Why Germany Is a Nation in Conflict

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Jan Grarup / NOOR

Into the fray A German patrol 50 km outside of Faizabad in September 2008. Germany's troops joined the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan in 2002 as peacekeepers, but found themselves embroiled in combat, leading to calls for withdrawal from those on the home front

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Catching Up on War
Guttenberg has made moves to address the military's equipment issues, ordering more than $1.3 billion worth of new Puma infantry fighting vehicles. But there's little doubt that after declining to engage in battle for so long, Germany is having to relearn how to wage war. Some lessons are taking time to sink in, like the importance of supplying soldiers with the right equipment and weaponry. The past two parliamentary commissioners supervising the Bundeswehr have repeatedly lamented the lack of appropriate equipment for troops, especially armored vehicles, battlefield medical units and usable helicopters — none of the Bundeswehr's 85 helicopters are outfitted for use in medical evacuation, so it has to borrow some from the Americans to fly out its wounded soldiers.

Germany lags behind most Western states in the handling of wounded and traumatized soldiers when they return from battle — something that was not an issue for an army that didn't venture off its home turf. It was only late last year that the military opened its first center dedicated to the research and treatment of soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "Until recently, the numbers of cases of PTSD ... were insignificant," says Colonel Peter Zimmermann, director of the Trauma Center at the German Army Hospital in Berlin. "Now we are seeing more cases from Afghanistan and a wave of people who were in Kosovo and are only now exhibiting symptoms." The number of PTSD cases among German troops has surged over the past four years, from 85 in 2006 to 466 in 2009.

Johann (whose name is changed here to protect his identity), 23, has been in treatment at the Berlin trauma center since May. He signed up for the army in 2007 and joined a reconnaissance unit; in October 2009, he arrived in Afghanistan for the standard five-month tour with the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kunduz. After months steeped in the horrors of battle, Johann did what many soldiers do: he suppressed his feelings until a single, later event acted as a trigger, causing his emotions to flood out. He was on home leave, waiting in line at a McDonald's on Good Friday when news of the deaths of Hartert and the other soldiers was broadcast over the restaurant's radio. Johann began to cry and shake uncontrollably as people around him stared. "It was really hard," he says. "Some of my comrades were there and I didn't know if they were alive or dead. I felt guilty, like I'd left them in the lurch." But when Johann tried to talk to friends and family about his life in Afghanistan, he was met with indifference. No one wanted to hear his stories or try to understand what he was going through.

Dealing with the Dead
On April 9, Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the memorial service for Hartert and his comrades: it was the first time she had publicly paid her respects to soldiers killed in combat. Such displays are rare in a country that does not even have a formal military cemetery; when he opened the Bundeswehr memorial in Berlin in September, then President Horst Köhler noted that "in the past, the death of soldiers [had] often been used for propaganda." The memorial is the latest step in a long effort to restore public trust in the military. It stands adjacent to Bendler Block, the former Wehrmacht quarters where Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and others who tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler were executed on July 21, 1944. The stark juxtaposition is meant to show that Germany has moved on, with its armed forces now rooted in democratic traditions. To press the point, the German army swears in its new recruits on the anniversary of the Stauffenberg plot.

Modern Germany is wary of any hint of the idolatry of the army that was typical in the Nazi period, and so shrinks from attempts to honor soldiers who are wounded or killed in battle. In 2008, a soldiers' organization proposed reinstating the Iron Cross, once a coveted medal of honor and bravery; the idea was rejected because the medal is so closely identified with Germany's history of militarism. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the golden Cross of Honor resembles, but is intentionally not, its predecessor. More recently, Reinhold Robbe, a former Bundeswehr commissioner (a liaison between the army and parliament) launched a campaign to create a German Veterans' Day — but got only a lukewarm response. "We don't have to follow the Americans and create some kind of hero worship," said Rainer Arnold, a defense expert and MP for the opposition Social Democrats. "A Veterans' Day does not reflect the way our culture deals with the Bundeswehr."

Fighters Wanted
As Germany tries to get used to the idea of being a nation at war, the danger associated with foreign missions is making it harder for the military to find new recruits. Germany still has a draft, but politicians are seriously considering abolishing it. Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats are divided over the issue and will clarify the party's position at a convention in November. Draftees now serve just six months and are deployed abroad only if they do so voluntarily and extend their military commitment.

If the draft goes, where will the next generation of soldiers come from? In July, military leaders came up with several possible models for the future structure of the Bundeswehr. One is to abolish conscription and cut the number of troops from 252,000 to a volunteer army of 205,000; another proposal envisages a similar reduction of the force but retains the draft. Defense experts warn against dramatic reductions. In a commentary for the weekly Der Spiegel, former Defense Minister Volker Rühe said that Germany shouldn't let an overreaction to the past override the need for a strong, working army. "After Germany's overwhelming military had terrified our neighbors in the last century, we switched to being a freeloader within the framework of European security," Rühe wrote. "We must remain capable of fulfilling our obligations as part of the NATO alliance and the European Union."

In another attempt to boost its profile, the army is marketing itself to young Germans still in school. Over the past few weeks, the armed forces have signed agreements with several federal states, including Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Bavaria, allowing officers to visit classrooms and give presentations. Alarmed by the prospect of the army reaching out to kids, the teachers' union is fighting to keep the military out of schools, with its Munich chapter launching a campaign called Peaceful Schools. "We sacrificed our children in two wars already," says Munich resident Renate Beyer, 52, the single mother of an 11-year-old boy. "Enough is enough."

That attitude is likely to harden as the engagement in Afghanistan drags on. Germans were generally supportive of the Kosovo mission, in part because the Balkans are close to Germany. Afghanistan is both geographically and culturally distant, and the diminishing chances of outright victory are causing many to question the point of the mission. That doesn't mean, however, that the Bundeswehr will retreat to its defense-only posture. Military experts are confident that, despite the antiwar sentiment, Germany will keep its military commitments — to NATO and U.N. peacekeeping forces, for instance. "The worsening prospects in Afghanistan will likely force Germany into a period of reflection about such foreign missions," says Citha Maass, an expert on Afghanistan at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "But if politicians make a plausible argument that participation of the Bundeswehr in foreign combat missions is necessary, Germany will participate in such missions in the future."

Back at the clubhouse in Wilsdruff, coach Gnannt points to photographs of Hartert with the various soccer teams he played on over the years. Gnannt complains that whenever the subject of Germany's soldiers in Afghanistan comes up, someone always drags up the past, devaluing the sacrifice made by his former student. "Robert went to Afghanistan because he was a soldier and had a job to do. He was aware of the danger," says Gnannt. "History just won't leave us alone."

Others in the town would like to keep that history alive in German minds, the better to make the nation think twice before joining the fight again. Retired schoolteacher Christel Reichert, 75, was born in Pomerania, one of the former eastern German territories ceded to Poland as reparation for the war in 1945. When her father was hanged by local partisans, the rest of the family fled to Wilsdruff. "It was winter and the snow-covered fields stretched out white as far as you could see," Reichert recalls. "But in the spring, after the snow melted, the fields were covered with the corpses of dead soldiers. I still get jolted awake at night by these images."

Reichert's late husband wrote a history of Wilsdruff's experience of World War II. In her spacious apartment, she pulls out a stack of his files, three loose-leaf binders holding notes on each local soldier who was killed fighting for the Vaterland. According to her husband's research, before Hartert's death in April, the last soldier Wilsdruff lost was Walter Brand, who was 44 when he died on Aug. 3, 1946, in a Russian prison camp in the Ural Mountains. "The young people going to war today should have no illusions about what awaits them," says Reichert. "I've seen enough war in my lifetime."

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