Opinion: A Bundeswehr with moral courage | Opinion | DW | 18.05.2017
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Opinion: A Bundeswehr with moral courage

The scandal around right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr has once again raised the issue of how Germany maintains military traditions. DW's Udo Bauer believes there must be clear distance from Hitler's Wehrmacht.

Every army in the world cultivates traditions. Soldier's songs, symbols, memorabilia, and stories of courage and heroism in battle are used to spur on those in active duty. The preceding generations are held up as role models.

This may sound strange to people today who do not have military experience. But from the soldiers' point of view - those who risk their lives for their country - such traditions are important for cultivating team spirit among the troops, as well as for forging identity.

Bauer Udo Kommentarbild App

DW's Udo Bauer

The presentation of material romanticizing the Wehrmacht soldiers in common areas of today's Bundeswehr shocked many Germans. And rightly so. The fact that the Nazi-era military is stylized so one-sidedly into an example for today's soldiers is both disturbing and historically negligent.

Yes, there were also military heroes in the army of our fathers and grandfathers. And yes, it is true that most of the soldiers in the Wehrmacht stayed "clean," if such a thing is even possible during wartime.

The crimes of the Wehrmacht

But on the other hand, parts of Hitler's army were also guilty of serious war crimes. In Eastern Europe, for example, the Wehrmacht fought a brutal war of annihilation. It actively supported the Waffen-SS [the armed wing of the Nazi's paramilitary organization] in deporting Jews and in mass executions of civilian. It purposely let hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war starve to death. This is why the Wehrmacht can never be held up as an example for soldiers of a democratic state that is involved in international alliances and deployments.

Just imagine if Polish soldiers stationed in German barracks on a NATO assignment were to come face-to-face with Wehrmacht memorabilia. Some of it could be weapons that killed their grandparents. This would be an unparalleled scandal. For this reason, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen's call to clean out the barracks of such memorabilia is correct.

Read more: German defense minister Von der Leyen addresses calls to step down

Also, the Bundeswehr's so-called Traditionserlass, a heritage degree last updated in 1982 that regulates which traditions the German army should maintain and which it shouldn't, will be re-examined. Furthermore, there are plans to regulate more concretely the way the Bundeswehr handles the memory of the Wehrmacht.

The real heroes were part of the resistance

But it would be even better if the defence ministry would make a clean sweep and abolish all traditions referring to the Wehrmacht once and for all. Away with the names of Wehrmacht generals that Bundeswehr barracks are still named after. Those were men who didn't have the courage to protest against Hitler's plans for a campaign of destruction, or to resign.

Instead these barracks should be named after members of the resistance against Hitler. They should be named after Graf Stauffenberg, Henning von Treskow and others. These Wehrmacht officers, who wanted to kill Hitler, were brave until their deaths, and are well suited as role models for modern day soldiers. What our military needs is more moral courage.

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