Why Germany Refuses to Play a Bigger Role in NATO
One of the stranger aspects of the slow-motion crisis over Ukraine caused by Russian provocations and aggression is the uneven response from NATO members. While Alliance states located closer to Russia, which experienced Moscow’s occupation during the Cold War, generally have taken the threat of aggressive Kremlin moves seriously – Poland and Estonia especially – the reaction of some NATO members has been lackluster. In particular, responses in Germany to the Ukraine crisis have been tepid, to use charitable language, and excessive sympathy for Moscow’s actions and attitudes is so commonplace that Germans have a word – Russlandversteher – for it.
Why Germany displays such misplaced sympathy for Russia, despite Kremlin misconduct in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, is a complex issue that is rooted deeply in German history, and cannot be divorced from the broader tendency to anti-Americanism that has become vocal in recent years. That said, Germany’s unwillingness to do much to deter Russian aggression may not matter significantly since, frankly, the German military is in such a dilapidated and unready state that there is little it could do at present to bolster NATO defenses in Eastern Europe, as I’ve advocated, even if Berlin wanted to. The sorry state of the Bundeswehr is now attracting the attention of American observers who ordinarily pay scant attention to such things, but in truth, Germany’s serious punching below its weight in the Atlantic Alliance in any military terms is hardly news, and has been NATO’s dirty little secret for years.
It is a shocking fact that the European Union’s economic and political powerhouse matters so little in defense. While the Bundeswehr is the fourth-largest military in the EU, with about 180,000 active duty personnel, that is smaller than the militaries of France, Italy, and Britain, all of which Germany dwarfs in both economy and population. Despite the strength of that economy, Germany spends only 1.35 percent of its GDP on defense, far below NATOs alleged requirement for two percent devoted to the military. As a result, the Bundeswehr is facing serious problems with outmoded equipment and low readiness.
Not to mention that young Germans don’t want to join the forces. Germany maintained the draft until 2011, but optimistic projections about recruitment after the suspension of conscription have not been met, resulting in a building manpower crisis. Under Ursula von der Leyen, the country’s first female defense minister, the Bundeswehr is embarking on a glossy five-year, 100 million Euro ad blitz, termed an “attractiveness offensive,” to encourage volunteers. But the ridiculous commercials, which portray life in uniform as a hipster paradise of cool dorms with flat screen TVs plus outstanding gender-neutral child care – anything resembling the actual military is notably absent – have been met with derision and laughter, and rightly so.
The two-decade decline of the Bundeswehr as a serious fighting force is remarkable and alarming. At the Cold War’s end, little more than twenty years ago, the German Army’s active strength included twelve divisions with thirty-six maneuver brigades, while today it possesses three divisional headquarters controlling eight maneuver brigades (one of which is half-French), most of which are not capable of deploying as fighting units. In the whole army there are only four battalions each of tanks and field artillery. This is not a force the Russians need to lose sleep over.
Moreover, the Bundeswehr‘s transition from its Cold War posture of armor-heavy divisions, manned by conscripts, intended to resist a Soviet invasion of the homeland, to its current emphasis on many fewer units manned by professionals and designed for foreign intervention, has been less than successful. The only major deployment overseas, maintaining a brigade-sized continent in Afghanistan’s north until late 2013, illustrated as many weaknesses as strengths. That was a relatively quiet sector, and it was an open secret in NATO that German troops weren’t exactly itching for battle, as evidenced by the fact that although over 100,000 Germans rotated through Afghanistan over a decade, only fifty-four Bundeswehr members were killed. U.S. and other NATO troops fretted about Germany’s highly restrictive rules of engagement, engineered by Berlin to keep casualties down in a war that the German public soured on fast. Additionally, there were embarrassing reports about combat unreadiness among the German contingent, as well as low morale, while later efforts to present that Afghan experience as a positive watershed for Germany’s civil-military relations seem optimistic and premature.
In a way that few outsiders fully grasp, the Bundeswehr is a deeply unwarlike fighting force. The Cold War emphasis on homeland defense, with a corresponding peacetime mentality, has not been overcome. What to make of an army whose motto is “To protect, help, moderate, and fight” – in that order? When German soldiers serving in Afghanistan performed deeds deserving a valor decoration, there was embarrassment in Berlin, as the Bundeswehr had none. Suggestions that the famous Iron Cross be resurrected were met with howls of indignation from a coalition of anti-militarists, leftists, and Jewish groups, notwithstanding the fact that the iconic medal was created not by Adolf Hitler, rather by Prussian patriots in 1813 during the war of liberation against Napoleon. The pronounced German tendency to self-flagellation won out and any talk of the Iron Cross died out amidst controversy. Such navel-gazing has led to exasperation with Berlin in many NATO countries, causing a rare public calling-out by Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, in late 2011, who stated that Germany’s size and history bring a “special responsibility to preserve peace and democracy on the continent.” Sikorski memorably explained, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” Europe reached the ironic point where Warsaw demanded a more active, indeed slightly aggressive Germany.
It did no good. The German public remains as opposed to increased military spending and activity as ever, the crisis in Ukraine having generated too little seriousness about security matters in Berlin. The Germans remain prosperous, nervous, and gun-shy, which given their recent history is unsurprising. Although many NATO countries are deeply upset by this German passivity, and top U.S. officials are now publicly asking Berlin to bear its fair share of the Alliance’s defense burdens, there is little reason to be optimistic that anything substantial will change soon. Germany is a democracy, and the Germans don’t want a bigger or more active military, especially one that might be used in any American-led wars. This viewpoint leads to exasperation at the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, but the salient fact here is that Germans are acting exactly how we wanted them to for decades.
Yes, we did this. After 1945, the Western Allies, especially the United States, demanded a tamed West Germany, so we went to considerable lengths to ensure that the Federal Republic was democratic, legalistic, and particularly pacifistic. When the Bundeswehr was established in 1955, to help counter the Soviet threat, it was born amidst NATO fears of reborn German militarism, so it was saddled with an ideology that valued the “citizen in uniform” concept above all, and emphasized the doctrine of Innere Führung (roughly “moral leadership”), to ensure no Hitler could misuse the German military again. By any standards, this succeeded better than anyone anticipated, with the result that the Bundeswehr is politically neutral, acting like civilian functionaries who watch the clock, and uninterested in war, while most Germans have little interest in the Bundeswehr.
Just as important, Western Allied efforts to pathologize all of German military history before 1955 worked exceedingly well. Unlike any other military on earth, the Bundeswehr has no history, rejecting of course not just the Wehrmacht but explicitly having no connection even to pre-Hitler military traditions. As anyone who has ever served in uniform knows, traditions and lineages matter to the troops, being vital to instilling morale and pride, and Germany’s novel experiment in having none of that has not worked out happily. American-implanted pathologies about all aspects of the country’s military past have led to many Germans taking perverse pleasure in pointing out how awful some of that history is. Things have now reached the point that the German Left continues to pressure the military to sever lineage even from heroes who were known to be reliably anti-Nazi. Given this terrible past, why would any decent person want to join the Bundeswehr anyway?
It is a strange fact that Communist East Germany (DDR) was far more comfortable with the country’s military traditions. While the DDR was solidly anti-Nazi, it embraced allegedly “progressive” aspects of Germany’s past, and its military, the National People Army (NVA), took on many Prussian military traditions with gusto, including impressive goose-stepping parades that would have pleased Scharnhorst with their spit, polish and discipline. NVA dress outfits were hardly more than Wehrmacht uniforms with the swastikas removed. (Thus leading to the Cold War joke that the Bundeswehr changed the Wehrmacht‘s uniforms but kept its generals, while the NVA did the opposite.) Even today, it’s not difficult to find NVA veterans who speak proudly of having served in a “real” German army, unlike the soft and Americanized Bundeswehr, which absorbed none of the NVA’s spirit when it disappeared with East Germany in 1990.
Germany’s present unwillingness to do more to defend NATO’s East against Russian aggression is deeply frustrating but represents the logical outcome of many decades of policy and propaganda forced on the Germans by the Western Allies, America particularly. Widespread anti-Americanism in Germany today cannot be ignored either. In recent years, this has become an inescapable fact of life among many Germans, and alarmingly, Left and Right versions of anti-Americanism have functionally fused into a common narrative that presents the United States as a lawless and warlike failed civilization, awash in crime, debt, and losing wars of choice. Revelations of U.S. espionage leaked by Edward Snowden have hardly helped America’s image in Germany, but the problems go a good deal deeper. German frustration with the presidency of George W. Bush grew serious, between Middle East invasions, extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay detention, and killer drones, but things have not improved under Barack Obama.
I have family and many friends in Germany, and I hear it all non-stop. The loathing of Obama by many Germans is sincere, marked and important. While they anticipated that Bush, a posturing American cowboy from the central casting of the European imagination, would act with violent irresponsibility, they expected better from Obama. After all, Barack Obama told them he would be different, right there in Berlin, even before he was elected president. Yet, now well into Obama’s second administration, not all that much has changed in terms of U.S. policies, and Germans are unhappy with America and particularly with its president, whom most Germans frankly see as an untrustworthy deceiver.
It is imperative for European security that Germany rise out of its long-term funk about its place in NATO and the world. Nothing would improve the Alliance more than Germany becoming more like Poland: serious about its military, funding it at a respectable level, while understanding the importance of deterrence in preventing aggression and war. Unfortunately, that necessary change is unlikely to happen soon, as Germany remains mired in navel-gazing – Nabelschau being a most Teutonic word – and not a little self-pity about its role as the engine of EU prosperity and stability, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis (which, Germans will happily tell you, was really all America’s fault anyway). The Western Allies, America especially, functionally created the modern German state and identity for the Germans, and now they must help Germany refocus to meet the needs of the 21st century. Germans have been engaged in a non-stop apology tour for almost seventy years regarding the country’s mistakes and misdeeds. It may be time for the United States to do some apologizing to Germany, it might have the transformative political effect that NATO needs right now.
[As always, the comments here are the author's alone and not reflective of any of his employers, past or present.]