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A smaller army with greater tasks

Nina Werkhäuser / atSeptember 21, 2015

In 1990, the winners of the Second World War feared that a reunified Germany could regain military might. 25 years later, nobody is scared of the Bundeswehr. On the contrary, some are concerned by its weakness.

Deutschland Bundeswehr Gelöbnis Bendlerblock Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

It was the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who warned most loudly against German reunification in 1990. Her image of Germany had been shaped by two world wars, and she used the direct tones for which she was renowned for expressing her concern that Germany could once again dominate Europe. "You Germans don't want to anchor Germany in Europe. You want the rest of Europe to be anchored in Germany" is how she expressed her misgivings in an interview with the German weekly Spiegel magazine in 1993. She argued that if Germany were to become bigger and more important economically than Britain and France in one blow then Europe would lose its balance.

The end of the National People's Army

These doubts, which the French government shared, also took the military potential of the two German states into account. There were 585,000 soldiers in the Bundeswehr of the Federal Republic of Germany and 90,000 in that of the former GDR, the National People's Army, which had been downsized considerably. The West German government in Bonn strongly distrusted the SED's army and had not been prepared to integrate the East German "brothers in arms" into the Bundeswehr. The GDR's army was largely dissolved on October 3rd, 1990, with Bundeswehr officers taking command of the military in Germany's eastern states. Only a small proportion of the former GDR's soldiers joined the Bundeswehr after passing an entrance exam. Reunification put an end to the career of most generals, admirals and high-ranking officers of the GDR.

They ended up in a museum: uniforms of GDR's National Army and the Police
They ended up in a museum: uniforms of GDR's National Army and the PoliceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Förster

The Bundeswehr goes in a new direction

Since Reunification, the Bundeswehr has been downsized to 180,000 soldiers. Thousands of tanks that had been deployed to defend West Germany against potential attack from the East were scrapped. Germany was surrounded by friends and the Bundeswehr found itself in a new strategical environment - instead of confrontation between two blocs, it had to deal with smaller international conflicts such as the Gulf War and the Balkan wars.

It was just a question of time before Germany was asked to participate in "out of area" military operations. But because the Bundeswehr had been conceived as an army of defense only, its first foreign missions triggered controversy and even landed with Germany's highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court. In 1994, it declared that the Bundeswehr could participate in international missions under the auspices of organizations such as the UN or NATO on the condition that the Bundestag approved. The Bundeswehr was thus able to embark on a new path.

Bundeswehr in Afghanistan
Bundeswehr in AfghanistanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

German army plays a more active role

In the following years, Germany gradually gave up its hesitant stance and started to participate more actively in international missions in the Balkans, Africa and Afghanistan. Claudia Major from the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs says that this would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. The army "has made a remarkable development" she points out, adding that none of Germany's neighbors see it as a threat today. Instead, they expect it to be a partner that is willing to take an active part in missions, to invest in the military and to be reliable. Nonetheless, she says that there is still plenty of skepticism about using military means among the German population. "History has been a good teacher to Germany."

High expectations from allies

Germany's allies have begun to show impatience towards the fact that it tends to play a backseat role in military missions. "Today, I am less worried about German power than about German inactivity," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski put it succinctly in 2011. This is truer today than ever when it comes to EU defense policy, neighbors such as Poland are quick to point out. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Europe's eastern states have made it clear that they would like a strong German army that is not scared of taking responsibility for defending its allies.

Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen with German soldiers who took part in NATO maneuvers in Poland in June 2015
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen with German soldiers who took part in NATO maneuvers in Poland in June 2015Image: S. Gallup/Getty Images

For its part, Germany's western neighbor France would like the German army to become more involved in Africa. "France expects Germany to take part in combat missions in Africa and the Middle East," explains the political expert Hans Stark, who teaches at the Sorbonne and has worked on Franco-German relations for over 30 years. This would involve "troops on the ground and not only peacekeeping". He adds that the French do not see the German army as a threat particularly because they continue to consider their own army to be strong. Instead, they are more likely to pinpoint the discrepancy between Germany's economic potential and its military performance. In France, he says, some people are "disappointed" that such a powerful country as Germany refuses to take more responsibility regarding security and defense policy. "From the French point of view, Germany is not doing enough in NATO or the EU."

Too tight to lead?

What about the US government's view of German security policy 25 years after Reunification? Some praise the "long way" that the army has taken from one of defense during the Cold War to one that takes active part in operations today. Experts in Washington say that a glance at recent history shows that this was not so self-explanatory. There is much talk of Germany's "leadership" role. "There is often more credibility if Germany is part of a coalition or multilateral operation," says Sudha David Wilp, a specialist for trans-Atlantic relations at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "Germany simply has a good standing in many countries in the world."

Bundeswehr's transport aircraft Transall from the 1960s
Bundeswehr's transport aircraft Transall from the 1960sImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt

However, leadership comes at a price, and US Defense Minister Ashton Carter suggested that Germany should increase its military expenditure when he visited Berlin in June. Germany spends 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense - that's still a long way from NATO's 2 percent target. The Bundeswehr has not improved its reputation with its antiquated planes, helicopters in need of maintenance and guns that do not shoot well. Its allies do not think that the German army currently has the right equipment to carry its fair share of the burden.

Not on the sidelines

The increase in international crises and growing expectations from Germany's allies have led Germany to re-define its global role. It met with harsh reactions when it refused to take part in a military operation in Libya in 2011, showing that "staying out" was no longer an option.

Now the government has made it clear that Germany does not want to remain on the sidelines but wants to take more responsibility in the international arena. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have proven this through their actions regarding the Ukraine crisis - not only in diplomatic terms but also militarily by helping to strengthen NATO's position in eastern Europe. Exactly 25 years after German Reunification, Germany has a decisive say in foreign affairs but is still searching for the role that the Bundeswehr can and should play.