In a way, it was just an ordinary conversation — a trio of bright, ambitious German high school kids thinking out loud about what they could do after graduation. But their discussion reflected a fundamental shift in societal attitudes: they were considering joining the military.
A decades-long reluctance to serve in the German Wehrmacht – the scourge of Europe during World War II, underfunded and neglected after the end of the Cold War – is being quickly reversed by the war in Ukraine.
These three 18-year-olds, all due to graduate from high school next year in the northern town of Kothen, are just coming of age as Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, seeks to rebuild and revitalize its military after generations of Nazi-era stigma.
One of the students, Steven Foerster, said he was drawn to the high-tech opportunities in the Bundeswehr. His fellow student Sarah Naumann said that a degree might be a good way for her to study medicine. Jakob Fischer, another student, said he could see himself serving in a combat unit.
“The negative image is actually no longer there,” said Foerster. Naumann agreed: “The Bundeswehr has become attractive again.”
Despite Germany’s strong post-war tradition of pacifism, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly seven months ago shocked the public to think very differently about national defense.
Three days after the beginning of the war, Chancellor Olaf Scholz – less than three months in office – gave a speech entitled “Turning in time”. In a single blow, Germany dared the previously unthinkable: pledged to send heavy weapons to Ukraine and promised a $100 billion injection of funds into the military.
These moves appear to have solid public support. According to surveys, around two-thirds of Germans support arms exports to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. The country has taken in a flood of Ukrainian refugees. And according to a survey by the opinion research institute Civey, almost a third of Germans say they have a better picture of the Bundeswehr than before the Ukraine war.
In the not-too-distant past, the reputation of the Bundeswehr – the successor force to the infamous Nazi-era Wehrmacht – was anything but great. Some members, particularly conscripts, did their best to keep a low profile in public. Few young people aspired to join. Starved, shriveled in size, the military was almost invisible to the public.
“There was no pride in this army,” said Carlo Masala, a professor of international relations at the Bundeswehr University in Munich.
After the devastation of World War II, those who shaped Germany’s post-war order initially imagined that Germany had no military at all. But a divided Germany was the Cold War starting point for a tense standoff between the West and members of the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union. At its peak, the Bundeswehr was part of the former Federal Republic of Germany and fielded almost half a million soldiers.
However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, troop strength was reduced to 180,000 and modernization efforts stalled. Conscription remained in effect until 2011, but many young Germans tried to avoid conscription by instead applying for some form of community service, such as working in a hospital.
“This distancing is part of our post-war culture,” Masala said.
At the same time, Germany’s security system rested on the hope that increased trade with Russia would persuade Moscow to avoid overt, large-scale aggression. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its fundamental pledge, assures all members mutual support in the event of attack. That gave Germany a safety umbrella but also complacency, analysts said.
Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine caught the German political and military establishment off guard, although senior officials acknowledged that alarms had been sounded since Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.
The day after the war began, Army Chief Lieutenant General Alfons Mais issued a devastating verdict, calling the Bundeswehr “more or less naked”. On the job platform and the social network LinkedIn, he explained: “We all saw it coming,” he complained that Germany had failed to make the necessary preparations.
In January, a month before the invasion, a ministerial report on the operational readiness of the armed forces stated that only about three quarters of the Bundeswehr’s main weapon systems were operational. Less than a third of its warships and only 40% of its helicopters were considered “fully operational”. During the August 2021 evacuation mission in Kabul, in which Germany took part, only 10 out of 30 transport aircraft were operational.
Masala recalled a major NATO exercise in Norway a few years ago, to which the Bundeswehr sent more than 5,000 soldiers, but had to get basic supplies such as gloves from other units.
“Of course, that’s an absurdity,” he said.
In a German public opinion deeply shaken by the events in Ukraine, the Bundeswehr, which was primarily concerned with foreign peacekeeping and domestic natural disasters, is now considered an indispensable security guarantor, even if Western troops are not directly involved in combat in Ukraine.
Recruiters are trying to capitalize on this more dynamic image. A new Bundeswehr video titled “We Protect Germany” shows action-packed scenes of fast-moving tanks and helicopter landing troops crashing onto land.
Germany’s Green Party was a fascinating mood barometer. A heavyweight in the current coalition government and deeply rooted in the anti-war movements of the 1970s and 1980s, the left-leaning, environmentally conscious party pulled off what is probably the most impressive about-face in Germany’s recent political history, championing continued arms shipments and a tough stance on autocratic governments like those in Beijing and Moscow.
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As the war in Ukraine progresses, Germany’s domestic political issues come to the fore again: pensions, health care, jobs – and above all inflation, fears of recession and the energy crisis caused by the war.
But right now, public support for the military is showing in ways big and small.
“Now people are asking us: What exactly is the Bundeswehr doing? What drives you? How are you going to spend the 100 billion?” said Army Capt. Frank Sperling, a youth liaison officer. “All of a sudden there’s interest in what we’re doing again.”
Captain Norman Sehmisch, another youth liaison officer, said there had been a surge in requests for service members to give public lectures and visit schools.
“Seventy-five percent of our lectures are now on Ukraine, on national defense,” he said. “Not about our operations abroad, in Mali, in Kosovo or when we were in Afghanistan.”
Even before the current Ukraine war, German soldiers in uniform could travel by train free of charge. However, Sehmisch said interactions between uniformed troops and the public have taken on a different character today.
“We get nods from fellow passengers, and the other day another passenger on the train even bought me a coffee,” he said. “The war in Ukraine makes people realize the importance of having an army to protect them.”
Ziener is a special correspondent.
https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-09-08/russia-invasion-of-ukraine-jolting-germany-into-rebuilding-military Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is jolting Germany into rebuilding its military