Germany’s military reluctance rooted in history

by DW

Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan: When it comes to the German military’s foreign missions, leaders in Berlin tend to be hesitant. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rejection of a Syrian deployment continues that tradition.

Germany is one of the world’s leading industrialized nations, a firmly established NATO member and closely aligned with other Western democracies. Militarily, however, the most economically powerful country in the European Union is comparatively conservative. Currently, some 4,000 German soldiers are involved in 19 foreign deployments — from Afghanistan to Mali.

Yet, they are rarely on the front lines. German soldiers man reconnaissance planes (as in the fight against the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq) and train allied military groups (such as the Kurds in northern Iraq). Politicians in Berlin repeatedly concede that the country’s allies expect more of Germany militarily. Nevertheless, those leaders are extremely reluctant to shift away from the military reluctance that Germany has traditionally exhibited since the end of the Second World War.

Historic guilt

Of course there are historical reasons for that reluctance. Following the foundation of West Germany in the wake of World War II and Nazism, the country’s new military, the Bundeswehr, was created in 1955. Germany became a member of NATO at that time as well. For decades, German soldiers in the allied West were strictly concentrated on defending the country.

Politically, a divided Germany was at the center of the Cold War and in the 1970s, under Social Democratic (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt, it took the initiative to change that fact: by engaging in a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, establishing channels of communication and treaties rather than weapons.

Germany’s special relationship with Russia stems from that time. To this day, Russia, which lost 6.2 million citizens fighting Nazi Germany — the most of any of the belligerents in WWII — still has a special place in the minds of most Germans. That is also why voices could still be heard calling for rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, although Germany also supported sanctions against the Kremlin. Germany’s former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel even called for a loosening of sanctions shortly before leaving office in March of this year.

Controversial foreign deployments

When a reunified Germany began participating in foreign deployments after 1990 it sparked national debate. More than any other, the controversial decision to send soldiers to Kosovo in 1999 caused an uproar. It was the first time that Bundeswehr soldiers had been in combat, and the murky legal situation in which the decision was made troubled many. The subsequent deployment of German soldiers to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States has come to define the Bundeswehr’s international engagement for almost two decades.

As with all foreign deployments, Afghanistan, too, was and remains extremely unpopular among German citizens. Thus the government has repeatedly been forced to seek parliamentary approval for the smallest of military missions — the Bundeswehr is, by definition, a parliamentary army.

SPD foreign policy expert Rolf Mützenich recently explained the limitations put on the Bundeswehr when it comes to foreign deployments. “Germany can only do its part with a mandate from the United Nations Security Council and with parliamentary approval,” he said. Regarding Syria, neither is within sight.

No to the Iraq War

Fears tend to be greatest in Germany when the US gets active militarily. In 2002, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD won a surprising re-election victory despite the fact that his party’s coalition with the Greens was hopelessly unpopular among voters. The reason: Schröder clearly stated that he would not allow German soldiers to participate in then-US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That stance struck a chord with German voters.

The leader of the opposition conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at the time happened to be Angela Merkel. She had actively called for German support for the American military operation, a position that proved unpopular with the country’s electorate. The politically astute chancellor seems unlikely to make that mistake again.

Almost all of Germany’s political parties have foreign policy and security experts who call for more military engagement. They argue it is the only way Germany can truly play a role in solving the world’s problems. Nevertheless, they tend to be in the minority with such views. A recent survey shows that roughly 60 percent of Germans are against foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr.


Berlin streets to lose links with brutal colonial past

by BBC

Berlin is set to rename streets linked to atrocities Germany committed during its 1884-1919 occupation of Namibia.

Local councillors agreed on new street names for the so-called African Quarter in the north-west of the German capital on Wednesday evening.

After more than a decade of debate, a final vote – seen as a formality – will be held soon.

Then names associated with Germany’s imperial past will be replaced with ones dedicated to liberation fighters.

“The African Quarter still glorifies colonialism and its crimes,” council members from the Greens, Social Democrats and Left parties say in their joint motion.

“That conflicts with our understanding of democracy and does lasting harm to the image of the city of Berlin.”

Local media report the motion’s approval is certain, as the three parties hold the majority of votes necessary to accept their motion.

Germany has acknowledged its brutal imperial past, including what historians call the first genocide of the 20th Century. Between 1904 and 1908, some 100,000 indigenous Herero and Nama people were killed.

The African Quarter, which is in a multi-ethnic working-class neighbourhood in the Berlin district of Wedding, is home to squares and streets associated with German South West Africa – now modern-day Namibia.

Its founder Adolf Luederitz, its imperial commissioner Gustav Nachtigal, and the founder of German East Africa – today’s Tanzania – Carl Peters will no longer have locales named after them.

New names for locales include Maji Maji Boulevard, Anna Mungunda Boulevard, Cornelius Frederiks Street and Bell Square.

Maji Maji – a battle cry used by the indigenous people at the time – commemorates the largely unknown liberation struggle against German colonial rule.

Anna Mungunda was the first Herero woman to take a leading role in the independence movement.

Cornelius Frederiks led the Nama people’s resistance fight against the German imperialist rulers.

Rudolf Douala Manga Bell was a Duala king in Cameroon who, alongside his wife Emily, resisted land grabs by white colonisers.