Death came to Wilsdruff, a tiny hamlet in the hills outside Dresden in eastern Germany, on a warm April afternoon. Mario Gnannt was getting his soccer team ready for a match when suddenly the parents who had been watching their sons dart around the field began murmuring to each other on the sidelines. Soon after, the team's shouts fell silent, the word spreading quickly as only bad news can: far away in the Kunduz river valley in northern Afghanistan, a 25-year-old Wilsdruff native named Robert Hartert had been killed in a firefight with the Taliban on Good Friday. "All of a sudden the war wasn't just in the newspapers and on television," says Gnannt, who used to coach Hartert. "It was right here. Robert was the first person from Wilsdruff to die in battle since the Second World War."
Hartert was among seven German soldiers killed in April, making it the bloodiest month for the country's military since they deployed in 2002; in all, 43 have been killed since the Afghan mission began. That's less than 1% of the 4,350 German soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, but nonetheless a large number for a country that has for two generations studiously avoided military conflict. The deaths have forced Germans in the heimatfront (home front) to confront the fact that their soldiers are fighting and dying on foreign soil, a deeply unsettling prospect for a nation with an especially bitter legacy of war. Because of that history, Germany, uniquely among the nations that have soldiers in Afghanistan, is unsure how to mourn its fallen. In Wilsdruff, Hartert's death has evoked as much disquiet as it has sorrow. "I'm ashamed that after such a short period of time [since World War II] there are Germans who are willing to take up arms and go to war again," says Katrin Dässler, director of children's programs for the town's Lutheran church.
She speaks for many. Whatever the differences of opinion Germans had about their country in the decades after Hitler's defeat, there was solid consensus that German soldiers should never go to war again. It's the one lesson that every generation of Germans since 1945 has been force-fed in schools, by public television and through the nation's leaders: Germany's army, the Bundeswehr, was created in November 1955 solely for the purpose of defending the country's borders from foreign attack. But attitudes began to change in the 1990s, when German troops deployed to Kosovo as peacekeepers. Afghanistan, too, was initially seen as a humanitarian mission, to build roads and schools and help the locals.
Few Germans now cling to that illusion. For the first time since the end of World War II, soldiers are returning to Germany in flag-draped caskets. Also headed home are war's other ugly truths: soldiers kill and sometimes innocents die. In September 2009, German officers ordered a bombing raid in Kunduz province that left more than 140 people dead, including dozens of civilians. The incident caused a national outcry; to many, it underlined the wisdom of keeping the soldiers at home, where they could do no harm, and where none could be done to them. A recent poll by the Allensbach Institute research group showed that 65% of Germans are in favor of withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan.
For many Germans, the question is not whether the war can be won, but how that war fits into their sense of national identity. As their lives fill with the images, language and rituals of battle, Germans are finding it difficult to reconcile their sense of duty with old feelings of guilt.
Death on a Dirt Road
Robert Hartert had wanted to join the military since his teens. He signed up three years ago and chose to join the elite Fallschirmjäger airborne unit. Many of his brothers in arms were similarly enthusiastic. "The last thing I wanted after school was to lead a normal life," says a 23-year-old corporal from Hartert's unit who survived the Good Friday attack (and who asked to remain anonymous to protect his family). "We were all like that. We were looking for adventure, to take whatever life has to offer and be able to look back on all the good times when we're older."
The adventure came to an end for Hartert and two comrades, Nils Bruns and Martin Augustyniak, on a narrow dirt road in Isa Khel village near the city of Kunduz. A patrol of some 30 Germans was spread out along the road when those at the front came under fire. Taliban fighters kept them pinned down for more than three hours before Hartert's unit was ordered to take the wounded back to a medical vehicle at the end of the line and begin a retreat to base. The men had just carried a wounded soldier to a medical vehicle when an improvised explosive device exploded underneath it. Hartert and Bruns died instantly.
"My backpack and flak jacket took most of the damage," says the corporal, lifting his arms to show scars left by the shrapnel wounds. "The two who died were just a mass of blood; you couldn't recognize them." Augustyniak was later found dead nearby. The battle raged for another two or three hours before U.S. forces were able to extract the Germans with Black Hawk helicopters.
The incident did not end there. Karola Rosendahl, the mother of Bruns, blames a lack of equipment for her son's death. Through prosecutors in Potsdam, she has filed charges of negligent homicide against Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and the commanders in charge of the troops in Afghanistan. Rosendahl claims to have evidence that the soldiers were running out of ammunition during the attack in Kunduz and had to request some from a base more than four hours away. "They were not equipped to engage in this kind of battle with the Taliban," says Hajo Bartram, Rosendahl's attorney. Berlin prosecutors have found no cause to open investigations against the minister.
Rosendahl also believes that the German commander in Afghanistan didn't order air support to protect the units because he feared the repercussions back home, should Afghan civilians be killed. "They were afraid of another Kunduz Affair," says Bartram, using Germany's name for the September 2009 incident, which led to a parliamentary investigation and the resignation of General Wolfgang Schneiderhan, then the highest-ranking military officer; Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung; and a senior Defense Ministry aide.