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Photo Gallery: German Military Missions Abroad

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Merkel's Caution Berlin Reverts to Old Timidity on Military Missions

Over the last 20 years, Germany has taken important steps towards normality, shedding its pacifist doctrine and taking part in combat missions abroad. But Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is undoing that achievement. Its refusal to join foreign deployments is undermining faith in Berlin's reliability.

There is a wedge sticking out of the building, one as brutal as the thorn of war in the German psyche. The gigantic wedge, made of steel and glass, passes through the sandstone façade of the old arsenal building in Dresden, like a projectile that has penetrated a soldier's chest, or like the phalanx of British bombers that laid waste to Dresden on Feb. 13, 1945.

American architect Daniel Libeskind reconstructed German military history with his design of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum. Nothing is intact, everything is broken. There is a gaping wound in the middle of the museum, a wound that is also a weapon.

In other countries, military museums showcase superior technology and heroic victories, as if to say: Look at what heroes we are! But how can Germany recount its military history, a history it's ashamed of? It's about defeat and guilt. "We are not trying to make sense of it," says Colonel Matthias Rogg, the director of the Dresden museum. "Instead, we ask questions."

One of the displays contains a "Wolf" vehicle used by the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, which was heavily damaged by a remote-controlled explosive device in Afghanistan. Looking at the small, poorly armored, somewhat patched up vehicle in its glass case, it's hard to imagine that soldiers were sent into battle in it. In fact, three of the soldiers riding in this particular Wolf were seriously wounded in the attack.

The voting cards of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and current Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Bundestag for one of the German parliament's votes on the military deployment in Afghanistan are on display next to the vehicle. A wrecked piece of equipment, wounded soldiers, political responsibility -- what's the message to the visitor? That the Afghanistan mission has been a failure? That the Bundeswehr is poorly equipped? That politicians bear responsibility? The museum doesn't provide the answer, because it deliberately promotes ambiguity.

Strong Interest in TV Film on WWII

Almost seven decades after World War II, one still can't take anything for granted when discussing Germany's relationship with war. Last week, the German viewing public's overwhelming interest in the three-part series "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" ("Our Mothers, Our Fathers"), shown on the ZDF television network, revealed that Germany still hasn't closed this chapter of its history.

More than seven-and-a-half million viewers watched the prime-time drama about the experiences of five friends in the war. The series set off a discussion, in families and in the arts sections of newspapers, raising questions and bringing memories to the surface. "Were German Soldiers Really That Ruthless?" the tabloid newspaper Bild asked in a front page story. It has made many younger Germans wonder how they would have behaved at the time.

It's a strange coincidence that the Bundeswehr is marking a memorable anniversary just as the nation is preoccupied with its eternal trauma once again. On April 2, 1993, the cabinet of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl approved the Bundeswehr's first international combat mission, allowing German soldiers to participate in monitoring the no-fly zone over Bosnia. It was the first war in which the Bundeswehr was involved in combat operations.

Bosnia marked the beginning of a long path to normalization that Germany has followed since the end of the Cold War. Today the Bundeswehr is involved in 11 missions that have been approved by the parliament. Some 6,540 soldiers are currently deployed on foreign missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. "The mentality of Germans has changed when it comes to the use of military force," says Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. "We've come a long way in this respect."

It was the former coalition government of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party that led the country, in the face of the overwhelming skepticism of its citizens, into the major missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. By agreeing to German troop deployments in these conflicts, the coalition parties "almost destroyed themselves," as then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens party, which has strong pacifist roots, says today. It forced the traumatized Germans to grow up and assume the political responsibility that they had been spared during the Cold War.

Merkel Shunning Military Missions

More than a decade later, a coalition government consisting of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is in the process of dismantling the progress Germany has made in this respect. Be it out of conviction or the fear of voters, German foreign policy, under the leadership of Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, has returned to its former insecurity and unwillingness to engage. From Berlin's abstention in the UN Security Council vote on Libya to its minimal involvement in Mali  and its passive approach to the conflict in Syria, the country is avoiding military involvement at all costs.

This is doing serious harm to Germany's international reputation. The concept of a "culture of military restraint," which the foreign minister mentions at every opportunity, is vexing to Berlin's allies. Now that the euro crisis has catapulted Germany into the role of Europe's leading power on economic policy, it also faces heightened expectations in other respects. The contradiction between Germany's economic strength and its military self-doubt is bigger than ever.

The government lacks the courage to confront Germans with uncomfortable decisions. The unpopular mission in Afghanistan has reinforced German skepticism over the wisdom of military deployments, while other, successful missions are glossed over. One is in Kosovo, where there are still about 750 Bundeswehr soldiers stationed -- and fighting -- today.

The bullet holes in a previously spotless white wall in northern Kosovo are a reminder of the horrors of last summer. On June 1, 2012, Serbian hardliners and German soldiers faced off at an iron bridge in the village of Rudare.

The insurgents attacked from the side of the building, using Kalashnikovs, hunting rifles and pistols. The Bundeswehr, positioned on the opposite bank of the Ibar River and shielded by a Fuchs tank, fired about 1,500 rounds. By the time it was over, two German soldiers and several Serbs were wounded. It was 2012, and a serious military engagement had just taken place on European soil.

For a brief moment, the Bundeswehr's combat mission was at the center of public attention once again. Germany remembered that young Germans were involved in a perilous mission in a place that was only a two-hour flight from home.

Today the iron bridge over the Ibar River is open to traffic once again. Instead of tanks and rebels, there are children waving on the side of the road and young men tinkering with their cars. The German public has lost interest once again. "We're something of a forgotten mission here," says platoon commander Robert Altmann. "And yet KFOR (the Kosovo Force) is a success story." The mission consists of a plan, clear stages and a precise objective, says Altmann. Unlike the Afghanistan mission, the soldiers in Kosovo don't wonder why they are stationed there.

Kosovo Mission Broke Taboos

The decision to join the Kosovo mission in the fall of 1998 marked a turning point in German foreign policy. Bundeswehr fighter jets patrolled the skies over areas in which soldiers with Nazi Germany's Wehrmacht had committed murder less than 60 years earlier, and they did so without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. It was a mission that violated all taboos of German postwar history.

No other party was as conflicted over this development as the Greens. "I learned two things as a child: 'Never another war' and 'never another Auschwitz,'" recalls former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. "These two maxims came into conflict, and I had to give up the notion of 'never another war.'"

It was also a difficult path for many in the CDU and the SPD. But both parties were familiar with the business of governing. They had backed many important foreign policy decisions in the former West Germany. They knew that Western partners expected reunified Germany to contribute more than money to combat missions. In the critical session of the Bundestag on Oct. 16, 1998, Schröder warned that by voting no on the Kosovo mission, Germany would suffer a "devastating blow to its reputation and standing."

Fischer wasn't able to present his party with as blunt an argument. A large portion of the Green Party had emerged from the peace movement. Pacifism and resistance to nuclear power were in the party's DNA. But then, in July 1995, Serbian militias murdered almost 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, under the eyes of Dutch UN troops. After that massacre, it was clear that one could also become culpable through inaction.

At a May 1999 special Green Party conference on Kosovo, an opponent of the war threw a bag of paint at Fischer. Given the general mood, Germany's loyalty to its allies was not sufficient justification to take part in the war. Even Auschwitz was cited as an argument -- Germany's own history of genocide committed it to join in military action to prevent massacres, said supporters of a Kosovo deployment.

The fact that a party of peace activists was saying yes to war made a new social consensus possible. Politicians who were old enough to have experienced the consequences of World War II were the ones implementing it. Schröder's father was killed in the war, and Fischer's parents were forced to flee from Hungary in 1946. Schröder's predecessor Kohl, the first postwar chancellor to send German soldiers on foreign missions, including in Cambodia and the Persian Gulf, was 15 when the war ended.

The struggle to normalize German foreign policy would probably have taken longer if the Greens had not been part of the coalition government. But ever since the Kosovo decision, it was clear that future governments would no longer rule out foreign Bundeswehr missions on principle, but would consider them, albeit as a last resort.

This was increasingly the case. German soldiers were called upon to help secure the peace in countries like Congo, Somalia and South Sudan. At Israel's request, the German Navy has even been fighting arms smugglers off the coast of Lebanon since 2006.

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

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