For the first time since World War II, Germany has officially honored the courage of its soldiers with a newly minted medal. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung (both of the Christian Democratic Union) presented the award to four Bundeswehr sergeants who risked their lives to help wounded soldiers and children during a suicide attack in Afghanistan.
The medal -- a small golden cross that hangs on a black, red and yellow ribbon decorated with oak leaves -- has been the source of much controversy. While some see it as a long overdue means to honor outstanding military service and an expression of "positive patriotism," others warn of a revival of German militarism.
Jung justified the creation of a "cross of honor for bravery," which President Köhler agreed to in October of last year, with the heightened level of danger that Bundeswehr soldiers are exposed to abroad. The medal is the fifth and highest distinction in the Bundeswehr. According to the decree that created it, the new cross honors "exceptionally courageous deeds" that go beyond what is expected "within the framework of the performance of duty."
While the four other Bundeswehr distinctions are awarded to soldiers who have served more than four months abroad and demonstrated loyal service or fulfilled their duty in an exemplary way, the new award insists on extraordinary accomplishment.
For the 130 years leading up to 1945, exceptional courage in German military service was honored with the Iron Cross. The medal was abolished at the end of World War II, during which it was awarded roughly 2.6 million times -- 2.3 million Second Class Iron Crosses and 300,000 Frist Class Iron Crosses. For many, that medal has come to symbolise the atrocities of the Third Reich.
Last March, the chairman of the Bundeswehr's reserves, Reinhard Beck, proposed reinstating the Iron Cross, but the suggestion met loud opposition in parliament and among Jewish groups.
The four soldiers that were honored on Monday were witness to a suicide attack by Taliban militants on Oct. 20, 2008 southwest of Kunduz. Two German soldiers were killed and two wounded in the attack. Five Afghan children were killed, one injured. Although the German's armored vehicle was on fire and munitions were exploding, the four soldiers, aged 28 to 33, rushed to the scene to try to help.
At the presentation in the chancellery, Jung called the soldiers "models for their comrades in their dedication to justice and freedom." Merkel called the soldier's action "an incentive not only for their comrades, but for us all." She defended the creation of the new award, saying that Germany's soldiers deserve "more recognition" for their service.
The medal is part of a larger push by the governing CDU to raise the profile and public appreciation of the Bundeswehr. This fall, a memorial to honor Bundeswehr soldiers who have died in service will be inaugurated in Berlin. It will be the first of its kind in Germany's post-war history.
Since the Bundeswehr entered Afghanistan in 2002, 35 soldiers have been killed. Last October, Jung began referring to the casualties as the "fallen". The rhetorical subtlety reflects the need to generate more public support for the Afghanistan mission.
According to a recent survey by Forsa, 61 percent of Germans favour an immediate withdrawal of the Bundeswehr from Afghanistan, whereas in 2002, 62 percent stood behind the mandate.