This article was written with Manuel Schorn who is currently a student at the Catholic University (UCSC) in Milan, Italy. After a bachelor degree in “Political Science and International Relations” he is now doing his MA in “European and International Politics”. He is focusing on German military reforms after 1918, asymmetric warfare, peacekeeping and foreign policy.
Earlier this year one could find another example of the German’s unease regarding their armed forces. This “estranged relationship” reached the surface when a debate aroused about the possible introduction of a Veteran’s day in Germany. Minister of Defense De Maizière stated that the time had come for such a move to honor, to respect and to value the service of Bundeswehr soldiers. Are the Germans really debating on honoring their soldiers? Are we going to see goose-stepping parades again? What happened to the “civilian state” and the “tamed power”? What changed that such a debate became prevalent?
After the end of the Cold War the conflicts in the Balkans and the deployment to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks led to new combat duty realities and changes for the Bundeswehr. At the end of this development stands the temporary end of conscription, a leaner and better deployable German army and a restructured Ministry of Defense (MoD).
This slow adjustment to Afghan reality was accompanied by the introduction of service medals for bravery as ten thousands of Germans served at the Hindu Kusch. The downside of this was that for the first time since 1945 a demilitarized German society faced fallen soldiers and veterans, of which some came home with physical and psychological repercussions.
Merely with simple words that are common in most nations’ vocabularies, such as war and veterans, former Minister of Defense zu Guttenberg set the cornerstones for a new perspective towards the Bundeswehr. His successor, DeMaizière, openly thought of introducing a veteran’s day, which was quickly met with support from the newly appointed President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor who became famous for his contributions to the civil rights movement in former Eastern Germany. While visiting the Bundeswehr Academy in Hamburg, Gauck held a much noted speech in front of Officers criticizing the “we don’t care” attitude currently present in the population towards the armed forces. He also called soldiers “brave citizens in uniform” and defining the German army as a “peace-engine” and pointed out the importance of recognizing and paying homage to the significant effort made by those men and women to ensure international security and peace.
What did not change?
The absence of German strategic thought during the Cold War and the over-relianceon the US security umbrella had long lasting consequences and often isolated Berlin. Additionally, Germany’s status quo position in remaining a “civilian power” was not only influenced by the domestic sphere but also manifested itself there. The engagement in Afghanistan was explicitly not labeled as a war to appease the German electorate, who remains relatively skeptical to military missions compared to other Western states. Thus, German men and women returning from Afghanistan deployments had no priority in receiving praise and honor facing a majority of the population and the political elite who was skeptical about their mission. The government failed to explain to the public that after 2007 Germany had to wage a fully fledged counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign and therefore the “development-workers in uniform” could simply not be labeled as such.
Yet, despite all the reforms on a tactical, operational and institutional level there was no fundamental strategic change of how the elites in Berlin and the German voter views the use-of-force. Therefore, the political elites were stuck in their own narrative, ignoring the realities of war as well as undermining the role and perception the Bundeswehr would encounter.
Statistics show that even though 66% are against any further involvements of the Bundeswehr in international peace-missions and only 44%
are favorable of the current involvement in the ISAF mission, 66% feel that Bundeswehr soldiers do not receive the recognition and appreciation they deserve, with only 3% stating that they already receive too much praise. This leads to a paradox as these numbers clearly show that the majority of the population is aware of the soldiers’ service, yet a bottom-up progress is needed to the political elite and public debate.
Since 2006 there has been a steady increase of cases of soldiers affected by posttraumatic stress disorders, in 2011 there were 922
registered cases but it is feared that the actual number is much higher. On average, soldiers are looking at an eighteen-month period of travelling from one authority to the next in order to have this severe anxiety disorder diagnosed, much due to the lack of qualified personnel. There have also been reports of soldiers still struggling for acknowledgement after several years due to lost files and other bureaucratic difficulties, making it all the more challenging for Veterans and relatives alike.
What could a Veteran’s day change?
The idea behind a symbolic day to honor the sacrifices and achievements of German soldiers lies not in creating a martial cult for the fallen, promoting interventionist activism or rallying for new recruits. It does not aim at a “militarizing” society something many critiques from the opposition point to. The goal is to further promote normalization in Germany of how the use-of-force is seen and valued in a post Cold War world that definitely doest not await us with perpetual peace. It does not promote German rearmament, a new Weltpolitik or threatens our neighbors, friends and allies. The intention is to demonstrate respect for people who risk their lives to secure our free and safe society.
Such a memorial could be linked to the 20th of July celebrations. This day already stands for a parliamentary controlled army that secures the citizens of a democratic state and contributes to preventing conflicts and suffering where necessary beyond its borders, in agreement with international law and the international community. The 20th of July stands for a “never again” wars of aggression and genocide. As the German army becomes an all-volunteer professional force this could manifest a clear link to reciprocal exchange and communication with other parts of society. By honoring their servicemen and women a contribution would be made to secure attractiveness of serving under arms. Insights that could be perceived from the new generation of German soldiers (Generation Einsatz) are priceless and fundamental for future assessments and should also aim for a stronger exchange with academia.
A “Veterans day” will certainly not tentirely change the perception of the Bundeswehr, but it will contribute to overcoming ghosts of the past and raise awareness of achievements. It is a simple recognition that in Germany we live among 300.000 Veterans who fulfilled their job since the end of the Cold War and deserve our respect. They did not wage wars of aggression and did not ask for combat duties. Politics decided to deploy the Bundeswehr which constitutes a benchmark of liberal democracies that democratically elected politicians decide on the use-of-force as ultima ratio.
Therefore, the political elite should also explain engagements and stem themselves against using the armed forces as a scape goat which is also an indirect failure and disapproval of their own policy decisions and muddling through. It is time to realize that Germany has to transform to a security provider with the US “pivoting” away.
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