Merkel's Caution Berlin Reverts to Old Timidity on Military Missions
Part 2: Military Action Based on Morality
The nature of the debates and the despite-or-because-of-Auschwitz discussion, shaped the Germans' position on foreign deployments. Unlike allies like France and the United States, Germany insisted that its soldiers should not be deployed primarily to defend German interests. Their missions always had to be rooted in a higher morality.
This also applied to the biggest Bundeswehr mission to date. When the United States invaded Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Germans were at their side. Once again, Schröder justified the mission by invoking solidarity with Germany's allies. Although he could depend on the support of the CDU and the FDP, there was major resistance in the governing parties, the SPD and the Greens. In November 2001, the chancellor had to call a parliamentary vote of confidence to quash the rebellion in his ranks.
But loyalty to one's allies and fighting terrorism weren't enough. An overarching moral justification was needed, so the proponents of German military involvement in Afghanistan said that the Bundeswehr was also fighting for democracy and women's rights. When it became clear that these goals couldn't be reached, public support for the Afghanistan mission dropped. Today only 38 percent of Germans are in favor of it.
With Afghanistan, Germany had demonstrated that a German Sonderweg ("special path") no longer existed. That was why the Schröder administration could afford to say no to the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The chancellor's refusal to endorse the war plans of then US President George W. Bush was the moment when German foreign policy finally came of age.
There was every indication that a center-right government would continue that emancipated to military deployments. But Merkel's conservative defense ministers were confronted with a different problem. By the time German troops were involved in the ground war in Afghanistan, it was clear that German society was still a long way from being accustomed to the blood reality of a war.
The Return of the Language of War
Fifty-two German soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, and the Bundeswehr itself became responsible for the deaths of others. More than 100 people, mostly civilians, died in an air strike on two tanker trucks near Kunduz ordered by German Colonel Georg Klein. For a war-scarred nation that aimed to become the most peace-loving in the world, this was difficult to bear.
The Afghanistan mission brought the language of war back to Germany. Terms like casualties, veterans and war were back in use. Seventeen years after the Bundeswehr's first war mission, German lawmakers began to refer to combat missions as what they are: war.
It was no coincidence that a defense minister of the grandchildren's generation, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, overcame the taboo that prohibited associating the words "Germany" and "war" with each other. "The foreign and security policy of a unified Germany must include our ability to use terms like war, veterans and casualties in a normal way," says his successor Thomas de Maizière today.
The conservative minister is convinced that an army at war needs symbols and rituals, medals, memorials and the commemoration of veterans. This too was long taboo in postwar Germany.
De Maizière wants the profession of soldiering, with all of its consequences, to become part of normal life once again. Germany now has a lobby group for soldiers returning home -- the Association of German Veterans was set up three years ago.
The association uses four words to describe its services for returning veterans: dialogue, care, camaraderie and help. It fights for better recognition, in both material and non-material ways, of the achievements of Bundeswehr soldiers deployed abroad.
So far, 100 German soldiers have died in foreign operations. In the summer of 2010, the German Defense Ministry set up its first office for the families of veterans killed in action. Social Democrat Birgitt Heidinger, whose brother and son were once conscientious objectors to military service, was put in charge of the office. Why Heidinger? "I'm no longer that young, I don't wear a uniform, and I'm a woman," she says.
She tries to help the families of soldiers killed in action after the initial period of intensive support is over. "That's when the hole opens up," she says. She makes phone calls, has conversations and organizes trips to Afghanistan, the faraway country where husbands, sons or brothers were killed. "It helps the family members regain inner peace."
Many of the veterans' survivors complain that friends and acquaintances always repeat the same argument: You should have known that a soldier could die. To them, it sounds as if they were being told not to make such a fuss about it, as if knowing that the possibility of dying comes with the territory, and as if the debt of gratitude society owes its soldiers were settled with their pay. It's a way of suppressing one's compassion and denying responsibility. "It's a recurring pattern," says Heidinger.
According to Heidinger, no other Western country has an office specifically devoted to the families of the dead. Perhaps, says Heidinger, Germany needs it more than others. "Germany still isn't a normal country when it comes to society's relationship with its own soldiers."
A Return to Pacifism
A few years ago, then-President Horst Köhler noted that society exhibited a "friendly disinterest" in the Bundeswehr. His successor Joachim Gauck recently called for giving the Bundeswehr a place in the midst of society, and he complained that the military no longer figures prominently in the public's consciousness.
De Maizière takes a different view, but few agree with him. He is convinced that foreign missions "promote the emotional bond between the public and soldiers." He argues that the tough mission in Afghanistan has enhanced the public's interest in and respect for the Bundeswehr. It sounds as if the minister were trying to conjure up the normalcy he desires.
Major General Volker Halbauer has been the commander of the international mission in Kosovo since September. He isn't someone who gets agitated easily. When asked what has changed in Germans' attitudes toward Bundeswehr missions, he talks about his soldiers first. "Things have been turned around" in the minds of soldiers, he says. And society? "The public didn't participate in this shift."
The Afghanistan mission, in particular, has provided new arguments to support the historical doubts about the value of military interventions. Germany is experiencing a relapse into pacifism, and lawmakers are adjusting to the change. It marks a shift for Chancellor Merkel, too.
When Schröder ruled out German involvement in the Iraq war 10 years ago, she opposed him and joined the ranks of the hawks. In a "letter to all Germans" Merkel, the opposition leader at the time, warned against Schröder's position and noted that it was clear that Germany "must side with the United States and its allies."
Westerwelle, by contrast, has always been a populist. He does whatever seems to promise the most votes. When his party, the FDP, was still in opposition, Westerwelle pushed it towards backing chequebook diplomacy and shunning military action. When the Bundestag decided to send warships to waters off the Lebanese coast in September 2006, at Israel's request, the FDP voted against the decision.
When he came into office as foreign minister, Westerwelle made the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany one of his top priorities, prompting the Chancellery to reassure the Americans that this was not Berlin's official policy. Merkel is better attuned to the wishes of German allies, but she too is concerned that foreign missions would cost votes.
Fresh Doubts About Germany 's Reliability
Not surprisingly, Green Party politicians are the most critical of the government's hesitant approach. The morally charged discussions over Kosovo and Afghanistan have prompted some Green Party leaders to promote military campaigns for humanitarian reasons.
For instance, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the co-leader of the Greens parliamentary group in the European Parliament, is calling for arms shipments to the Syrian opposition and disparages Westerwelle as a cheap pacifist. "Germany wants the pacifist dividend, but it wants others to do the dirty work," he grumbles. Jürgen Trittin, one of the party's leading members, was one of the first to call for a strong German commitment in Mali.
The center-right government, on the other hand, is conspicuously directionless. This was especially evident in its most momentous foreign policy decision to date. On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council voted on a military mission in Libya. All of the conditions Berlin had cited for intervention were met. Nevertheless, German UN Ambassador Peter Wittig was the only envoy from a Western country to abstain from voting.
After the vote, Merkel insisted that Germany would support its allies. In reality, however, the German navy hurriedly withdrew its ships which had been sailing off the coast of Libya to monitor the arms embargo. The question about Germany's reliability returned, even though previous governments had done their best to allay doubts.
Libya was no isolated case. When the French expected support for their Mali mission in January, Westerwelle quickly and vocally declared what the Germans were absolutely not going to provide -- military support, for example.
Lack of Courage
Germany's hesitant behavior in international politics stands in stark contrast to Merkel's actions in the euro crisis. Germany has assumed the leadership role in the EU, and this has entailed consequences. Greek protestors incensed at German-led demands for austerity are waving swastika flags, and Merkel was treated as a hate figure in the Italian election campaign and in Cyprus.
Last summer, 54 percent of Germans saw no point to the billions in aid to the euro countries, but at the same time 66 percent said that they were satisfied with the chancellor. The difference between these two numbers is what constitutes political leadership, and the courage to make unpopular decisions.
This courage is lacking in foreign and security policy. The foreign minister largely confines himself to regularly calling for restraint, while otherwise exhibiting deep concern. His boss, the chancellor, relies on a different strategy: creating peace with German weapons.
Instead of becoming involved militarily, the center-right government prefers to send weapons to volatile regions. Partner countries in troubled regions of the world are to be strengthened with arms exports. These partners include authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia.
For historic reasons, Germany will never fully overcome its scruples against military deployment. And that's a good thing. But a government that aims to avoid the necessary conflicts from the start in each individual case disempowers a nation's people. True political leadership involves letting Germans assume responsibility once again, even if it means they will not always be viewed favorably -- as in the euro crisis.
Hubert Védrine is more familiar than most with German foreign policy. He became a foreign policy advisor to then French President François Mitterrand in 1981 and served throughout Mitterrand's presidency, and he was France's foreign minister from 1997 to 2002.
Védrine regrets that German security policy became less clear after Schröder and Fischer. He believes that if an center-left government had been in power, "Germany would not have abstained on Libya and would have done more in Mali." Védrine's message to Germany is: "Don't be afraid of yourselves. That part of your history happened a long time ago."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Berlin Reverts to Old Timidity on Military Missions
- Part 2: Military Action Based on Morality