Germany debates: Who counts as a veteran? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.05.2012
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Germany debates: Who counts as a veteran?

Wherever there is war, there are veterans. German soldiers returning from Afghanistan regard themselves as such, but official policies on veteran support are still in the early stages in Germany.

A young man hands out ribbons to passersby on a street in Ukraine, to be pinned on their coats for the military parade on May 9. Traditionally, the states of the former Soviet Union commemorate the end of World War II and the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. All eyes are on the few elderly war veterans in attendance, men decked out in medals with tears in their eyes as tanks rumble by.

In Ukraine - as in many other countries - war veterans can be sure of recognition and special privileges.

"How do German war veterans commemorate the end of the war?" a young Ukrainian asks.

A break with tradition

In Germany, traditions celebrating war veterans came to an abrupt end in 1945. The official Heroes' Remembrance Day that honored members of the German Armed Forces, the Wehrmacht, disappeared along with the Nazis. In the Federal Republic of Germany, commemoration focussed on those killed during World Wars I and II; there were programs for war invalids and dignified memorials and gravesites for fallen soldiers.

Veterans are honored at a parade in Moscow

Veterans are honored at a parade in Moscow

After the Wehrmacht was disbanded, there were no armed forces at all in Germany for a decade, and veterans' associations were forbidden. The still extant - and active - Bundeswehr was created in 1955, but no new veterans' traditions emerged during the Cold War era.

Recent years have seen a gradual shift in attitudes toward veterans as the number of German soldiers sent on missions abroad has grown. An estimated 300,000 are deployed in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa.

Reviving veteranship

Now that Germany's army is undertaking missions, "it's clear that Germany once again has veterans of the Bundeswehr. And I stand behind this concept," said Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere in September 2011 in parliament. With his speech, the concept used scarcely for decades re-entered the vocabulary of German politicians.

"As in other nations, I think that we should also talk about our veterans," de Maiziere added.

German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere speaks at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. (Foto:Michael Sohn/AP/dapd)

Thomas de Maiziere: It's time for an open dialogue on veterans

The impetus came from the soldiers - sometimes returning home from tours abroad with injuries or trauma - themselves. Some began to refer to themselves as veterans. In 2010, they founded a special interest group, the Association of German Veterans.

Critics say that the term remains overshadowed by its history in Germany and should not be used.

Who is a veteran?

Now a discussion is raging about who can be considered a veteran - all experienced and former members of Germany's Bundeswehr? Just the soldiers who undertook missions abroad? Or solely those who took part in battle?

The Association of German Veterans has already defined the concept as follows: all members of the Bundeswehr who undertook missions in other countries.

Germany's defense minister is listening to troops and to the debate in parliament. For him, it is important not to divide former members of the armed forces into soldiers "with and without veteran status." Many soldiers believe that service at home during the Cold War should be honored just as much as battle missions in Afghanistan. They also sense that the camaraderie of the military could be in danger if a too narrow definition is adopted.

It is clear that officially designating some as veterans represents a sensitive issue.

A member of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan

Should only those who have served abroad be counted as veterans?

Federal policy expected

A number of awards have been created in recent years for Bundeswehr soldiers, including a Cross of Honor and the German Armed Forces Service Medal. But many soldiers view it as a shortfall that there are so few gestures of recognition for their service outside of official military distinctions. Defense Minister de Maiziere also sees this as a deficit.

"It is time that we have an open and objective discussion about our policy on veterans. This is new - but only for Germany," the minister wrote in a preliminary essay on the subject.

Politicians are considering a nationwide holiday that would honor veterans - a suggestion that received strong support from the influential Association of the German Armed Forces, which counts 200,000 members.

"All women and men in service are making a sacrifice for Germany. It is high time to honor their work as a society," said the association's head, Uwe Köpsel.

An alternative suggestion also envisages the honoring of all civil workers like rescue workers, police officers or development aid workers. The Green Party and the Association of German Reservists back this broader conception.

The defense minister would also like to see special facilities created for veterans or possibly even the appointment of a minister to handle veteran affairs. But de Maiziere does not consider it necessary to increase the health care offerings available to former members of the military - as is customary in the Anglo-American world. He says the services available to active and former soldiers in Germany are already at a high level.

Author: Nina Werkhäuser / db
Neil King