How Two Armies Became One | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 04.10.2005
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How Two Armies Became One

The reunification of Germany in 1990 not only meant the unity of political entities. The two German armies, once prepared to shoot at each other, had to put mistrust aside and be combined smoothly into one unit.

All of sudden, German soldiers were saluting just one flag

All of sudden, German soldiers were saluting just one flag

The German army, the Bundeswehr, has been marking its 50th anniversary this year with numerous ceremonies. Fifteen years ago it swallowed up the East German combat forces, the National People's Army (NVA), when the official reunification of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) took effect. The two armies had different traditions, different mentalities and different leadership styles. The NVA soldiers would have to go through a more difficult transition than the majority of East Germans.

"On October 2nd, the (East German) soldiers went into their barracks in NVA uniforms and on the next morning they came out in olive green NATO colors," remembered Jörg Schönbohm, who was at that time the head of the Bundeswehr's eastern command. "The GDR flag was lowered, the flag of the Federal Republic raised. The mood was subdued, marked by waiting, and by mistrust."

Warschauer Pakt

One time Warsaw Pact members. In 1990, the NVA ceased to exist and became part of the Bundeswehr, a NATO member

In an instant, the size of the Bundeswehr increased by 90,000 soldiers. Not everyone in the former Warsaw Pact member wanted to see the immediate dissolution of the army but the government in Bonn, the capital at that time, said there was no chance that two armies would stand side-by-side or that there would even be an NVA department within the Defense Ministry.

East Germany left marks on the NVA

Fifty-thousand former East German soldiers decided that they had an opportunity to further their careers in the Bundeswehr and signed on for two years. There would be exceptions as to who could become Bundeswehr soldiers. Almost all high-ranking officers were excluded from continuing their work in the military.

NVA-Soldaten im Manöver

NVA members on maneuver

"The SED (the East Germany Coimmunist party) dictatorship has left its mark," stressed then Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg, pointing out that most generals and admirals had been members of the SED. They would be unable to impart the Bundeswehr's motto of inner leadership and the citizen in uniform. The highest officers had simply been molded by the SED.

"The command-giving tactic had to be replaced by the assignment-giving tactic. (...) This was something that most NVA officers learned with great effort," said Gunnar Digutsch, NVA expert from the University of Hanover.

Not only were commissioned NVA officers finding it difficult in the Bundeswehr. Already after one year, three-quarters of those who resigned to serve their new army had quit. The "Army of Unity" was sold to the public as a success, but it was mostly young recruits who had not yet been indoctrinated into the NVA ideology, who mentally accepted unity.

The army as an example of dialogue

The NVA had to be completely made over. Military barracks were renovated or razed to the ground. Some 1.3 million small arms, ammunition and military machinery were sold, passed along to another country, or simply scrapped. New units were created; a mix of West German and East Germans found themselves thrown together in companies, battalions and divisions. Recruits from Eisenach (in the East) met those from Koblenz (in the West), and a dialogue was started at the most basic level.

"The Bundeswehr was a kind of contact point for young people," said Digutsch.

Volkstrauertag: Niederlegung eines Kranzes auf einem jüdischen Friedhof in Berlin

Bundeswehr soldiers laying a wreath in memory of all who were killed in wars

Yet, while young people were exchanging experiences at the bottom, those at the top faced large challenges, most of all the reduction of the army from 600,000 to 370,000 soldiers. It was part of the peace dividend of reunification. That meant uprooting soldiers and their families around Germany in what were already turbulent times. By the mid-90's, the process was completed and many former NVA soldiers, due to their long-time military experience, found employment with industrial companies.

Future for young Easterners Fifteen years after the merger of the Bundeswehr with the NVA, the newest recruits from both halves of the country are less curious about just how much effort it took to remold the army. Of more interest is the fact that, like on the private labor market, soldiers are paid less in the East than in the West. Nevertheless, more and more young men and women from the East are joining the Bundeswehr.

"We (the army) have a relative high amount of recruits coming from the East. These ambitious young officers are of course involved in the missions abroad," said Digutsch. "I am certain that of these young people, a few will make it up into the upper ranks."

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