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.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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yuri_nahl 03/26/2013
Germany would be better off to retain her "Non_Poodle" role in Europe. As a successful export country Germany does not need to attack other countries to pillage their energy as in the Hitler days. Why be in Afghanistan? Just because the other Poodle nations were? Maybe to rack up enough debt so Germany would have to borrow money from the World Bank, or other legalized thievery. The World did not like it when Germany was marching across Europe, except that at that time they were doing the dirty work against the Commies. Up until 1990 the Germans still were! Don't be Poodle chumps! Let the mad dog agressors do their own despoilation. There is already enough guilt in Germany.
powermeerkat 03/27/2013
2. Middle of the road
There is a huge middle road between militaristic Wermacht and inept, poorly equipped Bundeswehr. Just as between Goering's Luftwaffe and poorly equipped air force of Bunderepulik. Germany clearly still oscillating between extremes.
stevej8 03/28/2013
3. No, no, no.
The terms like "normality", "reliability", and "courage" are used here in quite a loaded, biased and misleading way. War, especially of the interventionist sort, is not normal, by any reasonable standard, especially one Germany can afford to go by, reliability does not properly mean merely falling in behind the US or other powers, and courage certainly does not mean waging interventionist war to appease powerful allies. Germany more than any other major nation has to be very careful in its use of military power, and should never aspire to be a merely "normal" interventionist actor like the US say, whose foreign policy is highly controversial and unpopular throughout the world, at least with regards to its major uses of force in many cases. That may be the prerogative of a power like the US, but not Germany, least of all when it wields no significant power in bodies like the UN. Schroeder was quite right to abstain from the Iraq adventure as history has proven, and the Libyan and Syrian cases are hardly more likely to turn out any different. In short, the argument expressed in this piece is trite nonsense, that attempts by manipulation of words to somehow prove that Germany should be willing to lose hundreds or thousands of soldiers (and kill hundreds or thousands of civilians) in risky and controversial interventions that are determined by others for their own geopolitical ends primarily, and to essentially ignore the very stark lessons of history in these matters. Germany should only participate in missions that are solidly justified in all senses, and always with prudence and caution at that. When other nations accept Germany as an equal on the global stage, and cease their hypocritical carping at Germany's past (or a short phase of it) whilst whitewashing their own often scarcely less blood soaked histories (overall), then can they expect Germany to even listen to their attempts to get Germany to bear more of the burden of the sort of foreign policy they supposedly consider "normal" according to articles like this.
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