Thursday, February 18, 2016

How the fall of the Iron Curtain temporarily set back (West) German militarism

No, the blogster is not accusing the whole of West Germany's armed forces of the decade 1980 - 1990 as militarist.

There was, however, a fairly substantial movement of people who were in the process of pushing the force into a direction that sought to "ground" the motley conscript army in the "traditions" of the German military.

Defining those traditions was one thing, being able to execute a shift which, in terms of politics, would be a clear turn to the right, was another thing altogether.

At its inception in the 1950s Cold War, the West German military had to reconcile a cadre of World War II veterans, including such luminaries as Hitler's Chief of the General Staff, Heusinger, with young people who were called "citizens in uniform", especially when the draft was introduced soon after. This was a conscript force that taught its recruits on Day 1, before they had even been issued their uniforms, that the Geneva Conventions were to be observed and that they had to refuse execution of any order that was a violation of human rights.

We'll skip the anti-war movement of the 1960s and most of the 1970s for the sake of simplicity, because it was by the late 70s that most World War II veterans had retired and had been replaced with leaders who had not experienced the horrors of war.

Once Vietnam was over - during which the West German military kept pretty quiet -  there was a new red scare in Latin America, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iran hostage crisis together with ex KGB folks heading the Soviet Union. The new German militarists were boosted by a general conservative shift of German government that ensured promotion to the top echelons followed.   
Leadership positions in German government are still tightly linked to membership in the correct party. While the Social Democrat (SPD/Liberal (FDP) coalition governments did get some general officer positions filled with what were called "their" people, conservatives put much more hawkish leaders at the helm and aggressively weeded out potential competitors.

It was these newly minted generals and "general staff" colonels (the ADCs and next generation of generals) who dusted off World War II "hero" Field Marshal Rommel. For example, an excerpt from Rommel's famous 1938 book became the preface to an army brochure.

But only after Rommel's rank in 1938, Lieutenant Colonel, was removed from the draft. Showing the world that Rommel owed his career to you-know-whom was not that cool, yet.
Other things slipped through, such as a vivid World War II close combat article in an army magazine, but the editors made sure subsequent editions never got as graphically anti Russian again.

When a barracks was named after Mr. Heusinger, the traditionalists pulled some old military flags, complete with itty bitty tiny swastikas out of an "instructional collection"*, and nobody spoke up.**

A number of effective PR campaigns bolstered the "German neo-cons" and their call for a "greater role in the world", but then the Wall came down.

All of a sudden (to the public and to those in government who didn't believe earlier evidence) East German soldiers walked the installations of the West outside of the "confidence building" fun OSCE military inspections.

West German officers were dispatched to the East and took command of units considered the enemy a few months before.

Germany subsequently slashed its military to an extent that would bewilder Americans, if they only knew about it. Many of the "Germans to the front" personnel took generous retirement offers, and militarism went into hibernation.

Intervention in the Balkans and later Afghanistan was highly controversial, but the push for a "greater role", which is really code for military intervention, because Germany already pulls its weight as the fourth largest economy in the world, has grown stronger over the past decade or so.

The recent calls by conservative politicians for a legal basis to intervene across the globe independent of NATO and the UN are the most visible aspect of this development.

Its roots are in the 1980s.

[Update 1/22/2017] The newest push for more military spending and an expansion of the German military are coached in the ideas of "fair share of the burden" and "greater international responsibility". In an interview in today's conservative Welt, the disgraced former defense minister Guttenberg promotes the notion that Donald Trump is not completely wrong when he calls for European countries to spend more on the military.

* We wrote about this earlier. You can find published photos, but not close-ups, in German military publications and in the archives of the Bavarian daily paper Mainpost

** Though lots of German military careers have ended with a promotion to a certain desk job, with the colonel who ordered the fateful Kunduz airstrike on tankers a recent example.

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