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Retooling the German Military

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Retooling the German Military

As Berlin grows into a central role in global politics, its military is carefully following suit. Is this a welcome change?

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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Want to visit the most popular nation on Earth? A longtime center of art and music? A place to take your children to see actual storybook castles? Cities with a mix of the medieval and ultramodern?

Look no further than Germany.

A BBC World Service poll found that Deutschland is the most favorably viewed nation in the world. Of 26,000 people surveyed across 25 countries, 59 percent felt that the European nation has a constructive influence upon the globe.

For perspective, Canada and the United Kingdom held the number two and three slots, each with 55 percent. Iran trailed the pack with only 15 percent responding that it had a “mostly positive” impact on the world.

BBC summarized the findings for Germany: “Who can doubt that there’ll be a little more spring in the step of Chancellor [Angela] Merkel because of what the poll reveals about attitudes to Germany?

“After a year when she has been depicted offensively on placards in a Nazi uniform, in protests from Athens to Madrid, it turns out that many admire the country.

“And in surprising places. In Spain, the recipient of a bailout with tight German strings attached, 68% said they felt Germany had ‘a mainly positive influence in the world.’

“In Britain, it was even higher at 78%. In France 81%—the poll indicates that four in every five French people look over the border with approval!

“Only Greece maintains its Germanophobia, with 52% giving a negative rating.”

Yet positive sentiments toward Berlin exist outside of Europe as well. BBC continued: “Ghanaians, for example, have a very favourable attitude toward Germany, with 84% approving. Germany has a very active trade presence in Ghana.”

This research is yet another feather in the cap for Deutschland. While most world economies foundered in 2010, it grew at its fastest pace since reunification in 1990. Its stalwart manufacturing presence and penchant for frugality has made Berlin virtually the only voice that matters for European Union debt issues. The title of a Montreal Gazette article summed up the situation: “Germany in Driver’s Seat Handling Europe Debt Crisis.”

This newfound power is a source of unease for some Germans. Der Spiegel translated the center-left paper Suddeutsche Zeitung: “Germany stands where it never wanted to stand again after 1945: as the dominant power in the middle of Europe. Its attempts to achieve this with cannons and tanks in the 20th century ended in apocalypses of blood and fire, but that’s precisely why that Germany no longer exists.”

But Berlin’s political clout has naturally led to a greater need for a modernized German military.

The New York Times quoted Germany’s defense minister Thomas de Maiziere: “For decades, we Germans have benefited from the fact that our partners gave us the feeling of reliable security…Now we are in a position and have the duty, even, to make our impact felt.”

Yet there is a nagging question: Is there really a way to rev up the nation’s military machine without raising the specter of the past?

Redefining “Bundeswehr”

After 1945, West Germany did everything in its power to squelch any possibility of repeating the mistakes of World War II.

The nation’s post-war constitution included provisions to limit the number of troops in the standing defense force. Also, Bundeswehr, the nation’s federal defense force, could not be used inside of Germany’s borders or anywhere Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht had previously occupied.

The New York Times described what these stipulations meant: “This translates into a de facto exclusion zone ranging from the Atlantic to Moscow and from Northern Norway to Northern Africa. Add to this Germany’s delicate relationship with Israel and its colonial past and you end up excluding the Middle East and most of Africa as well.”

Slowly, these strict constitutional laws have been softened. Yet, by the 2000s, the lack of actual combat experience—as well as costly and unfruitful weapons research programs, a labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape, and unrealistic rules of engagement—made the need for substantial military reform a necessity.

Changes began in 2011, when the Bundeswehr moved from conscription, where eligible 18-year-old males were required to serve, to solely volunteer forces. Deutsche Welle described the overall plan: “The goal of the restructuring is that the Bundeswehr will remain to get the soldiers prepared for their new array of challenges. That includes aid in areas of catastrophe, fighting international terrorists, evacuation of German citizens and international employment as part of EU or UN missions—a new focus that requires a restructuring of the troops into smaller, more flexible and better trained units.”

Notably, the changes mean a significant shift from being solely defensive to an intervention force. German brass wants a Bundeswehr capable of handling two concurrent missions abroad.

“Thorn of War”

While constitutional changes mean Germany’s armed forces can more readily be deployed, another substantial hurdle stands in the way of its citizens backing a fully active military: psychological scars.

The horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau still play out in the minds of many Germans each time its troops take up arms.

This fact becomes abundantly clear when one visits the Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden. Der Spiegel described the underlying architectural message of the structure: “There is a wedge sticking out of the building, one as brutal as the thorn of war in the German psyche. The gigantic wedge, made of steel and glass, passes through the sandstone facade of the old arsenal building in Dresden, like a projectile that has penetrated a soldier’s chest, or like the phalanx of British bombers that laid waste to Dresden on Feb. 13, 1945.”

Germany’s “thorn of war” makes this museum unique in the world. The magazine continued: “In other countries, military museums showcase superior technology and heroic victories, as if to say: Look at what heroes we are! But how can Germany recount its military history, a history it’s ashamed of? It’s about defeat and guilt. ‘We are not trying to make sense of it,’ says Colonel Matthias Rogg, the director of the Dresden museum. ‘Instead, we ask questions.’”

Dresden’s official website further describes the museum: “Distancing itself from the usual presentations of military history, the new museum concept turns instead to the causes and consequences of war and violence. The focus is placed on the human component, on all the fears, hopes, passion, memories and aspirations, and on factors such as courage, reason and aggression, because it is only possible to understand war if its depiction can be based on human nature.”

Berlin’s stomach for military campaigns has both ebbed and flowed in recent years. Der Spiegel continued: “Bosnia marked the beginning of a long path to normalization that Germany has followed since the end of the Cold War. Today, the Bundeswehr is involved in 11 missions that have been approved by the parliament. Some 6,540 soldiers are currently deployed on foreign missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. ‘The mentality of Germans has changed when it comes to the use of military force,’ says Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere. ‘We’ve come a long way in this respect.’”

Even when the Bundeswehr is deployed, it is often criticized by Western nations for its inactivity. German troops in Afghanistan mostly stay in the north (away from the heat of the battle) and have taken an advisory role in Mali, allowing the French to take the lead.

What’s in a Name?

In an effort to distance itself from the Wehrmacht, the Bundeswehr traces its roots back to the Prussian military reformers of the early 1800s. Yet leapfrogging two world wars to draw military inspiration does not whitewash the severe side of its national character.

Tracing back through the centuries reveals a continuous pattern: periods of artistic, intellectual and economic advancement followed by a sudden shift to warfare and strife.

This Jekyll-and-Hyde act has perplexed both Germans and non-Germans alike.

German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “I have often felt a bitter pain at the thought that the German people, so honourable as individuals, should be so miserable as a whole” (The Life and Works of Goethe).

Another native, biographer Emil Ludwig, said in The Germans: Double History of a Nation: “The Romans no more than the Franks or the Italians—indeed, not a single neighbor of the Germans—could ever trust the Germans to remain peaceable. No matter how happy their condition, their restless passion would urge them on to ever more extreme demands.”

British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger mused on the dual nature of Germans in their 1943 film “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” One character, seeing WWI German officers in a prisoner-of-war camp quietly listening to orchestral music, observed: “I was thinking, how odd they are, queer. For years and years they are writing and dreaming of beautiful music and beautiful poetry. All of a sudden they start a war: they sink undefended ships, shoot innocent hostages, and bomb and destroy whole streets in London, killing little children. And then they sit down in the same butcher’s uniform and listen to Mendelssohn and Schubert.”

For the ingenious and congenial Germans, the thorn of war seems forever buried in its national psyche. In fact, war has been a defining characteristic for this people throughout history.

Julius Caesar was the first to label the disunited tribes north of Italy “Germani.” Many etymology dictionaries trace the word “Germani” to Gaulish origins, claiming it means “neighbor” or “to cry” as in, “one who shouts in battle.” Others note that the most used weapon of these peoples was the spear, and attest that the term comes from the Old High German word for spear, “ger,” which put together means “spear-man.”

The book Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary promotes the idea that Germani is probably from the Old High German heri-man, which literally means “army-man.”

Put together, these definitions paint a picture of Germany: a neighboring nation who shouts in battle and wields spears. It is a country filled with army-men—or, more simply, war-men.

None of these northern tribes used “Germani” to describe themselves. Instead they preferred either Teuton or Deutsch, which both generally mean “people.”

While these tribes—such as the Vandals, Heruli and Ostrogoths—did not want to be known as war-men, the name proved apropos. The Heruli were the ones who sacked Rome and brought the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476.

Today, the dual names remain. Many still use a modernized version of Germani to describe the European nation, yet it refers to itself as Deutschland.

Distant Past

With war being a chief characteristic of the Teutonic peoples during the Roman Empire, how far back can this defining trait be traced?

British lexicographer Sir William Smith (1813-1893) described the early Germans “as a people of high stature and of great bodily strength, with fair complexions, blue eyes, and yellow or red hair [the Celts were likely living among them at the time]…their chief offensive weapon was the framea, a long spear with a narrow iron point…”

He continues, “Their men found their chief delight in the perils and excitement of war. In peace they passed their lives in listless indolence, only varied by deep gaming and excessive drinking.”

Most historians believe the Germans originated in Europe along the Baltic Sea but are unclear as to where the people derive their ancient roots.

Smith reveals a clue to their origin: “The Germans regarded themselves as indigenous in the country; but there can be no doubt that they were a branch of the great Indo-Germanic race, who, along with the Celts, migrated into Europe from the Caucasus and the countries around the Black and Caspian seas [modern-day Turkey], at a period long anterior to historical records.”

Anthropologist Sir Leonard Woolley records in his book The Sumerians a strikingly similar tribe living in the same region: “To the north and east of them, in the Zagros hills and across the plain to the Tigris, there lived a people of very different stock, fair-haired and speaking a ‘Caucasian’ tongue, a hill-people akin to the Guti…” (Some historians equate the Guti with the Goths.)

Woolley continues by stating that after an attempt to take over the Tigris River valley, they “remained in what was afterwards Assyria…”

British ethnologist James Cowl Prichard found that the Greek historian Strabo recorded the same people living south of the Black Sea, whom he labeled the Cappadocians.

“‘The Cappadocians,’ [Strabo] says, ‘of both nations,’ meaning the people dwelling on Mount Taurus under that name, as well as the Cappadocians near Pontus, ‘are termed to the present day Leuco-Syri, or White Syrians, by which term they are distinguished from other Syrians, who are of swarthy complexion [darker skin], dwelling to the southward of Mount Taurus.’”

Greek historian Apollonius called these people Assyrians, saying that they lived near the Halys River (modern-day Kizilirmak River), just south of the Black Sea.

Recognizable Pattern

Many refuse to consider the Assyria-German connection. Instead, they choose to associate this label with different peoples who inhabited the same areas, but in different time periods. Yet comparing ancient Assyria with the modern Germans reveals numerous and uncanny similarities.

The Assyrians were skilled musicians. Carl Engel’s The Music of the Most Ancient Nations points out that their music “appears to have attained to a degree of perfection which it could have reached only after a long period of cultivation.” Who better epitomizes perfection in music than the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms?

They excelled at engineering. The Dictionary of the Ancient Near East states, “Assyrians excelled in road construction and maintenance. Their provincial system was built on good communication, and good roads enabled the Assyrian high command to send infantry and cavalry over long distances to promote stability or conquer new territories.” Among innumerable examples, Germany’s world-famous Autobahn is an engineering marvel.

They were a hearty and obstinate people. The book Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization reveals, “In Assyria there was a strong sense of participating in a common and native way of life which repeatedly proved persistent enough to survive military defeats and foreign domination.” Germany’s accelerated recoveries after both world wars illustrate this connection.

The chief similarity between Assyria and modern Teutonic peoples, however, is an excellence in war:

  • The 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “The Assyrian forces became a standing army, which, by successive improvements and careful discipline, was moulded into an irresistible fighting machine, and Assyrian policy was directed towards the definite object of reducing the whole civilized world into a single empire and thereby throwing its trade and wealth into Assyrian hands.” Note the phrase “irresistible fighting machine” aimed at “reducing the whole civilized world into a single empire.”
  • James McCabe’s The Pictorial History of the World thoroughly describes the Assyrians, revealing more similarities to the modern Germans. They were “a fierce, treacherous race, delighting in the dangers of the chase in war. The Assyrian troops were notably among the most formidable of ancient warriors…”
  • “They never kept faith when it was to their interest to break treaties, and were regarded with suspicion by their neighbors in consequence of this characteristic” (ibid.). In 1939, Nazi Germany entered into a non-aggression treaty with Soviet Russia—WWII began a month later. Also, Poland had a similar pact with Germany when it was invaded by Hitler’s army.
  • “In the organization and equipment of their troops, and in their system of attack and defence and their method of reducing fortified places, the Assyrians manifested a superiority to the nations by which they were surrounded” (ibid.). The design and engineering of German tanks and aircraft surpassed the allied troops in WWII. They pioneered rockets and the jet engine. Today, they continue to be on the front edge of weapons technology.
  • In the book The Course of Civilization Volume I, Joseph Strayer describes Assyria: “They enforced their rule by a deliberate policy of frightfulness, enslaving and deporting whole peoples, and torturing and killing thousands of captives.” This statement could have easily been written about Germany in the early 1940s.

With such a deep-seated military culture, is modern Germany truly doomed to forever carry with them the scourge of war?

“He Means Not So”

Further history of the Assyrian people can be found in the Bible. The book of Genesis records Asshur, father of the Assyrians, in the list of Noah’s descendants (Gen. 10:22).

Throughout the Old Testament, the Assyrians repeatedly clashed with Israel. (For example, read I Kings 15:29, II Kings 15:19-20, I Chronicles 5:6, and II Chronicles 33:11.)

Yet the Bible also addresses the dual nature of the Germanic peoples. In the book of Isaiah, the Assyrian national psyche is laid bare. Chapter 10 states: “For he [the Assyrian nation] says, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent” (vs. 13).

Assyria and Germany have a long list of successes and accomplishments, which has led to an ingrained nationalistic pride. (Interestingly, the Hebrew root word for “Asshur” means success.) Look at Germany today: it is strong enough to carry Europe, and other nations come to it for answers because of its financial prudence.

The account in Isaiah 10 reveals the nation’s love for war and tendency to conquer surrounding lands: “…I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures, and I have put down the inhabitants like a valiant man: and my hand has found as a nest the riches of the people: and as one gathers eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth…” (vs. 13-14).

When an average German is asked, however, this definition is far from what he thinks of himself. Notice verse 7: “Howbeit he means not so, neither does his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few.” Despite a lengthy historical track record written in blood, Germany “means not so, neither does [its] heart think so.”

But the Bible ultimately does not condemn the nation. Actually, far from it!

A New Start

Imagine if Germany could finally overcome its thorn of war. No more would conflict hamper the talents or ingenuity of its people. No more would the nation have to rebuild after each conflict. Its scientists, inventors, thinkers and artists could solely focus on peaceful endeavors.

Yes, war has produced useful commodities. World War II created the jet engine used in air travel today. Also, the men who designed the Nazi’s terror-inducing V2 rocket later were instrumental in putting an American on the moon.

But imagine the far greater achievements possible without war!

With the Bundeswehr speeding toward a place among other world-class militaries, however, that time is not now. Before Germany can shake its warlike nature, it must first learn some hard lessons. It must lay aside its deeply ingrained pride and stubbornness. To finally be at peace, it must go through one last cycle of wartime ramp-up followed by a humbling setback (Zech. 10:11).

A great message of the Bible regards God ruling all nations of Earth and abolishing warfare. This means all nations will be able to focus solely on constructive and productive projects.

Notice: “And He [God] shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4).

While Germany enjoys a fleeting popularity now, it will soon hold a place as one of the world’s foremost nations. Isaiah 19:24-25 states: “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria”—one of the three most prominent nations!—“even a blessing in the midst of the land: whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”

At that time, the thorn of war will be forever removed from Germany!

For more on what the Bible says about the end to global conflict, read David C. Pack’s astonishing booklet How World Peace Will Come!

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