By Greta Gietz
On September 1st, 75 years after the day Hitler invaded Poland, Angela Merkel made a historic announcement: in the coming weeks Germany will deliver weapons to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga groups under threat by the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq. The United States and other Western countries are already supporting the Kurdish fighters with weapons, but Germany is different. Since the end of World War Two, Germany has become a demilitarized state and prohibited itself from arming other nations or conflict zones on fundamental principle. Germany’s army was since primarily deployed for humanitarian purposes and even to train garbage collection services, like in Afghanistan.
Germany is planning on delivering arms worth around $90 million, including “16,000 G3 and G36 assault rifles, 30 Milan anti-tank missile systems, 240 rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs) and 10,000 hand grenades” according to Reuters.
Merkel fears if the insurgency is not fought, ISIS influence may increase in the Middle East or spread to Germany and Europe. In defending her decision and underlining ISIS’ threat to Germany, the chancellor also referred to European jihadists fighting with ISIS. Merkel continued: “anything which does not conform to their view of the world they simply expunge from the scene…a religion is being abused in the most terrible way.”
Merkel’s opposition in Germany is very critical of the move towards military aid to war zones. The leader of the Left Party, Gregor Gysi, warned of the risks involved with supplying weapons to Iraq. Gysi fears that the weapons will end up in the hands of ISIS and that Germany will “have no influence on how the weapons are used.” The Green Party leader, Anton Hofreiter, agrees that the long-term risks of robust and lasting weapons outweigh their short-term use. Merkel responded to these concerns: “we faced a choice: not to take any risks, not to deliver (arms) and to accept the spread of terror; or to support those who are desperately but courageously fighting the barbarous terror of ISIS with limited resources.” It appears as though Merkel would, like her counterparts, have preferred a political solution to the conflict, but she views ISIS’ risk too “acute.”
Meanwhile, two thirds of Germans, according to recent polls, oppose German military support of the Kurds.
Since unification in 1871, an outcome of a war with neighboring France, two world wars, weak leadership, and aggressive nationalism have devastated Germany. From 1945 to 1989 Germany was occupied and divided, but its western part, embedded in the European Union and NATO, became a model democracy and thrived economically as the “Wirtschaftswunder” (economic miracle) unfolded.
In the late 1990s, however, after reunification, the world’s leading exporting country was labeled as the “sick man of Europe”, a sclerotic society urgently in need of economic and labor reforms. Having righted this under the leaderships of Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, today, Germany is in an unprecedented situation as Europe’s economic powerhouse and lender of last resort for the struggling economies of the Euro zone while still trying to figure out what to do with its newfound power and wealth.
Under Merkel’s administration, the strongest economy in Europe has remained passive when it comes to international leadership or its role in the world, sometimes likened to a gigantic Switzerland with a population of 80 million at the center of Europe. Germany calls the shots in the European Union with its 28 Member States and 500 million people, but it is still deeply intertwined with its past and is made uncomfortable by such hegemonic talk. This has led German statespersons to try to avoid raising concerns within the international community about a strong, remilitarized Germany. Some even fear history may be repeating itself, or at least rhyming.
While Germans have begun showing pride in their country and waving their flags (cautiously), this is largely in response to a successful, young, and multi-cultural soccer team and started with the 2006 FIFA World Cup at home. In retrospect this was the most successful PR exercise ever as the rest of the world – “hosted by friends”, according to the event’s official motto – realized their historical misgivings about the Germans were unfair and unfounded in the here and now.
When German soccer team won the World Cup for the first time as a reunified country on July 13th, 2014, euphoria struck. The excitement, however, was quickly dampened in the media and political scene by alarm and calls for self-restraint – “we don’t want to overdo it”. To many Germans even of the younger generations, 70 years after the end of World War II, national pride is still associated with destructive military conflict and “something to avoid at all costs”. So while soccer and time are helping revive harmless and good-natured patriotism, sentiments remain strictly reserved politically as Germans continue to worry about their image internationally. With this concern in mind, Merkel’s remilitarization efforts appear reckless to her opposition and even to supporters.
The caution is understandable when the militarist legacy is lurking in the shadows and readily conjured up at given occasions by interested parties. During the Euro crisis, for example, it was not uncommon for Greek newspapers to show Merkel in a Hitler mustache. Or when references to “Nazis,” “Blitzkrieg,” and “Hitler” trended on Twitter during Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil in World Cup’s semi-finals. Against this backdrop, Merkel’s recent decision has raised concerns among and may even have come as a shock to the cautious German society who has spent the last 70 years haunted by its history.
It is unclear if German military support to the Kurds will set a precedent for a more active and involved German foreign policy or whether ISIS just presents such an exceptional threat that it will remain a one-off. Providing this military support, however, does show a new side to a Germany that is not just economically strong. A new, democratic Germany that wants to ensure history will never repeat itself is returning to the world stage in a military context.
In remembrance of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939, the act of aggression that triggered World War II, Merkel commemorated the event as the reason for Germany’s passive foreign policy post-1945 – “we Germans will never forget this”.
This September 1st will also go down in history as the day Germany closed a dark chapter and took on its role as a leading democratic world power, ready to use its considerable influence to support the regions and peoples of the world under attack from terrorism and totalitarianism, and unable to help themselves. Germany is taking responsibility in foreign affairs.
Image Source: Federal Government of Germany