At a high-level meeting of military officials in Bonn, President Horst Köhler honored the German armed forces' 50 years of service to the cause of freedom and security, and called for a debate on the Bundeswehr's future.
German troops are currently playing a key role in Afghanistan
In order to start a public discussion about the Bundeswehr's future, around 400 representatives from the armed forces met in the place where it all began -- the Ermekeil barracks in Bonn.
It was there that, almost exactly 50 years ago, the Bundeswehr was created. Despite Germans' initial postwar ambivalence toward a national armed forces, half a century later, the Bundeswehr is a success story, said German President Horst Köhler.
German President Horst Köhler
"For five decades, the Bundeswehr has been invaluable in its service to the freedom and security of the Federal Republic of Germany," Köhler said.
In his speech before gathered officials marking the Bundeswehr's 40th "commander's congress," Köhler credited the deterrent effect of the German armed forces with having been an important condition for the end of the Cold War.
"Never before had military might achieved so much, so peacefully," he said.
Köhler spoke of the many successes of the Bundeswehr, such as the incorporation of East Germany's National People's Army (NVA) after reunification as well as various foreign missions. In the past 13 years, more than 150,000 German soldiers have served on foreign territory.
"The Bundeswehr has gained much recognition and respect for itself and for Germany during its missions abroad, because our soldiers treat people of other nations and other cultures with respect," Köhler said.
Solid concept needed
But the German president had more than praise on his mind. He appealed to German politicians to grant the Bundeswehr not just a solid financial situation and better equipment for its foreign missions, but also a clear concept for its future role.
"We need an active, not a reactive, foreign, security and defense policy -- one that thinks in terms of its own interests, and not just institutional mechanisms," Köhler said.
But a definition of German interests -- the question of when, and for what reasons, German soldiers should risk their lives overseas and when they should end their missions -- is still lacking.
"The Bundeswehr will be restructured, away from a self-defense force, but toward what? A deployment army? An interventionist force?" Köhler asked. "The German parliament has approved the foreign deployment of German soldiers more than 40 times, but that doesn't appear to resonate much with Germans."
Future of conscription
Bundeswehr recruits during basic training
Since 1957, the Bundeswehr has relied on obligatory military service for civilians, a system that lent the armed forces the ability to mobilize big reserves in a short time. But that's an ability that has largely become obsolete with the end of the East-West conflict. Despite this, Köhler is in favor of maintaining conscription.
"I'm convinced of the merits of military service, and it's my wish that the system will have a future," said Köhler. "It leads many qualified people to the Bundeswehr; it keeps our forces rooted in the nation; and it has a beneficial effect on our common character."
Although many military experts have long demanded that Germany join the ranks of other European nations that have switched to a professional army, the future of military service now appears to be secure in the medium term. Under the new grand coalition, both of the parties making up the next government have for years been firm supporters of military service.