Its troops are now fighting and dying across the world.
The path leads gently uphill, past seven columns clad in stone. Set inside the columns are the names of 109 German soldiers, along with the year they died, and the mission they belonged to. The memorial extends to the surrounding forest, where relatives are allowed to pick one tree to commemorate their loved one: some are decorated with medals and photos, others with marble plaques. One has a child’s drawing pinned to the trunk, along with a letter to a fallen father. The forest of remembrance, located a short drive outside Potsdam, was created just over three years ago, as a site for family and friends to mourn and to remember.
Yet for all the quiet poignancy, the memorial bears a political message that is too loud to ignore. Every one of the names immortalised here belongs to a soldier who died while serving abroad, in distant conflict zones from Afghanistan to Kosovo. They include victims of bomb attacks and helicopter accidents, soldiers who took their own life, as well as the first German to die in combat since the second world war. What unites them is the fact that they all lost their lives on missions that were unthinkable a generation ago. These missions are emblematic of a slow but determined push by Germany to take on more responsibility in world affairs.
That effort has been reflected not least in the one area that has traditionally caused German policymakers more anguish than any other: the military. Over the past decade, Berlin has abolished conscription, professionalised its armed forces, raised defence spending and pushed the Bundeswehr ever further outside its geographical, operational and cultural comfort zone. German soldiers are currently engaged in more than a dozen foreign missions — including in parts of eastern Europe that once seemed off-limits for any army bearing the traditional black cross of the German military.
The shift also shows up in more symbolic ways: The army brought back medals for military valour in 2009, and for bravery in combat in 2010, shattering the cosy illusion of the Bundeswehr as a militarised arm of Germany’s development agency. The Gefechtsmedaille, or combat medal, has been awarded 5,834 times since. The Bundeswehr now has a central monument for its dead in Berlin, as well as the new forest of remembrance. Most importantly, German soldiers are being deployed, fighting and dying abroad, without prompting a political backlash at home.“The old Swiss model — meaning we do the economy and leave the ugly things to others — is gone,” says Karl-Heinz Kamp, the president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy, a government-run college that trains senior ministerial staff.
The evolution in Germany’s approach to defence and security is at least in part a response to a new political reality that will be at the centre of debate at this weekend’s Munich Security Conference. At a time when the US is showing more reluctance than ever to be the guarantor of European security, Berlin is under pressure to take on more of the burden. Britain’s retreat from the EU and Russia’s assertiveness in eastern Europe have also served to turn the spotlight on Germany’s readiness to lead.How far and how fast this shift should go remains an issue of sharp disagreement. Some, like US president Donald Trump, have lambasted Berlin for not spending as much on defence as promised. Others, like the former leader of the German Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, have sought to revive the nation’s pacifist instincts, insisting during the last election campaign that Berlin must spend money on welfare not weaponry.
What is not in doubt, however, is that the Bundeswehr is in the midst of profound change — and facing new threats, new tasks and new ambitions that will be costly in every sense of the word. The question is: are Germany’s leaders and voters ready to pay the price?“Until 1990, during the cold war, the only task [the Bundeswehr had] was collective defence — nothing else. In the years after 1990, the only task was out-of-area [missions] — nothing else,” says Hans-Peter Bartels, the armed forces commissioner of Germany’s federal parliament. “Now we have to do both tasks and we have to do them with the smallest Bundeswehr we have ever had.”
German officials and defence experts often point to 2014 as a turning point. The year started with a string of muscular speeches at the Munich Security Conference in which German leaders advertised the country’s readiness to take on more responsibility in military affairs. The mood was summed up by Joachim Gauck, the federal president at the time, who told the conference that Germany “must be ready to do more for the security that for decades was guaranteed by others”.A few weeks after the conference, Russian forces invaded Crimea, sending shockwaves through central and eastern Europe.
The outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine caught all Nato countries unprepared — but few more so than Germany and its armed forces. In the years since reunification, the Bundeswehr had not only absorbed massive budget cuts but had also been told to prepare for entirely different military scenarios and tasks. Troop numbers have been slashed from almost 500,000 to just 180,000 since 1990. What little resources the military had were devoted to building its capacity to deploy small, mobile contingents in faraway conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Mali. The notion that Russia had to be deterred, let alone confronted, seemed fanciful.“In 2014 we went back to the old world,” says Mr Kamp.
“Everything that we used to have, above all the capacity to defend collectively, has to be reestablished. And it has to be done in a way that is credible both to our partners and to potential enemies such as Russia.”That credibility, however, is proving to be both difficult and expensive to acquire. Political leaders have made clear repeatedly over the years that they support an enhanced role for the Bundeswehr in principle — but have not always followed up that sentiment with hard cash and clear thinking.Last week’s coalition agreement between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the centre-left Social Democrats is a case in point.
In customary German fashion, the coalition agreement places defence policy far down the list of priorities: in a document spanning 177 pages, the armed forces are addressed only briefly, and even then on page 157. The chapter reiterates an earlier promise to raise defence spending modestly, and equip the Bundeswehr in the “best possible” manner, but it offers little detail.There is no suggestion that Germany is preparing a big spending push that would lift the defence budget anywhere close to 2 per cent of gross domestic product — the target Nato countries are formally committed to, and that President Trump in particular is clamouring to see realised.
French president Emmanuel Macron, for instance, promised last week to meet the target.Under the current plans, Germany would lift its defence budget from €38.75bn this year to €42.65bn in 2021. With the economy set for continued expansion, military spending would still account for less than 1.5 per cent of GDP four years from now.Such reticence is understandable: German popular opinion remains wary of military force, and Ms Merkel’s Social Democrat coalition partners have long shown a strongly pacifist streak.
But the lack of serious debate over the future of the Bundeswehr is striking all the same, given the military commitments made by Germany in recent years, as well as the broader strategic shift.With Russia looming as a threat once again, Nato is scrambling to restore its powers of deterrence. Germany is central to that push, as evidenced by Berlin’s decision to lead a multinational battle group in Lithuania as part of Nato’s “enhanced forward presence”.
Some 450 Bundeswehr soldiers have been stationed in the Baltic country since January last year, where they are supposed to act as a “trip wire” should tensions with Moscow escalate.A soldier from the 371st Mechanised Infantry Battalion just before the group was deployed as part of an ‘enhanced forward presence’ in Poland and the Baltic States © EPA/PoolLooking further ahead, Germany is committed to raising two entire divisions with five armoured brigades each by 2032, as part of a new Nato initiative to boost its collective long term defence capabilities. The plan, dubbed the Framework Nations Concept, would see as many as 19 smaller Nato countries affiliate crucial parts of their military with the structures of the Bundeswehr.
The initiative, argues Rainer Glatz, a retired general and former Bundeswehr deputy chief of staff in charge of operations, would turn Germany into Nato’s “indispensable nation”.“This means that Germany will have to lead militarily and politically. It requires constant co-ordination at all levels. All of this — and this must be stressed — has to be backed up financially. And that is where we enter a critical area,” says Mr Glatz, who is now a senior associate at the SWP German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
In the era when the Bundeswehr’s only task was to deploy small contingents as part of international missions, two decades of budget cuts could be covered up by cannibalising parts and materiel from across the army. Now, however, the hollowing out of the German military is showing everywhere — from grounded aircraft and unusable submarines to the pervasive lack of spare parts and staff shortages.“What has changed over the past four years is that there is a new awareness and a new readiness to reset the Bundeswehr,” says Christian Mölling, a defence expert at the DGAP German Council on Foreign Relations.
“But we are still miles from achieving that reset. Let’s not make too fine a point about this: the situation of Germany’s armed forces is dramatically bad. It will take a lot of time to turn this around.”An inscription reads ‘In honour of the dead’ at one of the memorials to soldiers killed in Afghanistan at the Forest of Remembrance near Potsdam .The transformation of the country’s military — and of German attitudes to military force — is very far from complete.
But many of those who have followed and shaped German defence policy over the past decades draw a broadly positive conclusion from the changes that have taken place since 2014.Mr Glatz points to the Bundeswehr’s recent mission in Iraq as a sign of how far the military has come: “If you had told me even four years ago that Germany would one day go into an ongoing conflict in the way we have been doing with the support of the peshmerga in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, including weapons delivery, I would not have believed it.
This was a paradigm change for German defence and security policy.”Recommended Red tape, radios and railway gauges: Nato’s battle to deter Russia Pacifist Germany defies Europe’s nationalist tideFarewell Uncle Sam, hello Uncle Donald, Others, like Mr Kamp, highlight the shift in popular and political attitudes. Germany, he argues, has “matured enormously” in its approach to military affairs. “Think back to the Kosovo mission in 1999, the first time that Germany took part in a military operation since the second world war. The order at the time was clear: there must be no military casualties.
The thinking was that German society simply could not take it.“Look where we are today: we have had casualties, and society has dealt with them. We now have medals for bravery and memorials for the dead. The population has slowly come to terms with reality,” he argues.Back at the memorial outside Potsdam, that new sense of responsibility is indeed hard to ignore. At the end of the path that leads through the forest of remembrance, Sergeant Major Michael Eichstaedt points out that the planners left enough space for three further name columns. The foundations have already been laid. “This memorial,” he notes, “will continue to grow”.
Submarines that cannot sail expose the impact of budget cutsThe gaps in Germany’s military are becoming harder and harder to conceal. Even in its current configuration, and despite the recent budget increase, Germany’s armed forces are chronically underfunded. Entire weapons systems are unusable because of past budget cuts and the resulting lack of spare parts and proper maintenance.“The material readiness of the Bundeswehr is a catastrophe,” says Hans-Peter Bartels, the armed forces commissioner of Germany’s federal parliament.
“This situation came about because we spent 25 years cutting the defence budget. The cold war was over, there were no enemies left in Europe, and we thought everything could be solved through negotiations, agreements, co-operation and partnerships.”Not one of Germany’s six 212A-type submarines, for example, is able to leave port. Of the Bundeswehr’s 244 combat tanks, only 105 are operational (during the cold war, Germany had more than 4,500 combat tanks). The Luftwaffe’s fleet of A400M transport aircraft is so unreliable that soldiers are sometimes forced to wait days for a ride home. The navy’s new frigates are another weak spot. Even battlefield food packs are running low.
The issue of the Bundeswehr’s readiness, however, goes far beyond the failure of helicopters, aeroplanes and submarines. “We discover all the time — and this is a very frustrating experience — that the billions we are spending are not enough. We know that the current state of the Bundeswehr is poor and the task is getting bigger all the time,” says Karl-Heinz Kamp, the president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy.“This touches on very practical things that have nothing to do with big shiny weapons systems. Our railway operator, for example, is no longer able to load and transport tanks. We no longer know which of our bridges is strong enough to support tanks.”