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A critical defense farewell

January 9, 2014

Germany's outgoing defense minister has delivered an unusually candid farewell at his Bundeswehr military send-off. He also rejected criticism from allies about Germany's reticence to intervene abroad.

Zapfenstreich Thomas de Maiziere Ursula von der Leyen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere received a military ceremony, known in Germany as a Zapfenstreich, on Wednesday to mark his departure from his previous post as defense minister.

The 59-year-old Christian Democrat, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, delivered an unusually critical speech on the occasion.

"Many things are of course amiss in the Bundeswehr, not just when it comes to equipment," de Maiziere said, albeit adding that problems should be expected in large institutions.

De Maiziere, defense minister for three years after Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to resign, was charged with spearheading a major reorganization of the German military. He said that many Bundeswehr soldiers were unhappy with the changes, including a string of barracks closures around the country.

"It would be a miracle if the situation were any different," de Maiziere said. "The goal of this change in direction was not - and could not have been - to improve the morale of the soldiers and staff."

Instead, de Maiziere said, the target was to reshape the military in a way that would be sustainable. De Maiziere's successor as defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, praised his efforts at the ceremony in Berlin and pledged to continue with the changes.

"There will be no reform of the reform. That is a piece of good news for the Bundeswehr. That is your success," she told de Maiziere.

Partners don't preach

The new interior minister also found clear criticism for Germany's allies, who have expressed disappointment at the country's reticence to engage in military missions abroad.

"Germany does not need a lecture from anybody in Europe about the type or the extent of our international missions - not even from France or the UK," de Maiziere said. He pointed out that Germany's parliament had never failed to pass a bill authorizing military intervention, apparently a swipe at British Prime Minister David Cameron's failed attempt last August to gain parliamentary support for sending troops to Syria.

Germany has a largely pacifist constitution, ultimately a legacy of the First and Second World Wars, and tends only to deploy troops on peacekeeping missions. Despite a Bundeswehr presence in Afghanistan, troops were not sent to Iraq, and Germany also abstained in the UN Security Council vote authorizing NATO intervention in Libya. Similarly, Chancellor Merkel's government consistently argued that military intervention in Syria's civil war was liable to do more harm than good.

De Maiziere also admitted during his farewell speech that he had considered leaving his office early, saying he nearly resigned in the aftermath of the so-called "Eurohawk affair," when Germany canceled a costly project to build an unmanned surveillance drone.

"It was the soldiers - and I'm letting a secret slip here - who kept me from resigning," de Maiziere told the assembled troops. Even amid intense public pressure and a parliamentary inquiry, all taking place months before a general election, de Maiziere had never publicly confessed to considering resignation.

msh/lw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)