War and Peace in Germany

Has peace broken out in Germany? German soldiers did not join the military conflict that started earlier this year in Libya. In March, Germany did not support resolution 1973 in the Security Council, which authorized military action against the Libyan government. Germany distanced itself from its NATO allies and joined Russia, China, India and Brazil, who abstained. This unusual position has come under sustained criticism, much of it focused on Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who was removed as party leader of the Liberals soon afterwards.  The German coalition government of Christian Democrats and Liberals, in fact, acted as realists in terms of internal politics. Faced with decreasing popularity in the polls and the impressive success of the Green Party in recent state elections, they expected to strengthen their legitimacy at home by rejecting military action abroad.

Obviously, the current government took its cue, in this instance, from the previous government of Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005), which refused to send soldiers into the Iraq war: a decision which opened the road to the narrow victory of the Social Democratic/Green coalition in the Federal elections in the fall of 2002. Nevertheless, the extensive military infrastructure which the US and NATO maintain on German soil was fully integrated into the war effort. But in both wars governments could maintain a public stance of rejecting deeply unpopular military interventions at a time when they were struggling for popular support. The political class in the Federal Republic is keenly aware of the historically charged dynamic which issues of war and peace have in Germany.

Since the disastrous defeats in two world wars, German governments have tried to accommodate conflicting requirements on issues of war and peace. They had to maintain legitimacy in the perception of a majority of the electorate, which, across a wide political spectrum, remained deeply suspicious of war in general. But post-war ‘demilitarization’ soon gave way to military reconstruction under cold war auspices. The German constitution of 1949 unambiguously restricts military activity to the defense of the homeland. But today the defense of Germany takes place not only in the Hindu Kush Mountains — phrases of this kind are regularly ridiculed in political cabarets — but on a global scale: in Kosovo (KFOR), in the Mediterranean (Active
), in the Indian Ocean (Atalanta) and other parts of the world. The usual attempts to camouflage such interventions with the rhetoric of peacekeeping and humanitarianism have not been convincing for large parts of the public in Germany.

In May 2010 the President of Germany Horst Köhler announced his resignation, the first post-war president to take this step. There was little doubt that he reacted to the criticism of the speech he had given in Masar-i-Scharif, in which he described the German participation in the Afghan war without the usual euphemisms. Köhler addressed directly an essential motive of this intervention: to maintain German economic interests and prosperity. As the highest representative of the Federal Republic and protector of constitutional values Köhler knew he had lost all credibility.

In the past, the Green Party had been torn internally by conflicts about the legitimacy of foreign interventions with particular intensity. In a risky move, the Green Foreign = Minister Joschka Fischer supported the militant stance against Yugoslavia in Rambouillet in 1999, which amounted to an ultimatum formulated in Annex B of the proposed treaty. For the first time since World War II, German troops were fighting abroad, in this instance against a country they had occupied some 50 years before. Fischer’s radical decision, made when Federal elections were not imminent, moved the Green Party towards ‘realistic’ policies — and himself into the international power elite; it also triggered a long conflict between pacifists and ‘bellicists’ within the party. Since then the Greens have acted with cautious tactics on such issues on their way towards the center of society, projecting both muted criticism and restrained support.

Pressures for the militarization of German society continue. The former Minister of
Defense zu Guttenberg initiated a transformation of the traditional ‘citizen army’ based on conscription into an army of professionals, which can be deployed more easily in global conflicts. In May this year his successor Thomas de Maiziere provided the conceptual framework for the new professional army, which points out the ‘international responsibility’ of Germany and the duty to protect sources of raw materials, markets and trade routes on a global scale. President Köhler’s incautious speech was premature; one year later the global role of the German army has become a strategic concept accepted, with muted grumbling, by most parties, including the majority of the Greens.

The global reach of German military power, embedded in Western alliances, has fed into a certain deformation of Germany society in various ways. For some time, pressure has been exerted to use the army even internally, recently again by the new Minister of the Interior  Friedrich, and to change the constitution in this respect. There may not be a political majority for this kind of drastic departure from aconstitutional and public post-war consensus for some time. But creeping militarization continues to delegitimize governments which bend the constitution and disregard majority opinion. When the political class and the majority of the people continue to drift apart on crucial issues of war and peace, how will a society which has only fragile democratic traditions cope with this strain on the democratic process?

Dr. Michael Hoenisch is Professor Emeritus at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. He has published frequently on topics including American literature, documentary film, and Anglophone Caribbean culture; e.g. Die Repräsentation sozialer Konflikte im Dokumentarfilm der USA, ed. (1996); “E pluribus unum? Ethnicity and Migrant Cultures in the USA”, in Amerikanismus/Americanism/Weill, ed. H. Danusser  and H. Gottschewski (2003); “Rastafari and Erna Brodber’s Black Space: Symbolic Strategies”, in Rastafari, ed. W. Zips (2006); “Postwar Reconstruction and the Representation of the Law: Documentary Film About the Nuremberg Trial”, in XVth and XVIth Russian-American Seminars (St. Petersburg, 2007).  He is currently at work on a series of taped lectures on American documentary film.  Contact: hoenisch@zedat.fu-berlin.de

Michael Hoenisch