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Germany's new defense minister seeks to win over military

July 24, 2019

She has only been in the role one week. Now Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is set to take her official oath as defense minister in front of the Bundestag. Germany's soldiers, as ever, remain skeptical.

Berlin | Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stands by soldiers at a welcome ceremony
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Germany's new defense minister is making an effort to woo the country's armed forces. In a command issued to the troops, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that "Germany can rely on you!" She followed that up by the assurance that they, too, could count on her.

Kramp-Karrenbauer reiterated these sentiments when she addressed 400 recruits in Berlin on July 20 — the 75th anniversary of the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler.

Earning the Bundeswehr's trust

But it will take a while until Kramp-Karrenbauer, who also serves as leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), will have earned the troops' respect and trust. Nariman Hammouti-Reinke, an ensign with Germany's navy, tells DW: "It will not be easy for her."

Nariman Hammouti-Reinke
Hammouti-Reinke says the job won't be easy for Germany's new defense ministerImage: picture-alliance

Hammouti-Reinke is based near Bremen, and also heads the association Deutscher.Soldat, which aims to increase diversity within the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces. She says the troops "are easily offended, so the minister will have to chose her words carefully."

The Bundeswehr has been deeply disappointed with previous defense ministers, says Hammouti-Reinke. Kramp-Karrenbauer's predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, in 2017 accused the military of failing to combat right-wing extremists among its ranks. For this reason, Kramp-Karrenbauer quickly and unequivocally distanced herself from von der Leyen's remarks. In Germany's weekly Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, she made it clear that "we are not suspicious of every soldier."

Read more: Potential pitfalls for Germany's new defense minister

Listen and learn

When Hammouti-Reinke learned last week that Kramp-Karrenbauer would replace von der Leyen — the new president of the European Commission — as Germany's defense minister, she thought it was a joke. "I had to processes that for a while," she says. Many soldiers had hoped for someone with an affinity for the armed forces, such as Peter Tauber, the CDU's former general secretary, who once served in the armed forces and is a reserve captain.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel sitting in Berlin
Kramp-Karrenbauer replaces von der Leyen (center), who took over the EU's top jobImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Yuqi

But Carlo Masala, a professor of international politics at the Bundeswehr University Munich, says it is "complete nonsense" to expect defense ministers to have served in the army. He says that "ministers do not need such experience" and that Kramp-Karrenbauer can "rely on the expertise of the armed forces; so she will have to listen and learn."

Read more: German military rejects dozens of candidates over extremist links

Too much responsibility?

Masala says Kramp-Karrenbauer's words have so far made a good impression on the troops. Now, he says, "action must follow. A proper signal would be to visit the troops in person not just for nice photo ops but for genuine discussions." And, he says, she should make efforts to upgrade the armed forces' equipment and combat readiness.

Although Kramp-Karrenbauer is simultaneously leading the CDU and Defense Ministry, handling two such significant portfolios ahead of the 2021 federal elections shouldn't be an issue, says Masala. After all, he explains, Merkel spent 13 years at the head of the CDU and simultaneously served as chancellor. "Nobody ever questioned her ability to hold down both jobs," he says.

Political heavyweight at the Defense Ministry

Jürgen Görlich, deputy head of the BundeswehrVerband, the armed forces association representing soldiers, believes Kramp-Karrenbauer's dual responsibilities could be an advantage for the military. "Now we have someone in charge who is a political heavyweight," he says, noting this has not been the case since the 1960s, when Franz-Josef Strauss served as both defense minister and head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CSU. Görlich says he welcomes someone with so much political influence at the Defense Ministry and is hopeful that her power will pay off.

It could well do so, Kramp-Karrenbauer has already announced the armed forces are now her "top political priority" and has demanded greater defense spending. On Wednesday, she takes her official oath of office in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. She will set out her vision for the military in a speech titled: "Carrying responsibly for Germany. For a strong Bundeswehr in a changing world."     

'I will give her a chance'

Masala expects Kramp-Karrenbauer to make three key points in her speech. He is certain she will stress the significance of NATO and the importance of continuing the reforms initiated by von der Leyen. What's more, says Masala, "she should and will reiterate that she is a defense minster who keeps an eye out for her troops. She should send a strong signal that she will be someone who will take seriously the soldiers' concerns."

Hammouti-Reinke is hopeful Kramp-Karrenbauer will hire more personnel and upgrade the Bundeswehr's equipment, continuing what von der Leyen started. "I am an officer in my heart and soul, and I will give her a chance," she says. But Hammouti-Reinke is clear that she would be disappointed to see the new defense minster use her new position to raise her political profile in an effort to one day succeed Merkel as German chancellor — a frequent topic of political speculation in the country ever since Kramp-Karrenbauer took over the CDU.

Things haven't got off to a perfect start. Tuesday saw controversy arise over even the swearing-in of Kramp-Karrenbauer as Germany’s new defense minister. Opposition lawmakers, including the head of the business-aligned Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, complained that the ceremony does not need to take place during the Bundestag's summer break, when politicians will have to briefly return home from holiday at the expense of the taxpayer.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille