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Germany's new defense minister faces difficult tasks

December 12, 2021

Christine Lambrecht's nomination as Germany's defense minister came as a surprise to many. The left-leaning Social Democrat may find it a challenge to win over the troops.

Christine Lambrecht
Christine Lambrecht took office without much fanfareImage: Mike Schmidt/imago images

It might have felt chilly both inside and outside the Defense Ministry this week when Christine Lambrecht took over the office on a very cold Wednesday evening in Berlin. There were no bouquets of flowers, and her predecessor, Christian Democrat Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, did not even show up.

This frostiness might have been because Lambrecht, previously the head of Germany's Justice Ministry, had been making personnel decisions even before her swearing-in. Several staff members, including a senior state secretary, were asked to clear their offices by Thursday and a civilian, former journalist Christian Thiels, was reinstalled as press spokesman after the post had been occupied by a colonel over the last few years.

"She's got the reputation of a no-nonsense kind of person," Sebastian Schulte, editor-in-chief for security publication Griephan and a close observer of Germany's military matters told DW. "That could hamper her openness towards accepting consultation on the Bundeswehr and its needs."

How right-wing is the Bundeswehr?

Odd choice for some

Lambrecht was certainly a surprise choice to lead the ministry, though she had established a reputation for competence: In May this year, now-former Chancellor Angela Merkel entrusted her with the Family Ministry on top of the Justice Ministry, for the last few months of government, after the incumbent Franziska Giffey was forced to step down by a plagiarism scandal.

"Lambrecht does not have any previous expertise in or contact with the military and defense policy sector," said Ulrike Franke, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "This may not be ideal, it is, however, also not unusual and was also the case for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and [previous CDU Defense Minister] Ursula von der Leyen. One does not necessarily need such a background to be a good minister."

Perhaps this appointment was even more surprising because this time last year, Lambrecht appeared to be tiring of politics: She did not run for re-election to the Bundestag in September's election, ending a 23-year stint in the German parliament, and spoke of returning to her previous profession as a lawyer. "I'm at an age when one can still start something new," the then 55-year-old told Der Spiegel news magazine in November 2020.

Defense expert Franke finds it noteworthy that the SPD would name Lambrecht, a politician with diminished importance in the SPD itself, for the job as defense minister. This, he points out could not be said of her predecessors from the center-left CDU, which always saw the head of the defense ministry as a key post.

In comparison, Lambrecht's appointment looks like an afterthought: Scholz needed someone with government experience who could administer a ministry without fuss. Lambrecht's gender probably didn't hurt either, given Scholz's commitment to balancing the Cabinet. "I worry that the signal is that the SPD will not put a particular emphasis on this ministry and portfolio," said Franke.

Some conflict seems pre-programmed. Reporters were quick to dig up quotes from 2014 when Lambrecht, considered at the left-wing end of the SPD's political spectrum, expressed her opposition to the German military acquiring armed drones. That issue has festered among the Social Democrats for years, with many rank-and-file members bitter about the party's acquiescence to Merkel's plans to procure them in the last coalition. The issue appears now to have been settled in the new coalition contract: the Scholz government has decided to buy armed drones as long as they are only used to protect German soldiers.

Now Lambrecht will likely oversee the procurement of the drones, though perhaps not without protest: "I expect her to emphasize the concerns she and others had/have and thereby justify strong rules on the deployment and use of armed drones," said Franke.

What are her priorities?

In her speech on taking the job, Lambrecht made clear what she wanted to do first: Visit the soldiers. "Conversations during visits to the troops in the next few days are very important to me," she said. "I want to find out what the situation is. I want to find out, especially in view of the foreign missions, what moves soldiers."

The Bundeswehr's foreign missions are a very sensitive issue right now, following what many saw as a catastrophic NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer. The rush to leave stranded many of the Bundeswehr's local Afghan staff, leaving some at the mercy of the Taliban, feeling betrayed.

Other challenges are also still lurking beneath the surface. Germany's armed forces still have reputational issues after a series of scandals involving soldiers with far-right sympathies especially in Germany's Elite Commando Unit (KSK). Lambrecht's predecessor had set in motion a reform of the KSK and disbanded the 2nd company of the KSK, a member of which was found to have stockpiled weapons and collected Nazi paraphernalia while his superiors looked the other way. Lambrecht will certainly be keen to get tough on any such issues.

Among Lambrecht's first tasks are expected to be preparing exit strategies for the Bundeswehr's missions in Iraq and Mali, should the international alliances suddenly decide to withdraw again.

But the bigger problems might be at home. Some military observers think that, regardless of who is defense minister, much will depend on what the new government's priorities are. Schulte said the Bundeswehr's bureaucracy — everything from its procurement procedures to recruitment issues — is troubled by a deep-seated inefficiency that will take years to fix, and which will likely be more than any minister could handle in a four-year legislative period.

So the question is: What is expected of Lambrecht? "Is she able and willing to roll up her sleeves and fix the underlying problems?" asked Schulte. "Or is her job to keep as much trouble under wraps so as to not to disturb the coalition with unwanted attention in an unattractive field? We don't know what her task actually is."

Edited by Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight