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German Warriors

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My great-grandfather was buried on Verden’s forest cemetary (Verdener Waldfriedhof). His grave is still there, and it is a nice one, because through all the past nine decades, my family people didn’t have to pay a single Pfennig or Eurocent in fees – it’s a hero’s grave.

He was a Private, but he was in such a hurry to take Paris that the German artillery didn’t keep step with him and his comrades. Many of them died in friendly fire, and on the spot. Great-Grandpa was less lucky. He pegged out several month later, in the Annastift in Hanover, minus most of his back.

When he was dead at last, they decorated him with the Iron Cross.

Then there was the second world war.

German society is post-heroic. Heroes too, are only victims in German eyes. The Bundeswehr is a citizen army, and  the federal parliament’s army. It still knows no heroes, and every embarrassing try to change that has been doomed to fail. Medals and cenotaphs give most of us the creeps, rather than causing respect.

Germany succeeded in building an army with uniformed citizens. The old military caste – fortunately – doesn’t matter in the army any more. Families with military traditions like they exist in Britain, France, or America, and which send officers into the army don’t exist in Germany any more.

But this also means that the soldiers won’t earn much respect here when sacrificing their lives for the nation, and its allies.

Some surveys suggest that about three quarters of Americans believe in circumstances which justify war. In Germany, 25 per cent may believe that. 170 years ago, Carl von Clausewitz coined the saying that war is merely a continuation of politics with the inclusion of different means (“Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik unter der Einbeziehung anderer  Mittel”). Most Germans don’t agree with this any longer, and they want no such extension of our foreign policy.

During the past eight years, German politics avoided the word “war” like the plague (which it obviously is), our politicians enacted a reconstruction operetta in Afghanistan which seemed to benefit everyone and to hurt noone, and they risked no candid communication with their constituencies about combat operations. Now the public (which never seemed to care much until now) is finding out that we are at war (the German defence secretary keeps cursing everyone who dares to use this dirty word), and obviously, few people are inclined to take our duties within NATO as serious as they should – those who accept the need for force of arms are the minority in this country.

Dishonourable? Maybe. But anyone who wants to criticise Germany’s sometimes convenient pacifism should also remember how hard it was to finish German militarism in the first place, and how many of their grandfathers died in the struggle. Having ones cake and eating it is yet another challenge. We are learning. But it will take time, and some more decent politicians. What the Social Democrats’ Peter Struck said about Afghanistan last month could be a beginning.

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