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How the military is helping in Germany's flood-hit areas

July 19, 2021

The German military is deploying soldiers to help with relief efforts in the flood regions of western Germany. The country has tight constitutional restrictions on how the Bundeswehr is used within its borders.

Bundeswehr vehicles in flood areas
Military engineering vehicles and personnel carriers have been deployed in the flood-hit areas Image: David Young/dpa/picture alliance

The German army has sent personnel and heavy equipment to parts of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia as cleanup and rescue efforts continue following some of the worst flooding the country has ever recorded.

Over a thousand soldiers and over 200 military vehicles have been deployed in western Germany over the last few days, after widespread flooding left over 160 people dead and countless homes destroyed or damaged.

Military machinery in a flood relief mission in July 2021
Only the military has some of the machinery necessary to clear debris in emergency situationsImage: Ina Fassbender/AFP

The army has sent around 550 soldiers to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, around 300 to Rhineland-Palatinate, and around 100 to Bavaria, the German Defense Ministry said in a statement. One military depot in Merchernich, North Rhine-Westphalia, was itself filled with floodwaters and had to be cleared and protected with sandbags.

The vehicles now in the field include four armored recovery tanks, two engineering tanks (tanks built for construction work), five tank trucks, three bridge-laying tanks, nine all-terrain ambulances, and 14 armored personnel carriers.

In addition, the German military has provided the services of two helicopters, eight firefighting trucks, a satellite communication system, machinery that replaces sections of destroyed road, and field kitchens.

Constitutional safeguards

The German military's activities are carefully circumscribed by the country's Basic Law, or constitution — among other rules, the army can only be deployed inside the borders at the specific request of a civilian authority, or if human safety is in imminent danger.

There are also strict constitutional boundaries to what the Bundeswehr can and cannot do inside the country. In a natural disaster scenario such as a flood, the military cannot take over security duties, or even support the police — only an imminent threat to social order would allow that. 

Bundeswehr vehicles at the scene of flooding in July 2021
Over 200 vehicles and 1,000 soldiers have been deployed in western Germany and BavariaImage: Roberto Pfeil/dpa/picture alliance

These restrictions stem from Germany's history and have become part of the country's political culture, though not without controversy — as military personnel were called in to help track-and-tracing during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic last year, some local authorities in Berlin were criticized for refusing to ask for military help.

The army is currently carrying out 23 operations in the flood regions in answer to official requests for help from local authorities, though a Bundeswehr spokesman told DW that dozens more requests were currently being processed, while the military had also responded to many emergencies over the past few days. It is also expecting to get more such emergency calls as Bavaria and Saxony have also seen flooding in recent days.

Germany floods

The latter do not require official requests: "For example, if someone is trapped inside in a car, and only the Bundeswehr can for example push a truck out of the way with a tank," the spokesman said.

"Anything else, such as clearing debris, clearing roads, re-establishing phone lines, setting up sandbags — that must come via an official request," he added. "This is all standard procedure in military-civilian cooperation, which is coordinated from headquarters in Berlin."

Germany has around 180,000 soldiers in its standing army, plus 120,000 military reservists, who are only deployed on a voluntary basis. These reservists are on call in their local area, which means many of the military personnel currently deployed in uniform are more or less serving their neighbors.

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