'We Had to Start From Scratch' - Fifty years ago, West Germany established a new army, the Bundeswehr. By Martin Herzog
After World War II, the Allies decided to demilitarize Germany permanently. But the outbreak of the Cold War changed the situation. In November 1955, the first Bundeswehr soldiers started military service in West Germany. The GDR followed when it founded its own National People's Army.
The ceremony was scheduled to begin in only 10 minutes. But Hans-Joachim Krug was still waiting in line to receive his first uniform. "A man in front of me was asked about his military rank," Krug said. "'General,' the man responded, so the person behind the counter searched in his supplies for a general's uniform. They found one but not a decent cap so they had to ask everywhere in the building and finally somebody lent him one for the ceremony."
Lt. Krug was not so lucky: He had to attend the official inauguration ceremony for the first 101 German soldiers after World War II in civilian clothes. He was not the only one: Only 12 soldiers wore a uniform.
The short ceremony took place in a modestly decorated truck depot at the Ermekeil barracks in Bonn, the temporary headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Defense. Theodor Blank, the first German Minister of Defense, presented certificates to the soldiers; photographers and news cameramen took some shots and then it was over: A historical moment for the newly created German army.
This was all intentional. The event was closely observed nationally and internationally. Not everybody was happy with the decision to establish a German Army just 10 years after World War II. There had been protests and a number of large demonstrations against German remilitarization in Germany and all over Europe. So officials wanted to avoid all pomp and militaristic pageantry at the inauguration.
The Bundeswehr was the successor of the German Wehrmacht which had become Hitler's willing tool and which had committed innumerable war crimes. Those who had to build up the new army had to make a whole series of delicate decisions about which German military traditions to adopt and which ones to break with.
At the time, the majority of the German population was afraid that a new army would bring back the old militarism. Germany was afraid of itself.
People were afraid of the communist threat, too, but they preferred to rely on the protection of the Allies than protect themselves. The general attitude was "ohne mich - without me." This was due in part to the memories of war and destruction, in part to the radical reeducation measures on demilitarization after 1945. This was the basis for postwar German pacifism - even today it sometimes is the source of irritation in international crises.
By the end of the 1940s, almost two-thirds of the German population were against German remilitarization; in the early 1950s, no less than 72 percent rejected any German military involvement. Asked by a radio reporter, the answer of one German woman was typical: "If you've lost your husband and your only brother and if you are left alone with three kids, you don't want to hear about remilitarization. The mere thought of my two adolescent sons having to wear that gray uniform makes me want to scream out: no, no, no!"
Beginning in 1950, the Korean War triggered fears of a Soviet invasion of Germany. Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, fearing a Soviet attack on Europe, offered the Western Allies an opportunity to rebuild German forces.
In 1950, the forerunner of the ministry of defense was founded in Bonn, and first talks between Germans and the Western Allies began. Right from the start Adenauer insisted that the new German forces would not be a national army, but should be integrated into an international security alliance.
The first international conference took place in Paris in 1951. One of the participants was Ulrich de Maizière, a young former Wehrmacht officer who had not been involved in any war crimes or National Socialism.
"We started from a very weak position," the 93-year-old de Maizière recalls today. "We had nothing to offer but our territory. We were an occupied nation; we had no sovereignty and we carried the burden of the Third Reich. Our future partners had to get used to the idea that a former German officer was sitting at the conference table and he also wanted to be listened to."
Back home in Germany the situation was not easy either. The discussion continued about whether or not to have an army and if so what form it should take. The Social Democratic opposition believed that the time for remilitarization had not yet come and was afraid that it would solidify the separation between eastern and western Germany, whereas Chancellor Adenauer strongly argued in the Bundestag that "Germans must not expect the United States, Canada and the West European countries to take the burden of building up a defense front against communism and Germany doing nothing."
But even the members of his own conservative party were not fully convinced. They were concerned about how to prevent this strong executive power from becoming undemocratic and militaristic again.
At that time, de Maizière attended sessions of the defense committee in the Bundestag: "During the first few years, concerns about how to keep the Bundeswehr under control were much greater than about its objectives and future perspectives."
It was soon understood among the politicians that the Bundeswehr would engage in armed conflict only for defense purposes, that it would be controlled by the parliament and that every soldier had the right and the duty to disobey orders which violated national or international law.
In 1954, the French National Assembly scuttled the plans for a European Defense Community. In the spring of 1955, Germany became a member of NATO. The Western Allies were very satisfied with this solution. Lord Ismay, NATO's first Secretary General, summed up the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in one short sentence: To keep America in, to keep Russia out and to keep Germany down.
In this framework, Germany started building up troops and divisions. But this was not that easy. "We had to start from scratch," de Maizière recalls. "The old barracks were occupied either by Allied troops or refugees from the East. We had no transporters, no tanks, no ships, no aircrafts, not even a single rifle because they all had been confiscated. Later on we received our first big batch of weapons from the United States. It was not the latest technology, but something to start with."
Beyond these practical problems, simple decisions were often a delicate matter. Finding a new uniform was one of these, says de Maizière: "We did not want it to look like the old Wehrmacht, nor did we want to look like the Allied occupation armies. On one occasion in Paris, I was called to a high-ranking officer of the U.S. Army. He said: 'I will not interfere with your decision about what German uniforms look like. This is a national matter. But keep in mind what impression it will make when German soldiers are marching along the Champs-Elysées.'"
The biggest problem was deciding who would be wearing the new uniforms. In the beginning, virtually everybody who became a member of the new Bundeswehr had once been an officer in the old Wehrmacht. One had to make sure that applicants stood on democratic ground and had no personal war crime history. "This was no easy task," says Krug. In 1955 he was an interrogator for the lower ranks. "There were many applicants, but I was surprised how many of them exaggerated their personal data, their ranks, the number of medals and so on. They thought it would impress us. But this was not what we were interested in. We wanted to know about the eligibility of their characters and their ability to adapt to the new army. We had to refuse a lot of them and finally got into trouble finding enough men."
In January 1956, the first 3,000 volunteers began their service in the army, air force and navy. Only a few days later, Willy Stoph, prime minister of the German Democratic Republic, announced the deployment of an East German Army, the "Nationale Volksarmee" (National People's Army) as a reaction to the founding of the Bundeswehr. It was established from a paramilitary organization which had existed for many years and had operated under the guise of a police unit.
As Stoph put it, the Nationale Volksarmee's purpose was to protect the "workers' and farmers' state" of East Germany against the "diehard militaristic, imperialist mercenary army of western Germany." The East German army itself had no qualms taking over uniforms, commands, ranks as well as officers from the Wehrmacht. The anti-fascist socialist army in-itself became a repository of German drill and old school militarism.
In 1956, two German armies were set up, one on either side of the Iron Curtain. For more than three decades, they were to confront each other as enemies right in the middle of Germany.
A total of 6,200 of the 190,000 Bundeswehr soldiers are currently deployed outside of Germany:
Afghanistan The Bundeswehr continues to support the rebuilding of Afghanistan. On Sept. 28, the Bundestag agreed to increase the number of German soldiers stationed in Afghanistan from 2,250 to 3,000. They are stationed as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the regions of Kabul and North Afghanistan.
Bosnia Since 1995, Bundeswehr units in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been securing the peace. As part of the multinational peacekeeping force, European Union Force (EUFOR), 1,080 German soldiers are currently stationed in Sarajevo and others locations.
Kosovo On June 2, 2005, the Bundestag decided to extend the mandate for the Bundeswehr deployment KFOR (Kosovo Force). With about 2,600 soldiers, it is the largest troop employed for the mission.
Horn of Africa The Bundeswehr is also involved in the fight against international terrorism. German marines have participated in the operation "Enduring Freedom" with 240 soldiers off the East African coast.
Ethiopia At the United Nations Mission Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), two Bundeswehr officers participated as military observers.
Sudan On April 22, 2005, the Bundestag decided to send up to 75 soldiers to the Sudan. The unarmed soldiers serve in the mission UNMIS as military observers and are personnel on the staff of the peacekeeping mission.
Aceh/Indonesia Ten unarmed Bundeswehr experts currently monitor the peace in Aceh, Indonesia.
Georgia In the United Nations Observer Mission Georgia (UNOMIG), 11 Bundeswehr soldiers are involved.
- Radio journalist Martin Herzog works for WDR, Germany's largest public radio broadcaster.