Putin is forcing Germans to get real about the military

Pacifist protesters wear masks of (from left) German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht earlier this month. (Markus Schreiber/AP)
Pacifist protesters wear masks of (from left) German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht earlier this month. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Ever since Adrian Hurtado decided to join the German army instead of going to university, he’s had to put with up with constant derision. “In Germany, soldiers are either murderers or idiots, Nazis or ridiculous”, the 21-year-old writes in a recent blog post. He relates how, arriving in uniform one night at a Berlin train station, he was trailed by a drunk thug shouting “soldiers are murderers”. “Every one of my comrades has experienced scenes like this”, Hurtado notes.

Can his country afford to leave it at that? Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing Germans to reassess their long-held ambivalence toward military power. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s call for a “turning point” (Zeitenwende) in German foreign policy, including a dramatic and expensive upgrade of the armed forces, is running head-on into pacifist attitudes shaped by the horrors of the Nazi era. A key Scholz ally addressed the issue head-on in a much-noted speech this month: Lars Klingbeil, one of the co-leaders of the Social Democratic Party, called for a “new relationship” between society and the armed forces.

That’s going to take a lot of work. A recent survey showed that voters who back Scholz’s Social Democrats were also the least enthusiastic about his promise to create a special 100 billion euro fund for the Bundeswehr (as the German military is known). That doesn’t come as much of a surprise. In 2019, when Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel, who had long presided over a defense budget that hovered between 1.1 and 1.4 percent of gross domestic product, finally promised to gradually lift expenditure toward the 2 percent asked of NATO members, many Social Democrats reacted with outrage.

Chronic underfunding seems to have aggravated the low esteem with which many Germans regard the Bundeswehr. A few years ago, it emerged that a tank unit had been forced to use broomsticks instead of guns for training. Stories about sexual assault and scandals involving right-wing extremism in the ranks haven’t helped. A poll taken in 2020 showed that fewer than half of respondents had heard anything positive about the military in the media.

This dismal reputation has had a dire effect on the military’s ability to find new personnel. In 2018, the Bundeswehr reported that it had managed to attract just 20,000 recruits, an all-time low. Its efforts to fix the problem through advertising ended up generating only more controversy. In 2018, commentators poured scorn on the military’s efforts to woo recruits by advertising at Gamescom, a video game trade fair that attracts around 350,000 visitors each year.

In 2019, when the Bundeswehr tried to boost its image by adorning buses in the university town of Marburg with ads featuring upbeat slogans on a camouflage background, many locals expressed contempt. A Green Party leader called for the ads to be removed, while another sneered that “our children really don’t need to be exposed to appealing images of armed service”. A Social Democrat politician sniffed: “It’s sad that we’re doing advertising for killing”.

The picture is not entirely grim. Most Germans continue to support the Bundeswehr despite the vocal opposition from the minority who don’t. Trust in the armed forces has remained steadily above 70 percent, and the vast majority of Germans approve of the enormous cash boost Scholz wants to give to the military. Yet one doesn’t have to look far to see evidence that such support may be skin-deep.

The gulf between the public and the armed forces is now so wide that even long-standing military traditions are now alien to civilians. Bundeswehr soldiers still stage the Grand Tattoo (Grosser Zapfenstreich), a ceremony that goes back to the early 19th century, on special occasions (often in honor of selected civilians). Yet when the army tried to use the ceremony last year to honor the 59 German soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan, some critics denounced it as a “Nazi ritual”. Military leaders responded with indignation — illustrating their own failure to understand just how detached their culture had become from society.

At least they are trying to adapt. Yes, the Bundeswehr is still a little clumsy with its use of social media: Its Twitter account, for example, has just over 137,000 followers, compared with the U.S. Army’s 1.8 million. But the military has begun to establish more direct contact with the public through events such as Bundeswehr Day, which recently drew an estimated 15,000 visitors in Warendorf.

It will take more than an infusion of cash and a few PR events to heal the troubled relationship between Germany and its military. Someone once observed that Prussia was not a country with an army but an army with a country. Modern Germany has become a country that would rather not have an army at all. It’s time that changed. One of the most powerful democracies in the world, Germany can become a force for good. It just needs to believe it.

Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918”.

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