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Jews in the Bundeswehr

DW staff (jb)January 7, 2007

Even though Jews have been mostly exempted from serving in the German military for historical reasons, an increasing number are opting to do so.

An estimated 200 Jews serve in the BundeswehrImage: AP

There are no rabbis in the German military and kosher food is never served. But that doesn't matter to recent young recruits such as Norbert Kagarlitzkij who said he is pretty relaxed about being Jewish -- and about serving in the German army.

"It is just part of the deal of being a young German," he said. "Germans have to go to the army for a while or do alternative community service. So should we."

More than 60 years after the Holocaust, it still comes as a surprise to many to hear that German Jews serve in the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. After the war, the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the defense ministry made a deal that exempted Jews up to the third generation of Holocaust victims, from serving in the military. But these days, there are an estimated 200 Jews serving in the 250,000-strong German military. And many say that number is growing.

A matter of duty

Before the Nazis, many Jews had served in the German army -- in World War I, for example. The Bundeswehr was founded in 1955. For decades afterward, most Jewish Germans would not have dreamed of serving in the military.

Michael Fürst was one of the first to do so even though two of his grandparents were killed by the Nazis. He said he felt it was his duty and should be seen as something normal.

"In 1966, in Jewish circles, the Bundeswehr was not viewed as a new army but as the heir and successor of the army that took part in killing the Jews," he said. "I didn't have to join the Bundeswehr. I could have requested an exemption which was always granted to people whose families had been persecuted by the Nazi regime."

The so-called normality

60 Jahre Bundeswehr Vereidigung der ersten Soldaten der neuen Bundeswehr
Many equated the early Bundeswehr with the NazisImage: dpa

More than 200,000 Jews now live in Germany. Most of them are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Many of these immigrants, in particular, seem to have fewer qualms about serving in the German army as do the third and fourth generation of German Jews.

"There is a lot of talk about so-called normality," said Stephan Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "That we are talking about this subject is a sign of it. In fact, many young men and women in the Jewish community, especially among immigrant families, seriously consider careers in the armed forces. Obviously, the rules and regulations have to change with the times."

Putting one's foot in it

Bundeswehreinsatz im Kongo Symbolbild
The German army is on peacekeeping missions around the worldImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Most Jews that join the German army say they haven't had a hard time fitting in, either.

"They are curious about what it's like to be a Jew," Kagarlizkij said of his non-Jewish counterparts. "Most of the people I have met in the Bundeswehr had never had anything to do with Jews."

Rabbi Walter Homolka, an army reserve officer who advises the armed forces, said that the Germany military is almost too afraid of offending Jews.

"One source of tension is that the Bundeswehr is too worried about doing something wrong," Homolka said. "Our task, as Jews, is to point out to the army where it should be careful. But the level of concern needs to be lowered... the constant fear of putting one's foot in it."

A democratic army

Students at Berlin's liberal rabbinical seminary, founded in 1999, have to do a brief internship with a military. Most go to the US Army, but some now choose the Bundeswehr and say they are pleased with their choice.

"It is a democratic army, an army that is very concerned about its image, about what it does, and what it is," said Konstantin Pal, who spent a month with the German Navy.

He added that few institutions provide such a good opportunity for anyone seeking integration into German society.

"In the Bundeswehr, the most important thing is camaraderie -- not whether you go to church every Sunday or to the synagogue on Friday evening," he said. "What counts is doing your job well."

Last November, an association of Jewish soldiers was founded. Its aim is to honor the Jews who fell in the World War I fighting for Germany -- and to provide a forum for present-day German Jewish soldiers.

"It is something new," said Kramer of the Central Council of Jews. "We welcome the establishment of such an organization in principle -- but of course it should not mean that a Jewish group within the Bundeswehr expects any special privileges."