Escaping the shadows of the past

Johannes Ruckstuhl

Arena Politics

The deployment of German troops outside its borders, even for peacekeeping missions, still prompts nervous reactions, both at home and abroad. One British newspaper likened a proposal for the German military to help protect citizens in Ukraine to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II

German Troops Afghanistan

© IPetty Officer First Class Ryan Tabios, ISAF HQ Public Affairs

In October 1961, tanks rolled up from both sides of Friedrichstrasse in the heart of Berlin, coming to a halt only metres away from the border crossing that allowed one of the few interchanges between East and West in the divided city. This was Checkpoint C, or Checkpoint Charlie, and the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to a hot war in Europe.

Today the tanks and barriers are gone, and Checkpoint Charlie has become the very definition of Ostalgie (the affectionate term given to nostalgia for aspects of the German Democratic Republic), and is now one of the city’s prime tourist attractions. Smiling uniformed models pose with tourists and hammer and sickle flags, while street sellers proffer knock-off GDR memorabilia – medals, coins, helmets, gas masks. The atmosphere is busy but casual, and by all means consumerist and superficial, as if coolly asking “what was all the fuss about?”.

The former border crossing is a rare banal German engagement with the ‘fuss’. A few streets along, on the notorious Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (now renamed Niederkirchnerstrasse), the longest surviving section of the wall stands atop the foundations and basement cells of what was once the headquarters of the Gestapo. The Topography of Terror museum and exhibition that accompany this extraordinary accumulation of history and tragedy make for a sombre charting of German history, from the great depression to the fall of Berlin in 1945.

A quarter of a century after reunification, the contrast invited by the two places is an apt illustration of modern Germany. The extirpation of the enormous blame and guilt laid upon generations following the one that drove Europe into the abyss in the 1930s and 40s (as well as the cruel experiment of surveillance run in the GDR following partition) was and is an arduous task. It has required immense self-abasement and penance, as witnessed by Willy Brandt’s symbolic kneeling before the Warsaw Uprising Memorial in 1970, yet the effort has ultimately been able to kindle a new and more understated form of patriotism and pride. It has not just involved a reassessment of what it means to be German, but a re-examination of the country’s global position in cultural, economic, diplomatic and military terms and, as challenges and crises arise, a debate over what an appropriate German response might look like.

Economic rehabilitation into the international community has been ongoing since Herbert Hoover encouraged it in his reports to Harry S. Truman. It has helped make Germany one of the most industrialised and prosperous nations in the world. The military aspect has been more curtailed, however, and, for obvious historical reasons, there is great discomfort and hesitation about any foreign deployment of German troops, even on peacekeeping missions. Ian Farr, a retired history lecturer from the UK’s University of East Anglia, says: “It remains to Germany’s credit that – its economic prominence vis-à-vis other major European nations notwithstanding – it still adopts a cautious stance when it comes to questions of intervention in foreign arenas.”

He continues: “This confounds the exaggerated fears of those who, at the time of unification, were inclined to think that a stronger and larger Germany would inevitably be a source of instability in Europe.”

Most recently, the discussion over the international uses of the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) has been ignited by Germany’s incumbent President, Joachim Gauck. As President, he occupies a ceremonial role, but Gauck’s political engagement has been more active and direct, and also more ideologically focused, than most. This places him very much in opposition to chancellor Angela Merkel, who opposed his appointment, and whose politics increasingly confuse sombre and rational calculation with inaction and hesitation. In particular, an interview he gave to Deutschlandfunk Radio, advocating a greater role of military responsibility among the international community, has caused quite a stir – on the one hand, he called for a more open and public discussion about the place of the Bundeswehr in society, on the other, a more concerted confrontation and engagement with human rights violators. In this regard, Germany should consider leaving the hesitation of past decades behind. His central point – “it is sometimes necessary to reach for weapons” – has been as often quoted as criticised.

Many seized on Gauck’s weapons quote in particular, as the herald of a new era of militarised capitalism for the country. German troops are currently deployed with NATO in Kosovo (having arrived in 1999 – Germany’s first peacekeeping mission), in Afghanistan (since 2001) and with Operation Atalanta, the international effort against piracy at the Horn of Africa, as well as a number of smaller commitments. The potential for future interventionist action in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or Central and West Africa is often looked upon as expansionist or as an easy extension of American interests. By the same token, successive German governments chose to exclude Germany from the 2003 liberation of Iraq and the NATO-led airstrikes against the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011, both earning counter-criticism of political dithering and breaking ranks. Ian Farr says: “In some respects, German policy-makers are in a no-win situation: intervene more openly and militarily, and reminders of past German transgressions are all too easily levelled; but to stand back and exercise due reticence leads to accusations that Germany should do more.”

There are certainly those elements of international criticism that refuse to move beyond the maxims of the past – or actively seek a return to them – and where, for every policy adopted, the analogy nearest to hand remains National Socialism. This is often built on the insinuation, sometimes even the assertion, that any act of German foreign policy must, in fact, be one of resurgent imperialism, reminiscent of the Second or Third Reich. Interestingly, the comparison is heard from both left and right – on the one hand, from voices like the UK’s conservative Daily Mail; on the other, from the Trotskyist far left and publications associated with the International Committee of the Fourth International. Both reported that even the consideration of a German peacekeeping mission in Ukraine (which still remains no more than a proposal) was somehow a repeat of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi campaign against the Soviet Union that ended in utter decimation of both land and people. It is barely necessary to point out just how untrue and contemptible a view this is.

Notwithstanding the justification for any of the aforementioned campaigns in the Balkans or the Hindu Kush, Gauck’s sentiment certainly has, to coin a phrase, fallen victim to the soundbite press. In reality, the President had already clarified that “in the fight for human rights, or the survival of innocent peoples, it is sometimes necessary to reach for weapons… as a last resort, it is also important not to dismiss military means on principle”. There is a recognition, in other words, that the foreign-policy conversation does not need to be solely carried out between pacifists and warmongers. Equally, and crucially, there is no argument for a universal or blanket military policy. Rather, it is preferable to decide such matters on a case-by-case basis, all the more because it necessitates a fresh reappraisal of ethical and moral convictions. Such a debate must include the possibility of refusing participation both on the grounds of such convictions and in opposition to an international political consensus.

To take the most salient of these cases: the nature of the fight against Taliban insurgency in Kunduz and Feyzabad – the provinces in which the German component of the International Security Assistance Force campaign is focused – has been by far the most difficult mission and added further complexities to the discussion. The initial force sent to Afghanistan was in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. And while the term ‘solidarity commitment’ is not euphemistic, it was, as Kosovo had been, an opportunity to aid an oppressed society as well as a defence of shared values (not just European and American) in the face of fanaticism. After the lengthy debate over legitimacy informed by the weight of a historical context, the questions over what right there is for Germany to defend these values on foreign soil against forces such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda are very much the same as they are for the USA or the UK. In addition to moral and ethical choices, it presented a legal challenge as the German constitution generally prohibits anything other than purely defensive action. What was finally settled upon as ‘mutual defence’ was a distinction that almost cost then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder his job.

Today, many countries have ended their combat operations in Afghanistan and the major proponents – the USA, UK and Germany – are following suit, yet it has long been clear that the task is not complete. Indeed, the task may never, as such, be complete, but the attrition inflicted by the Taliban has been worse, and certainly more long term, than any Western political mandate is willing to sustain. The nature of combat itself has changed, as radically perhaps as World War I changed it, with increased reliance on intelligence, technology and special operations, while the need for conventional troops is becoming less and less. Economic support and redevelopment aid has to be provided concurrently to the societies affected, or any military gains will soon be lost. This is likely to be as great a challenge into the future – if and where humanitarian or military intervention and aid can be agreed upon, the exertion of influence must be backed by a sincere pledge to lift societies from destruction and poverty.

It is clear that modern Germany is well able to rise above any historical precedent attached to it, both economically and militarily. The ending of guilt and shame over Nazi crimes is not to exonerate without consequence, let alone to forget. It is precisely the opposite – an appreciation of the past to ensure such terrible events do not occur again.

About the author:

Johannes Ruckstuhl is a staff writer at Global - the International Briefing


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