Germany's Wartime Debate

“Post-War” Takes on New Meaning in Germany

Comrades in Arms: German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (R) with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Sept. 19, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Around the globe, pundits are talking about how the world has changed since Sept. 11, 2001. And it has. U.S. troops are based in Central Asian former Soviet republics, and are fighting in Afghanistan with Russia's consent and active support. Pakistan is allied with the United States against the Taliban. British Prime Minister Tony Blair often appears to be acting as an “ambassador” of sorts for U.S. President George W. Bush. But all this could change once the war on terrorism runs its circuitous course. What has changed permanently since Sept. 11?

Well, to begin with, Germany has. The federal republic has entered a new era as Europe's reticent great power. After a decade of post-reunification quietude, its post-war era of minimal military meddling is at an end.

The change did not come easily, and that it was made at all is largely thanks to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's dramatic political helmsmanship. Shortly after Sept. 11, he pledged unconditional political and military support for the Bush administration's war on terror. He cited both Germany's commitment to the United States and its national interest in combating terrorism, knowing that for the first time since World War II the country could be entering a war. Two months later, when the call came from Washington requesting specific German assistance—a deployment of 3,900 troops—Schröder did not flinch. He took it to the parliament in Berlin and won approval for the deployment after a tense political struggle, in which he tied the issue to a vote of confidence in his government and thus pushed his agenda through in a show of strength.

Somewhere, though we do not know where yet, a large German force will play a part in this war—probably in post-Taliban Afghanistan. This is a lot for Germans to swallow, accustomed as they are to smaller deployments and bloodless interventions such as policing operations in former Yugoslavia.

Schröder's hawkish stance left the German press in uncomfortably unfamiliar territory. Left-leaning journals, traditional supporters of Schröder's Social Democratic party, grumbled that pacifists in the governing coalition had been forced to back down, but could not help expressing pride in the triumph of Schröder's will.

Meanwhile, Schröder's traditional critics in the conservative press stretched awkwardly to fault the chancellor, who, despite his socialist politics, has chosen a course of solidarity with the United States just as steadfast as they would have charted themselves.

Writing in Der Spiegel (liberal), commentator Rudolf Augstein fretted about the extent of Germany's new military commitment. Schröder, he reminded readers, had promised once upon a time to keep Germany out of any military “adventures.” “Schröder's position has been this: cool strategy, no adventures. But the United States' plans for its 'war on terrorism' are adventurous. The chancellor has promised Washington unshrinking solidarity without really knowing what Bush has actually planned,” he wrote on Sept. 19.

Augstein's “war on terrorism” never breaks out of quotation marks. Yet he did not bring himself to oppose military intervention completely. He merely expressed doubts that many on Germany's elected left still quietly harbor: “Germany must rethink its relationship with the United States, so long as President Bush sticks to his arrogant line: 'he who is not with us is against us.' This time Schröder and his foreign minister willingly rolled over.”

Yet liberal German newspapers also praised the chancellor's vision. The opinion page of Berlin's Berliner Zeitung newspaper—once an organ of official socialism in the German Democratic Republic, since converted into a more rambunctious local paper with a national readership—is a valuable gauge of centrist and left-wing opinion in Germany at any given time. On Nov. 20, commentator Rainer Poertner wrote in Berliner Zeitung that the government had “shown everyone that it will not back down, despite stubborn domestic political resistance against plans for the German military to join the war on terror.”

Poertner wrote that this would be a starting point, from whence Germany may take on new diplomatic weight and greater expectations from the international community. If Berlin takes a leading role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, Poertner argued, then it brings NATO and the European Union into the rebuilding of Afghanistan as well.

Acting as an agent of change for these power blocks, “it will be increasingly difficult for Germany to opt out of participation in multinational peacekeeping forces,” he predicted.

Not long ago, such talk of a lasting German military influence in the world would have caused outrage not just on the left, but also across much of the country's political spectrum. That it appeared on the opinion pages of Berliner Zeitung to so little criticism indicates that Germany may have rounded a corner in its political history.

Conservative commentators, usually more at ease with military matters, also found themselves in an uncomfortable position as they responded to Schröder's new hawkish stance. Commentators jumped at the opportunity to point out the “hypocrisy” of career pacifists who voted for Schröder's military commitment rather than breaking his governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens apart. “Those who try to be both for and against such a motion are not in the [political] center, but rather on the verge of becoming a laughingstock,” wrote Stefan Dietrich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (conservative) on Nov. 21.

What Dietrich did not mention was that career hawks voted unanimously against the military commitment they would have liked to support, rather than daring to show support for the government in its moment of fragility. Had the parliament's right-wing parties given their support, the vote in favor of sending German troops to Afghanistan would have been nearly unanimous.

If those troops go in, it will be a memorable time for Germany—for the first time since World War II, the country will participate in a “real” war. Only Germany's oldest generation remembers what that means. Germany's last war left it an international outcast on the brink of total destruction. After this one, the term “post-war” may take on a wholly new meaning in Germany.