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German Veterans' Day to recognize service to the country

April 25, 2024

Starting this year, June 15 will be set aside as Germany's annual Veterans' Day to commemorate former armed forces personnel. The federal parliament approved the motion on Thursday with a large majority.

Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan
Bundeswehr soldiers have been deployed abroad in UN and NATO missions for 25 yearsImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Johannes Arlt is a former soldier and was deployed abroad seven times from 2014 to 2019. Arlt, who is now a lawmaker for the ruling center-left Social Democrats (SPD), said he has experienced firsthand the lack of recognition the Bundeswehr gets in German society.

There is praise for soldiers who help at home, for example during flood disasters, said Arlt, but many people don't really care about their deployment abroad. "There was little empathy. For a long time, there seemed to be scant interest in these people," he said.

Arlt aims to change that. Together with lawmakers from his coalition partners, the Greens and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), and also the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union(CDU/CSU) opposition bloc, he developed a concept for a Veterans' Day, which the Bundestag approved on April 25.

Every year on June 15, veterans will now be commemorated. And on May 15, one month earlier, there is to be a central celebration in Berlin, as well as numerous events throughout Germany.

Johannes Arlt speaking at the podium in the Bundestag
SPD lawmaker Johannes Arlt, a former soldier, spearheaded the parliamentary move to establish a German Veterans' DayImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

However, the lawmakers want to see more than the introduction of a new public holiday. They are also calling on the federal government to ensure better rehabilitation for traumatized soldiers, and also to address the burdens on their families. Arlt said that 80% of the families of traumatized soldiers also suffer psychological stress.

Veterans like former Sergeant Major Andreas Egger said they've been waiting a long time for such an initiative from politicians.

"It is actually the case that society has not been able to recognize this at all in recent years because there has never been a signal from politicians that our Bundeswehr is entrusted with special missions abroad and with special tasks," the former soldier told German public broadcaster ARD. "If politicians don't give this message, then society can't appreciate what we do."

Not a new idea

The idea to introduce a special day to commemorate former soldiers is not entirely new: 12 years ago, then Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere (CDU) spoke out in favor of it. But hardly anyone wanted to follow his lead back then.

Now things are different, as CDU lawmaker Kerstin Vieregge said — since Russia's attack on Ukraine, the number of people paying more attention to the Bundeswehr has increased.

Last September, the high-profile Invictus Games were held in Dusseldorf in the presence of Defense Minister Boris Pistorius. The Invictus Games are an international multi-sport event, first staged in 2014, for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women and veterans.

Germany's armed forces set to get overhaul

The Bundeswehr has been part of NATO and UN missions for 25 years, but Vieregge has observed a recent change following the end of the mission in Afghanistan in 2021. German soldiers were deployed there for almost 20 years as a combat and training force and 59 of them lost their lives.

"After the end of the Bundeswehr's deployment in Afghanistan, there was a movement among veterans who asked themselves — 'What did that do for us and how does society treat us soldiers who served there?'" she said.

10 million veterans in Germany

The lawmakers put the number of veterans in Germany at 10 million, due in part to the very open definition of who can call themselves a veteran. Those behind the Veterans' Day initiative have included all soldiers who served for at least six months and were honorably discharged.

This also includes those members of the former National People's Army (NVA), the military of former communist East Germany, who were incorporated into the Bundeswehr after German reunification in 1990.

Supporters of the Veterans' Day initiative are keen to stress that they do not intend to glorify the military. "We don't want to turn soldiers into national heroes. And we're not thinking of a central military cemetery either," explained Green Party lawmaker Merle Spellerberg.

Veteran Andreas Eggert said he's not interested in hero worship either. "For me personally, Veterans' Day means recognition, appreciation of our profession, and, above all, being seen. In other words, that people see the special nature of this profession in our society," he said.

International commemoration tradition

Military cemeteries exist elsewhere, for example, the famous Arlington National Cemetery on the outskirts of the US capital, Washington D.C. In the US, Veterans' Day has long been observed on November 11, the day of the armistice that ended World War I. In the UK, November 11 is known as Remembrance Day, which is observed by most Commonwealth countries. In Belgium and France, November 11 is also a public holiday and day of remembrance.

In Germany, June 15 was chosen primarily at the request of veterans' associations. They have argued that more people may be ready to participate in remembrance activities in the summer when the weather tends to be good.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau