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Germany

Terrorism trumps military taboos in Germany

Germany's highest court issued a ruling allowing the military to be used - in some instances - within the country. The decision is the latest chapter in a debate that stretches back decades into German history.

It was a late afternoon in January 2003 when a dormant debate was revived in Germany: What action is the Bundeswehr, the German military, allowed to take against threats inside Germany? A motor glider was circling just 50 meters (160 feet) above Frankfurt's skyscrapers with the pilot threatening to crash into one. Parts of the city were evacuated and the German Air Force scrambled two Phantom jets to hold the pilot in check. After two dramatic hours, the pilot was convinced to land. No one was hurt.

But the situation raised the question of exactly what action the jet pilots - or any German military units - were authorized to take while confronting a terrorist threat at home. What if, instead of a single motor glider pilot, al Qaeda hijacked a jet from Frankfurt's huge airport and threatened an attack on the city or a nuclear power plant?

A Phantom fighter jet circles a power glider in Frankfurt in January 2003 picture-alliance/dpa

A power glider got Germans talking about confronting terrorist attacks

The government enacted an air safety law that explicitly permitted the military to shoot down passenger jets in cases of hijacking and terrorism. The Federal Constitutional Court, however, struck the law down in 2006, deeming it illegal to weigh the lives of the innocent passengers on the plane against the potential victims on the ground in the event of a terrorist attack. The court further ruled that the Bundeswehr could support police action inside Germany but would be limited to using police techniques and equipment. The use of tanks or fighter jets remained prohibited under the judges' ruling.

This, however, was a point where the two chambers of Germany's highest court disagreed. As a result, a plenary session of the Constitutional Court, which has only convened five times in the country's history, was called. After several years of consideration, it issued its ruling on Friday (17.08.2012) that the military could use its weaponry and equipment within Germany during "states of emergency of catastrophic proportions."

This category is thought to include defense against terrorist attacks from air and sea - situations when the police, who are responsible for security inside the country, do not have the fighter jets, warships or other capabilities necessary to prevent a catastrophe.

Learning from history

While the debate about preventing terrorist attacks is relatively new, the German military's role in operations within the country has been the subject of an on-again, off-again debate for decades. German law strictly separated the roles of the police and the military, making the police responsible for domestic security and the military responsible for defending the country from foreign attack. In the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) the Reichswehr fought against communists, and during the Nazi era, Hitler used the SS paramilitary units against the population to secure power.

In the years after World War Two, Germany's history of misuse of the military meant anyone who considered deploying the Bundeswehr within the country was accused of wanting to open the door to state-sponsored terror. This applied even in the case of having soldiers assist authorities during natural disasters, which the constitution explicitly allows.

Troops can lend a hand

The Bundeswehr received thanks from the German populace when troops left their barracks to help civilians during a major flood of Hamburg in 1962, a winter snow disaster in Schleswig-Holstein in the winter of 1978/1979, and when the Elbe and Danube rivers flooded in 2002. There were, however, serious hostilities among the military and demonstrators when Germany hosted the G8 summit in 2007 and military reconnaissance aircraft and vehicles kept watch over protesters.

Photo: Sören Stache dpa/lno (zu Themenpaket Hochwasser 2002) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Many were happy to have soldiers' help during flooding


Many other countries do not maintain the same separation of police and military. In Italy it is the military's duty to contribute to the protection of a free and democratic society. In France there are some 2,000 soldiers domestically deployed in the country's train stations and tourist attractions to protect the country from terrorist threats. In Great Britain the military played a role in providing security for the London 2012 Olympic Games - including stationing ground-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the city.

In Germany, domestic Bundeswehr missions - even after the court's decision this week - will be extremely limited. Shooting down passenger planes is still prohibited, as is using military methods to prevent a demonstration. The court also made clear that a single government minister cannot order an army deployment by insisting that the entire government be involved in deciding on such a mission.

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