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Opinion: The Germans and Their Army

Nina Werkhäuser (dc)
November 11, 2005

When the Bundeswehr marked its 50th anniversary with a military tattoo, few Germans seemed to care. Those who did were more apt to protest -- a sign of a continued uneasy relationship, says DW's Nina Werkhäuser.

A modest birthday partyImage: AP

When the Bundeswehr held a military tattoo in front of the Reichstag at the end of October to celebrate its 50th birthday, Berlin's government district was sealed off as if in preparation for invasion from an enemy force.

Everywhere you looked, there were military police and street blockades, and only invited guests were allowed in to watch the event. The atmosphere brought to mind the state visit of the Iraqi president, a man whose life is constantly under threat. But what enemies does the Bundeswehr have that it can't mark such a milestone in peace?

For 50 years now, the Bundeswehr has been the army of the German parliament, which watches over its actions. It's a lesson from the history books, and a very sensible one at that. But this modern reality is out of step with a part of the German population, as the protests that accompanied the ceremonial tattoo showed.

As soon as the marching music began to play, talk of senseless glorification of the military started to make the rounds. Even members of parliament from the Left Party started to scream blue murder instead of soberly acknowledging that the model of a parliamentary army has worked well for half a century.

Characterized by modesty

Ein Soldat der Bundeswehr
The Nazi era has left many Germans uncomfortable with displays of patriotismImage: AP

You can accuse the Bundeswehr of many things, but certainly not of holding on to dusty old rituals or surrounding itself with superficial pomp and ceremony. After all, it's not as if the army marched down Berlin's main boulevard, Unter den Linden, accompanied by the buzzing of fighter jets overhead, to mark its anniversary.

Instead, the Bundeswehr celebrated modestly, as has been its habit for the past 50 years. And it's that modesty which characterizes a military that, since 1955, has had to carefully tread a path between tradition and a new beginning.

There's an understandable element in some Germans' out-of-hand rejection of all things military, and it's grounded in the experience of National Socialism. But 60 years on, the view of the Bundeswehr seems to still be so distorted that the general public has to be barred from an event such as a military tattoo.

Even if outspoken Bundeswehr opponents are in the minority, the general disinterest in the armed forces is shockingly great. So great, that German President Horst Köhler addressed it in his pensive anniversary address. "The Germans seem to barely be touched or impressed by all of this," Köhler said about the numerous foreign assignments undertaken by the Bundeswehr.

Public indifference

In the last 50 years, more than 9 million Germans have completed military service with the Bundeswehr, but that doesn't seem to have impressed upon the public consciousness the reality faced by German soldiers each day. They risk their lives to stop wars and conflicts abroad, in order to keep Germany safe. The fact that, so far, relatively few German soldiers have lost their lives may be a contributing factor to the general indifference.

The ceremonies marking 50 years of the Bundeswehr's existence demonstrated, once again, how tense the relationship between the army and German society still is. We're happy to call on our soldiers when our rivers break their banks, and we call for their expertise when a threat looms. But aside from that, the attitude toward the military is one of "No, thanks!" And the Bundeswehr, banned to a sort of permanent probation period, is left to celebrate its birthday alone.

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