As Germany's defense ministry and its armed forces prepare to celebrate 50 years of existence, the German army -- the Bundeswehr -- continues to raise its profile by giving students the opportunity to handle firearms.
From the classroom to the (fake) war zone, German students play war
Exactly 50 years ago on June 7, 1955, the German Federal Ministry of Defense came into being under the control of the first Secretary of Defense, the conservative minister Theodor Blank.
The landmark in Germany's modern history will be celebrated Tuesday next week with a program of events planned to commemorate half a century of the German federal armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
But as preparations continue apace, the actual celebrations as far as the Bundeswehr is concerned could be muted. The German army faces a tough time in its modern form as it faces up to the challenges of a new millennium.
Painful reforms have been planned and have started to be implemented; deployments have scattered German soldiers across the globe on mostly uncelebrated missions and the Bundeswehr is often forced into unpopular public relations exercises.
Students come to experience the army
One such exercise is the annual event at the army base in Immendingen in the Black Forest where students from a number of South German universities come to experience the thrill of shooting military standard automatic weapons.
About 80 students stand in line in the morning dew of a Bavarian Saturday morning at 8. It's not a time most of these students are accustomed to and they are about to take part in an exercise that none of them have experienced before.
"This has been the arrangement for the past five years," says reservist Stefan Bächle who is the co-organizer of this year's event. "The idea was to give those who have never seen what the army is like from the inside to get a feel for it. The armed forces have an interest in it, of course. It may offer opportunities for some of the people here."
Shooting gallery offers different incentives
The students in attendance all have different reasons for coming. "I was in the army for 12 months before and was simply interested in coming back again," one says.
"I did the alternative service," says another referring to the choice young Germans have to either do compulsory military or civil service. "To be completely honest, I would like to simply shoot."
During the last few years, more and more women have attended the Bundeswehr shooting days and this year, a quarter of the group is female. "I'm interested in archery and shooting and thought it would be a good opportunity to gain experience," one said.
For some in the group, it is the first chance they've had to fire a weapon. "It was fun. I even hit the target a couple of times," said Julia Biehn.
Women have a sniper's eye
The shooting results are compared after each student has shot a variety of weapons at the distant target. The girls seem to have a better eye for single shot weapons which is why the boys are hoping to regain some dignity with the next weapon: the machine gun.
The hit rates seem to prove that the MG3 machine gun is more suited for the men. At 13 kilograms it certainly seems to be a man's weapon and the male students handle it better.
Away from the political talk of the future of the Bundeswehr and the moral questions posed by the fact that the real job is to shoot people not targets, the students agree that their time with the army has been fun and informative.
"I've got a new respect for these weapons," says one as he prepares to leave. "I've also had a good insight into the work of the armed forces."
And with that, the students march off home in almost military fashion.