The Bundeswehr (German for “Federal Defence”) is the unified armed forces of the Federal Republic of Germany and their civil administration and procurement authorities. The States of Germany are not allowed to maintain armed forces of their own, since the German Constitution states that matters of defense fall into the sole responsibility of the federal government.
The Bundeswehr is divided into a military part (armed forces or Streitkräfte) and a civil part with the armed forces administration (Wehrverwaltung). The military part of the federal defense force consists of the Heer (Army), Marine (Navy), Luftwaffe (Air Force), Streitkräftebasis (Joint Support Service), and the Zentraler Sanitätsdienst (Joint Medical Service) branches.
The Bundeswehr is among the world’s most technologically advanced and best-supplied militaries, as befits Germany’s overall economic prosperity and significant military industry. However, with military expenditures amounting only to 1.35% of the GDP (2012), it is also amongst the lowest budgeted militaries in the world in terms of share of GDP. As of September 2013, the Bundeswehr has a strength of roughly 183,000 active troops, making it the 30th largest military force in the world and the fourth largest in the European Union, behind the armed forces of France, Italy and the United Kingdom. In addition the Bundeswehr has approximately 144,000 reserve personnel (2010).
The name Bundeswehr was first proposed by the former Wehrmacht general and Liberal politician Hasso von Manteuffel. The Iron Cross (Eisernes Kreuz) is its official emblem. It is a symbol that has a long association with the military of Germany. The Schwarzes Kreuz is derived from the black cross insignia of the medieval Teutonic knights; since 1813 the symbol has been used to denote a military decoration for all ranks.
When the Bundeswehr was established in 1955, its founding principles were based on developing a completely new military force for the defence of West Germany. In this respect, the Bundeswehr did not consider itself to be a successor to either the Reichswehr (1921–1935) of the Weimar Republic or Hitler’s Wehrmacht (1935–1946). Neither does it adhere to the traditions of any former German military organization. Its official ethos is based on three major themes:
- The aims of the military reformers at the beginning of the 19th century such as Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Clausewitz.
- The conduct displayed by members of the military resistance against Adolf Hitler such as Claus von Stauffenberg and Henning von Tresckow.
- Its own tradition since 1955.
One of the most visible traditions of the modern Bundeswehr is the Großer Zapfenstreich; this is a form of military tattoo that has its origins in the landsknecht era. The FRG reinstated this formal military ceremony in 1952, three years before the foundation of the Bundeswehr. Today it is performed by a military band with 4 fanfare trumpeters and timpani, a corps of drums, up to two escort companies of the Bundeswehr’s Wachbataillon (or another deputized unit) and Torchbearers. The Zapfenstreich is only performed during national celebrations or solemn public commemorations. It can honour distinguished persons present such as the German federal president or provide the conclusion to large military exercises.
Another important tradition in the modern German armed forces is the Gelöbnis; the solemn oath made by conscripts (until 2011) now recruits during basic training and serving professional soldiers. There are two kinds of oath: for conscripts/recruits it is a pledge but it’s a solemn vow for full-time personnel.
The pledge is made annually on 20 July, the date on which a group of Wehrmacht officers attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Recruits from the Bundeswehr’s Wachbataillon make their vow (Gelöbnis) at the Bendlerblock in Berlin. This was the headquarters of the resistance but also where the officers were summarily executed following its failure. National commemorations are held nearby within the grounds of the Reichstag. Similar events also take place across the German Republic. Since 2011 (when conscription was placed in abeyance within the Bundesrepublik Deutschland), the wording of the ceremonial vow for full-time recruits and volunteer personnel is:
“Ich gelobe, der Bundesrepublik Deutschland treu zu dienen und das Recht und die Freiheit des deutschen Volkes tapfer zu verteidigen.”
“I pledge to serve the Federal Republic of Germany loyally and to defend the right and the freedom of the German people bravely.”
Serving Bundeswehr personnel replace “Ich gelobe, …” with “Ich schwöre, …” (“I vow to…”).
Cold War 1955–1990
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