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Germany debates 'war ready' Bundeswehr

November 15, 2023

The German government has said it is committed to making the Bundeswehr "war ready." It's less clear how committed the German public is to that goal.

Bundeswehr recruits swearing their oath
Boosting recruitment is one of the many challenges facing the BundeswehrImage: Matthias Balk/dpa/picture alliance

Like it or not, Germany's armed forces are getting ready to fight. That has been the message from Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and the government's broader push in response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In the 21 months since the start of the invasion, officials have been pressed to detail what "Zeitenwende" — the "epochal tectonic shift" referenced by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in an open editorial in late 2022 — really means and if Germany can see it through. The German military, the Bundeswehr, had been an afterthought for decades.

"Germany needs a Bundeswehr that can fight and that is operational and capable," Pistorius, a Social Democrat who came to office only this year, said last week at a two-day annual ministry conference in Berlin. "Germany must be able to defend itself because war is back in Europe."

To do so, the Bundeswehr must be "war ready again," he added. The term, "war ready" ("Kriegstüchtig") is one he has repeated often, and it makes its way into a new strategy document — the first of its kind since 2011. Among the changes is a shift away from faraway missions that have ended poorly, such as those in Afghanistan and Mali, and a new focus on defending the country and NATO territory.

A 'psychological' shift

Pistorius has caught some political flak for his unapologetic use of no-nonsense rhetoric when it comes to German military power. Members of his own party have distanced themselves from his choice of words, and opposition figures want to distinguish between defensive capabilities and warmongering.

European security: Is Germany fit for combat?

"We think it's really good that the Bundeswehr is finally being strengthened. But we absolutely do not share the government's goal of being ready and able to go to war," Markus Söder, the leader of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and state premier of Bavaria, told reporters on Monday.

The rhetorical disagreement reveals just how uncomfortable Germany is with matters of military might.

Pistorius himself said that "war is ugly; no one wants war" in an interview with public broadcaster ARD on Sunday. "But if we want to avoid war," he said, "we have to show to any potential aggressor that we are able to defend ourselves."

He called for a long-term change in German society's mindset to meet a "real, albeit abstract, threat."

In looking to make the Bundeswehr strong again, as he told conference-goers last week, Pistorius was referring to the Cold War years, when conscription and a large, conventional force made then-West Germany an important part of US war plans against the Soviet Union.

For some, however, the word "again" could also stir memories of the last time Germany posed a military threat: the Nazi era, when German forces swiftly occupied Europe and imposed colonial rule on its eastern neighbors, resulting in the Holocaust.

Russian President Vladimir Putin evoked the events of World War II in his bid to justify occupying Ukraine as a sort of inverted replay of history. This has been a shock to Germany's understanding of its security realities.

"It was a turning point, psychologically, for Germany and for Germans who had always regarded that the main lesson of the Second World War was not to be involved in military action," John Kampfner, a British journalist who has covered Germany for decades, told DW.

From that perspective, the public views "warfare as a bad in itself, rather than the defense of democracy," he added.

Army recruitment levels low

Pistorius dismissed a poll from earlier this year that suggested that very few Germans, just 5%, would willingly defend the country if attacked. The situation is too hypothetical to gauge actual sentiment, he told ARD.

Eurobarometer polling shows high public "trust" in the Bundeswehr, both before and since the war in Ukraine. Two-thirds to three-quarters of respondents have regularly supported this position.

Why Germany's military is in a bad state, and what's being done to fix it

Those figures, however, have not translated into a fresh boost in recruitment. Chances are low that the Bundeswehr can achieve its 2031 goal of fielding around 203,000 troops from a current level of about 183,000, according to a report by Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner tasked with scrutinising the military.

Published in March this year, her report noted a "slight decline" in recruits in 2022 over the previous year. Of those who did join in 2022, at least one-fifth of them quit within six months — well above the desired maximum dropout rate of 15%.

New military culture

"Enlightened," not pacifist, is how Ulrike Franke describes the way Germany has long understood its military mindset. The senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations said German society still has a way to go to embrace its military.

"Any topic regarding the military, defense, security was just seen as something we didn't really want to talk about and didn't really need to talk about," she told DW. "This was clearly wrong."

Lawmakers who focus on defense hope to change that sentiment. Some of them are now making the case for establishing a Veterans' Day, similar to the statutory holiday in many other countries, to honor military service members past and present.

"I expressly welcome such a day of remembrance that honors the achievements of all former soldiers, fallen soldiers and soldiers who died in the line of duty," Florian Hahn, a CSU parliamentarian, wrote last month in the newspaper for the German Cultural Council. "[It] would give us the opportunity to bring society and the Bundeswehr even closer together."

Such remembrance, however, would run headlong into Germany's other memory culture, which grapples with the crimes against humanity its armed forces committed in Germany's name during World War II.

That kind of collective moral processing takes time, which Germany may not have the luxury of. The newfound emphasis on boosting the country's own defenses dovetails with supporting those of Ukraine against Russia. That presents Germans with the challenge of quickly getting "used to this new normal," Franke said.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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