The German army now has its own veterans' association. The organization adds a new element to the debate about the position of the Bundeswehr in German society, and hopes to rehabilitate the war veterans.
Some say soldiers' interests are not adequately represented
The Bund Deutscher Veteranen (Association of German Veterans) came into existence last Saturday. Using the occasion of the German government's official open day, it set up a stand in the Defense Ministry and introduced itself to the public.
Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg spent some time at the stand, and spoke to several German veterans representing the nascent organization. Once its establishment has been officially sealed, the BDV intends to apply for financial support from the government.
Its founder is Lieutenant-Colonel Andreas Timmermann-Levanas, veteran of the German military missions in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Timmermann-Levanas also founded Deutsche Kriegsopferfürsorge (German war victims' welfare), an organization that cares for soldiers who return from missions with physical or psychological injuries.
Guttenberg spoke to veterans at the government open day
Unwounded but unheard
The BDV grew out of the growing number not represented by that organization. Timmermann-Levanas told Deutsche Welle, "The demand kept coming, 'What about the ones who weren't wounded?' We have to care for those too. We have to give them a voice. For those, the current institutions were not enough."
Timmermann-Levanas could not say exactly how many membership applications have already come in to the BDV, as it is still officially in the process of being established, but he said there were "very many" people interested.
Indeed, the potential community for the BDV is surprisingly large. Since 1955, when the post-war German army was established under its new name the Bundeswehr, (replacing the World War II-era Wehrmacht) 280,000 German soldiers have been on international missions, either in wars, in 'war-like conflicts,' as German politicians sometimes refer to Afghanistan, or on purely humanitarian missions.
But anyone over 18, German or not, who agrees with the association's aims can become a member. There are important caveats, of course: "We don't want to be instrumentalized by any far-right groups, or any political groups for that matter," says Timmermann-Levanas.
Rehabilitating the veteran
Germany's history puts any organization related to the military in the middle of a tortuous and unending debate. The BDV is hoping to avoid this by placing the emphasis on representing the post-war army, but in doing so, it wants society to rethink its whole attitude the veteran.
"I think we can contribute to making society discuss what exactly a veteran is," Timmermann-Levanas argues. "In Germany we have associated the veteran with something negative for the last 60 years - understandably in view of the history. If you think of the old veteran's associations from the Second World War, if you think of the Wehrmacht, then you're right back into the discussion about tradition - is the German army itself good or bad?"
The Bundeswehr will never be entirely free of the shadow of the Wehrmacht
The BDV wants to take its cue from veterans' associations that were established in the US after the Vietnam War, when returning soldiers were vilified and ostracized by a public that condemned them.
This is a circumstance unknown elsewhere. Robert Lee, spokesman for the Royal British Legion, a welfare organization responsible for serving the interests of British military personnel and their families, says UK public opinion about the army makes no distinction between World War II and post-war soldiers.
"The needs of the post-war service community is a large part of what we do, given the amount of time that has passed since 1945 and the number of conflicts the UK has been involved with since 1945," Lee said. "In this country there is a very active program of public recognition for sacrifices made in all conflicts, including the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan."
Distinguishing the military from politics
But as opposed to the US, where "support the troops, not the war" campaigns have become common, in Germany there has never been a groundswell of support for soldiers independent of the government's military policy.
This is precisely what the BDV is aiming for. "We are simply calling for respect and recognition for what these people did for the German state, independent of whether you approve politically of this or that specific mission," Timmermann-Levanas said.
But most reactions to the founding of the association have been positive. Comments on internet forums have mainly said that such an organization is long overdue. In fact, there have been German veterans' associations since the Napoleonic wars, but the BDV has a very specific notion of its responsibilities.
"We don't want to be associated with some misunderstood concept of military pride," says Timmermann-Levanas. "I believe the German army has a tradition since 1955 that we can be proud of. We don't know want to go back and honor certain battles or only accept people who have won military honors."
Timmermann-Levanas was also hopeful that cooperation would be organized with veterans' associations abroad, and contact has already been established with equivalent organizations in the US and the Netherlands.
There has been no contact with the Royal British Legion yet. Since there were no German veterans' organizations until now, the Legion has not organized exchange or 'reconciliation' trips with German counterparts since before World War II.
Robert Lee told Deutsche Welle, "We've not yet heard from this organization, but we look forward to hearing from it, and we will consider whatever it is they propose."
Perhaps a new cooperation is also long overdue.
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge