene

Germany. For many decades, this conjured up images of Pickelhauben (spiked helmet) or Stahlhelm (steel helmet)-wearing, jackbooted, goosestepping (Stechschritt) militarists with funny moustaches (Kaiser Wilhelm II waxed tomcat or the Führer‘s Charlie Chaplinesque Oberlippenbart) that brought you The Great War and its even more widely seen sequel, World War Two. Plus death, destruction, and genocide to 25 million Soviets, six million Jews, a couple million Poles, etc.pp.—you know the routine.

Thanks to denazification, democratization, and demilitarization, it seemed that Germans had been pacified, only to build up new armed forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain—the West German Bundeswehr and the East German Nationale Volksarmee. As this happened only ten years after the war, both forces could draw upon the expertise of ex-Wehrmacht soldiers, both former Nazis and Widerstandskämpfer (military resistance) as well as just plain former professional soldiers. While the Bundeswehr quickly scrapped wearing camo that reminded too much of the old Wehrmacht pattern and adopted an olive green uniform and helmet that signalled both U.S. influence and the prevalent style of NATO, its brother army in the German Democratic Republic stayed true to its Prussian heritage with a grey parade uniform that could not belie its fathers from the Wehrmacht and grandfathers from the Kaiserreich. On top of that, the NVA adopted a steel helmet that had been developed during the latter stages of World War II. And the GDR also made premilitary training mandatory for its youth—after all, they had also just swapped one ideology for another, changed from brown to blue shirts and from red flags with swastikas to red flags with hammer and sickle …

At least in the Federal Republic, the Wiederbewaffnung (rearmament) was not pulled off without some public criticism. Protesters in the mid-1950s waved signs saying “Nie wieder Krieg” (Never again war), and sons of fallen World War II soldiers were exempted from service. But West Germany had to be integrated into the western bloc, and NATO needed the manpower reservoir of the FRG to prop up its conventional forces vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority. Consequently, over the next decade, the Bundeswehr was build up and conscription installed. The many F-104 “Starfighter” crashes in the 1960s happened without much public criticism—old habits and ways of life die hard and the military was seldom criticized or even questioned (as a famous children’s rhyme in the Kaiserreich said, “der Soldate/ Ist der erste Mann im Staate” [the soldier is the country’s first man]). If criticism was raised, as in the case of the early 1960s SPIEGEL affair (newsmagazine DER SPIEGEL had published a classified Bundeswehr paper that did not paint a too nice picture of the current state of the armed forces), charismatic figures like defense minister Franz-Josef Strauß (who hoped to elevate West Germany to a more prominent position in the Konzert der Mächte [concert of powers]) ensured that these voices were silenced through police raids and arrests.

It was the student 68er protesters who began to target the military as part of the “establishment” that had not really dusted itself off the smell of the Thousand Year Reich. From the mid-1970s onwards, a growing peace (and anti-nuclear energy and arms) movement (Friedensbewegung), having some roots in the student activism of earlier years, protested the deployment of new NATO missiles which were to counter the threat of recently deployed Soviet medium-range missiles pointed at West European cities (it was former defense minister and then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who had pressed for the NATO Double-Track Decision, or Doppelbeschluss). Playing war became unpopular and parents abstained from buying their sons little plastic soldiers. It was easier and easier to become a conscientious objector (Kriegsdienstverweigerer) and do alternative civil service (Zivildienst), from which especially the medical service sector profited (many Zivis took over relatively simple roles like paramedic ambulance drivers and retirement home nurses). Open criticism of the military was allowed by the highest courts—it was now not a problem anymore to say or write “Soldaten sind Mörder” (soldiers are murderers). In addition, voices were raised against West German arms exports—officially, these were not allowed into Krisengebiete (crisis areas), but the definition of this term has remained vague until today and often circumvented (instead of exporting ready-made weapons systems, a company like Heckler&Koch exported complete arms factories and made money off licensing its small arms to countries like Turkey, Iran, or Pakistan). “Deutsche Waffen töten weltweit” (German arms kill worldwide) remains valid.

Although the Bundeswehr was held in high esteem by its NATO allies for the traditional and literal discipline and obedience (Disziplin und Gehorsam) of German soldiers, their high standard of training as well as their quality armaments (the Leopard tank series has been exported into many countries), the German Federal Army remained a peacetime Wehrpflichtigenarmee that trained for a defensive role in a possible Ernstfall, or Verteidigungsfall of World War III. While drill instructors (usually professional career non-commissioned officers) conjured up apocalyptic visions of a survival time of less than five minutes in case of a Soviet nuclear first strike, their time with the Bund was spent by most conscripts with alternating training, drinking (lots of) beer, driving home over the weekend, doing guard duty, and tearing off strips of measuring tapes which showed how long they still had to serve. Some took the opportunity to do a truck driver’s license auf Staatskosten (payed by the state) or could serve in positions that were similar to what they had done as a job before, like mechanics or engineers. It is debatable in how far the Bundeswehr actually created a Staatsbürger in Uniform (citizen soldier) who was schooled in his staatsbürgerliche Pflichten (civil duties) in contrast to its forbearers who were charecterized by the Kadavergehorsam (blind obedience) of the Kaiserreich and Third Reich—most draftees were just happy to have done their time and return to their civilian jobs or studying at university, with only a small portion actually becoming Reservisten (reservists) who were called up once a year for refresher courses.

The end of the Kalter Krieg (Cold War) and the Deutsche Wiedervereinigung (German Reunification) started a transition phase. While arms project like the revolutionary G-11 assault rifle (using caseless ammunition) were scrapped after millions of Deutsche Mark had been put into them, the Bundeswehr faced the challenge of both incorporating the Nationale Volksarmee and downsizing its forces (while a lot of East German materiel was scrapped, a good number was sold at symbolic prices to other countries). While the reunification most definitely must have been helped by conscription, as it brought together east and west Germans in military units, the life of the draftees did not change considerably from Cold War times. They adhered to the same training manuals and used the same materiel—just without a possible adversary to the east.

Parallel to this, with NATO’s search for a new role and new tasks, Germany became part of the New World Order in the Global Village, at first sending soldiers out-of-area in United Nations humanitarian missions. The civil wars in former Yugoslavia though meant that Germany also had to take on a more prominent role, and Bundeswehr soldiers (usually longer-serving or professional ones) were sent to Bosnia to help the peacekeeping and nationbuilding process there. In 1999, after the massacres in Kosovo, German soldiers for the first time since 1945 participated in combat, helping NATO’s air war against Serbia and then sending peace troops to Kosovo. And in 2001, it was the Germans who, after the 9/11 attacks, came to the front to help the USA under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter and got involved in Afghanistan. Despite German refusal to participate in the “coalition of willing” that invaded Iraq in 2003, all German governments since then have tried to obtain a more important foreign and security policy role, both in the European Union and the United Nations (although a permanent seat in the Security Council is still not in sight). The use of military force has therefore become an important means for securing national and international interests, as the patrolling of German naval vessels before the Horn of Africa to quell piracy or just the symbolic stationing of Patriot surface-to-air-missiles recently in Turkey because of the Syrian civil war have shown.

Still, German politicians have trouble conveying this to the German public. The use of terms shows this. Afghanistan has for the most time been seen as a peacekeeping mission and not as part of the war on terror. The usage of Krieg (war) seems too historically mired. And if a politician like former Bundespräsident (president) Helmut Köhler only alludes to the fact that Germany might need to use its armed forces to secure national interests, he was heavily criticized and felt compelled to resign. The professionalization of the armed forces (not least because of the recent Aussetzung der Wehrpflicht, or freeze of conscription) has also meant that fewer and fewer Germans get in touch with the military or even know members of the armed forces personally. The conflict in Afghanistan only comes into the limelight when Bundeswehr soldiers are killed by Taliban and, to the old melancholic tune Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden about the loss of a dear comrade, get a military funeral, complete with an honor guard (who, despite the relatively modern cut, wear grey parade uniforms which also cannot belie German military fashion tradition, now complete with a kevlar helmet strangely reminiscent of the old Stahlhelm, as well as wearing jackboots—and the combat uniform these days is, since the early 1990s, again a camoflage one), German flag with Bundesadler (federal eagle) draped over their coffins, and the Chancellor and defense minister attending and making solemn faces. Politically, aside from the Linkspartei (Leftist Party), there is usually consensus over German military engagement (and hadn’t it been then-foreign minister Joschka Fischer of Die Grünen [Green Party], which had some of its roots in the 1970s peace movement, who oversaw the German combat engagements in Kosovo and Afghanistan?). Although of course the cutting of the defense budget and debates about high-profile and expensive projects like the Eurofighter combat aircraft or the export of arms into Krisenregionen (recently, of Leopard II tanks to Saudi-Arabia—a request, though, that has been there since the early 1980s), while the Bundeswehr has only just introduced modern Eurocopter attack helicopters for supporting its Afghanistan mission. Despite attempts to play a more prominent role in the Konzert der Mächte, the military gear to do so only arrives piecemeal with the men and women (Frauen an der Waffe, a big issue in the late 1990s—allowing women in combat roles) who risk their lives far away from the Heimat, often without really knowing why they are actually sent there and thereby feel like many soldiers before them: fighting a fight and not knowing what they are fighting for, except for comrades and survival.

And more and more, the picture of war and soldiers is created by different types of mass media. You will have trouble finding a young male German who is not able to quote from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and many a Bundeswehr drill instructor these days likes to intersperse some citation from that movie into the Grundausbildung (basic training). Over the years, censorship of movies and especially video games has been lessened, and more young Germans know how to handle rifles and pistols from Counter Strike than from ever having actually touched a live gun. Popular game series like Medal of Honor show how the wars of back then (World War II) and today are fought, not least because of their mimicry of violence of contemporary war and action movies. The barrage of documentaries on the twelve-year Tausendjähriges Reich can be examined elsewhere. While most programs in the Öffentlich-Rechtliches Fernsehen (state-funded public TV) focus on “serious” representations of Third Reich Germany, many private TV stations feature dubbed documentaries from the USA or UK on carrier warfare in the Pacific or the development of weapons through the ages that more often than not focus on heroization or at least the fascination that is attached to the more technical aspects of war and weaponry.

Additionally, it is not surprising that militaria collecting is common. While most Sammler (collectors) refrain from telling about their hobby openly, fearing they might be called militarists, there is a thriving scene, with the main focus of course on the Third Reich but also widespread interest in other countries’ and eras’ military uniforms, equipment, and awards. Often, though, it is not easy to delineate between those strictly interested in history and those whose political inclination lingers more toward Stammtisch rightist visions or even a desire to return to these simpler, better, and more glorious times when German jackboots trot the roads of almost all of Europe.

Although it seems unlikely that Germany will again try to militarily overwhelm its neighbors (as the British and French feared at the time of the Wiedervereinigung) because most Germans will rather not take up arms and wage war (why should they—flatscreen TVs and the internet are more interesting, refrigerators are full, and German cars the best in the world), the global political role of Germany and the defense of its own, European, and Western security and economic interests, the fascination with military, war, and violence in the form of film, video games, and militaria, and the very real existence of “true believers” does not really speak for a demilitarized and completely peaceloving Deutschland. Despite what the politically correct Gutmenschen wish, centuries of war have left their mark and some kind of military inclination is still there.