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Looking at Germany's role in the Vietnam War 50 years later

Rodion Ebbighausen
January 27, 2023

Fifty years ago, the Paris Peace Accords led to the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. DW looks at how Germany's support for Vietnam during the war was divided by east and west.

A black and white photo of US helicopters and soldiers in Vietnam
The United States military began its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973Image: HORST FAAS/AP/picture alliance

North and south, east and west — the history of Germany's relationship with Vietnam is perhaps best symbolized by the four points.

Starting in 1954, and during the Vietnam War, Vietnam was split into the communist North and the US-supported South. In 1949, in the aftermath of World War II, Germany was also divided along these lines, into east and west. 

"Through geographical separation, brothers and sisters became class enemies, while strangers became allies," writes Andreas Margara in his recently published book "Geteiltes Land, geteiltes Leid" ("Divided Land, Divided Sorrow"), which reviews the history of German-Vietnamese relations.

Both Germany and Vietnam were on the front lines of the Cold War. But in Vietnam, the Cold War became an inferno. The US military dropped napalm and millions of tons of bombs on the country between 1955 and 1975.

Germany's perceptions of the Vietnam War and the suffering of the Vietnamese people was also divided by east and west, with each side actively supporting their respective ideological partners.

West Germany's humanitarian engagement 

"The [West German] federal government's Indochina policy did not follow any independent foreign policy conception but leaned unreservedly on the policy of its US guarantor power," Margara writes in his book.

However, this solidarity had its limits.

When US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara declared in 1965 that "Berlin will be defended on the Mekong River" and US President Lyndon Johnson called for German soldiers to be sent to Vietnam, West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard felt compelled to act. However, rather than sending soldiers, Erhard promised humanitarian support. His face-saving slogan: "Medicine instead of ammunition."

Particularly well-known was the hospital ship Helgoland, which was anchored off the coast near the South Vietnamese cities of Saigon and Danang for a total of six years and treated about 170,000 Vietnamese civilians.

A black and white photo of a hospital ship
The West German hospital ship Helgoland moored in Danang in 1970Image: Sgt. R. Provencal, U.S. Marine Corps

But there were other lesser-known initiatives, such as the establishment of a medical school in the central Vietnamese city of Hue by Freiburg University, the Catholic mission hospital in Kon Tum, and medical bases in An Hoa, Hoi An and Danang, all in southern Vietnamese territory.

Humanitarian aid sponsored by the German government was largely rejected by Germany's reactionary  student movement of 1968. The students compared the barbarity of the Vietnam War to the crimes of Nazi Germany.

In this way, the younger generation of Germans separated themselves from the older generation, which included perpetrators of, and participants in, the Nazi regime.

According to Margara, the Vietnam War was a "catalyst" for social upheavals in West Germany in the 1960s and for the country's confrontation with its own history.

A black and white photo of German anti-war protesters in 1968
In 1968, German students led anti-war protestsImage: Philippe Gras/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

East Germany's 'brother'

For East Germany, the Vietnam War was an opportunity to improve its own foreign policy profile within the Soviet-dominated bloc and to confront the "imperialist aggressor," the US.

East Germany compared itself to North Vietnam and official slogans there, during the war, said things like "Solidarity with Vietnam!" and "Solidarity helps victory!"

GDR propaganda posters reading 'Solidarity helps victory'
GDR propaganda posters reading 'Solidarity helps victory' seen at a museum in SaigonImage: Christiane Oelrich/dpa/picture alliance

As in West Germany, state interests were mixed with the sincere willingness of the population to provide aid.

"Aid to Vietnam was both state doctrine and a heartfelt cause," Margara writes.

East Germany's involvement was extensive and included financial aid, medical and humanitarian aid, schooling as well as specialized training and studies for North Vietnamese cadres.

Major campaigns were also successful, such as 1968's "Blood for Vietnam" campaign, in which 50,000 trade unionists alone donated blood.

East Germany also provided more tangible assistance, such as the training of North Vietnamese intelligence and in 1967, the national budget began including military supplies to North Vietnam, according to Margara.

A German poster with Vietnamese farmers and oxen
A GDR poster from 1975: 'We help the farmers of Vietnam'Image: akg-images/picture alliance

Vietnamese in Germany, postwar

The Paris Agreement of 1973 sealed the US' withdrawal from Vietnam, but not the end of the war, which lasted until 1975. It ended with the victory of the North over the South. But the history of German-Vietnamese relations did not end there.

After the end of the Vietnam war, Vietnamese contract workers in East Germany soon put purported international solidarity to the test.

East Germans hoped for an economic upswing from immigrant Vietnamese contract workers but conflicts soon arose. The workers in Germany often saw the Vietnamese as competitors.

In West Germany, it was mainly the refugees known as "boat people" who made headlines. The phrase referred to Vietnamese who fled communist repression and poverty across the South China Sea after the end of the war.

Private initiatives, such as the ship Cap Anamur, rescued tens of thousands of boat people, who then found a new home in West Germany.

People holding a sign reading thank you Germany
Vietnamese immigrants in Germany at event in 2018 remembering the founder of Cap Anamur, Rupert NeudeckImage: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

"In Vietnam, the GDR [East Germany] still has a good reputation, from which the reunified Germany also benefits," Margara told DW.

"On the other hand, the Vietnamese are also impressed by the economic power that is based primarily in western Germany."

However, Vietnam's current one-party government is less pleased that Vietnamese dissidents in today's Germany are allowed to freely criticize conditions in their homeland.

Vets return to Vietnam

This article was translated from German.

Edited by: Alex Berry

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