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New traditions for the German army

Kay-Alexander Scholz
March 28, 2018

Following recent revelations of far-right extremists within its ranks, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has moved to ensure that the Bundeswehr fighting forces distance themselves from their tainted past.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen
Image: picture alliance/dpa/B. Thissen

On Wednesday, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen signed a new "Traditionserlass" at an army barracks in Hanover. It is a loaded term, and one with no simple English, French or Spanish translation. Essentially, it is an "edict" outlining the "traditions" that a soldier in Germany's Bundeswehr – the country's federal armed forces – can refer to and which he or she cannot. Indeed, the whole seems like a particularly German conundrum.

Then again, such complications come as no surprise considering the crimes committed by the Nazis during World War ll and the support that was given to them by the Wehrmacht, as the army was known at the time. The Nazi-era Wehrmacht was created in 1935 from what had been the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic. Wehrmacht solders swore an oath to Adolf Hitler himself, and to no other authority.

A few weeks ago, Catholic military bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck defended the new Traditionserlass by pointing out that no one can live without a past. He said soldiers must be made aware of the past – as well as the scars that are part of it.

Read more: The German military and its troubled traditions

Existing traditions

The scars Overbeck referred to have yet to completely heal. Certainly not to the degree one would have hoped for after more than seventy years. Put bluntly: It has become clear that a critical assessment of German history cannot simply be viewed as the responsibility of academics. It seems that even today soldiers find some form of strength in their organization's history between the years of 1933 and 1945.

The debate over that past was reignited last spring when the case of Lieutenant Franco A. came to light. The case was also what motivated von der Leyen to push forward with the Traditionserlass. The soldier is accused of having planned a terror attack in such a way as to direct suspicion toward Syrian refugees. When authorities searched his barracks they found painted swastikas and Wehrmacht souvenirs. That prompted officials to conduct searches at all of the Bundeswehr's barracks. As a result, hundreds of items such as Nazi-era helmets, carbines and insignia were found.

Read more: German military investigating right-wing extremism within its ranks

The old spirit lives on

A quick glance into the past may shed light on why such items are collected in the first place. It was, after all, former Wehrmacht officers who organized the Bundeswehr in the 1950s. Military historian Wolfram Wette says those "traditionalists" had no desire to deal critically with the past.

German defense minister shares findings on neo-Nazis in military – DW's Simon Young

He says it was they who created the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht" – that is, they claimed chain of command and innocence when it came to war crimes, deflecting all of the blame to Hitler and his henchmen.

One motivation for that act of historical revisionism was no doubt to exonerate themselves. But another was that it allowed them to maintain the Wehrmacht's popular ideology of the "warrior cult," of brave men willing to fight to the death in order to achieve "final victory," according to Wette.

History still lingers like a shadow over the Bundeswehr in many forms. For instance, to this day, about a dozen barracks in Germany still bear the names of controversial Wehrmacht officers. Defense Minister von der Leyen's strong desire to break with that past has made her extremely unpopular in some parts of the Bundeswehr. 

Nevertheless, she is determined to denazify the army where others have failed. The new Traditionserlass is designed to help her successfully complete that task.

Read more: What draws right-wing extremists to the military?

New reference points

Yet Von der Leyen's is not the first such Traditionserlass. Back in 1982, Defense Minister Hans Apel sought to distance the Bundeswehr from its historical predecessor organization with a similar edict.

The new version picks up where Apel's left off, by drawing a clearer distinction between the Bundeswehr and the history of the Wehrmacht as well as shifting the Bundeswehr's own historical perspective: The dominant historical reference point for the Bundeswehr will now be its own history, according to a press release from the Ministry of Defense.

The statement, however, goes on to say that the Traditionserlass will also allow the freedom to refer to the historical heritage of all epochs of German military history as long as these serve as purposeful examples and conform with the values upon which the Bundeswehr was founded.

Read more: German army shaped by anti-Nazi legacy

One historical chapter that was discussed during the creation of the new Traditionserlass was that of the NVA, the armed forces of former East Germany (GDR). During German reunification, a number of NVA bases and personnel were integrated into the Bundeswehr. Now critics say the NVA has no place in the history of the Bundeswehr because it served a dictatorship. The edict makes exceptions in this instance as well. Individual NVA personnel can be singled out as exemplary, for instance those who played a role in German reunification.

How binding is the new edict?

As authoritative as the word "edict" may sound, no one knows what it really means in the Bundeswehr. That goes firstly for its implementation. "The guidelines for understanding and maintaining traditions," as the Traditionserlass says, were widely discussed among researchers, military members, foundations, media outlets, associations and parliamentarians.

The Ministry of Defense praised the "dynamic" feedback process that took place after discussions were concluded and in which it received much input and commentary after the release of the first draft of the edict. That input was then used to help the Ministry edit the original draft before presenting its final Traditionserlass.

Read moreShould Germany keep its Nazi relics to teach young people about the Holocaust?

Yet, even though the Traditionserlass is valid, it is not a law but rather a "document for instruction." That means it is designed to provide orientation, support and aid in everyday life in the Bundeswehr. It helps to that end by clearly defining how soldiers and officers are to deal with history. It will be attached to staff regulations as an annex.

The defense minister also wants to deal with the problem of barracks' names. At the same time she signs the Traditionserlass, the name of the barracks where she will do so will also be changed. Until today, the Hanover barracks had been named after a Prussian World War l general (there was no German army before 1919) and an occupied French city: Emmich-Cambrai Barracks. Now it will be known as Master Sergeant Langenstein Barracks. Tobias Langenstein was killed in a Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan in 2011.