Germany’s relationship to its military past is difficult at the best of times and the army is now reworking its tradition decree. With soldier and society increasingly at odds, it’s likely to be a complicated process.
The top generals were there, as were military historians and social scientists. The defense minister sat in the front row.
But as officials with the German Armed Forces, or Bundeswehr, gathered at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences in Potsdam to grapple with the German military's relationship with its past, the discussion turned frequently to those who weren't present — the troops themselves.
The Bundeswehr is overhauling its traditions decree, a uniquely German document that identifies the acceptable sources of military heritage in a country where the past is divisive, especially as it relates to the armed forces. It's a challenging act that involves balancing the political needs of the moment with a rank and file that is developing more emotional ties to their own identity as they deploy overseas.
"Everyone in this room has studied this topic quite intensively," Bundeswehr Brigadier General Kai Rohrschneider, the current chief of staff for US Army Europe, told the gathered academics. "For the troops it's a lot more difficult."
A growing rift
The debate itself points to the growing rift between German society and its military. After a series of scandals hit the Bundeswehr this spring, most notably the discovery of a right-wing extremist officer posing as an asylum-seeker, political pressure was high to rein in what some saw as a military disconnected from the society it served.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen broadly condemned the Bundeswehr leadership, which responded by searching barracks for further signs of extremism. Von der Leyen suggested she might rename barracks and warships named after Nazi-era soldiers or commanders, including the famed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
A backlash quickly followed. Current and former military officers criticized von der Leyen's blanket condemnation. Younger officers voiced their displeasure. The critics were soon joined by public and media commentary questioning the slash-and-burn approach to the past.
The confusing boundaries of the debate were embodied in the May removal of a photographic portrait of Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor, from the Hamburg university that bears his name.
The portrait showed a young Schmidt in his Nazi-era Wehrmacht uniform [The German army in World War II]. Yet as defense minister, Schmidt was key in preserving some of the most progressive reforms built into the Bundeswehr.
Von der Leyen announced around the same time her plan to have the traditions decree refashioned for the third time in Bundeswehr history.
Looking back — but how far back?
The Potsdam discussion was structured to split German military history around the year 1933, when the Nazis rose to power.
Speakers focused on one side of the divide looked to Prussian military reformers of the 19th Century as positive role models. Others pointed to the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler carried out by a conspiracy of his own officers. Still others pointed to the very creation of the Bundeswehr in 1955 — the first democratically controlled military in German history — as worthy of celebration in its own right.
"The Bundeswehr has a very specific, unique experience never before seen in German history," Stig Förster of the University of Bern emphasized.
Debate soon pivoted to whether the focus on role models ignored a lack of historical knowledge among troops. Michael Epkenhans, a social scientist with the host Center for Military History and Social Sciences, said the debate over naming barracks missed this larger point.
"Sharpening historical awareness is what this is about," Epkenhans said.
Tradition versus history
Yet there's a sharp distinction between history and tradition, as the Bundeswehr's founders noted from the beginning and as Brigadier General Rohrschneider pointed out again.
"It's not about the historical individuals, themselves," he said of the recent controversies. "Soldiers feel that the process of the discussion on barracks naming is an external attack on 60 years of Bundeswehr history."
Researchers frequently returned to the broader problem of the soldier-society divide in Germany. A Bundeswehr created in 1955 as a conscription-based Cold War force is now a smaller army of professionals deploying to Afghanistan and Mali. With soldiers more often at risk, they're becoming more vocal about questions of identity.
While society may hope to define tradition as something that binds the military closer to its own mainstream political spectrum, Rohrschneider said, soldiers are looking for role models of warriors and examples of success on the battlefield.
Society as the audience
The target of past tradition decrees has always been the German public, however. The first decree, finished in 1965, was spurred by concerns over how the new Bundeswehr would interact with its own Wehrmacht past and Wehrmacht veterans groups then in society.
The 1982 version followed an eruption of protests against the public visibility of the military in ceremonies like oath swearings. The decree published that year encouraged the Bundeswehr to find inspiration in its own history and its basis in the German constitution.
The discussion this week was the third of four meetings around the latest overhaul; the final is scheduled for early November. The process from there remains unclear.
Past decrees have needed considerable time to finish. The recent election means the makeup and priorities of the next government remain unclear, meanwhile.
Participants agreed the new decree needed to address the post-Cold War reality faced by the Bundeswehr, one that raised new ethical questions from the likelihood of soldiers facing more combat.
"Aside from the fact there are so many historians here, we're not actually talking about the past," Rohrschneider said. "We're talking about the future, and what the Bundeswehr should be."