• Berlin
  • John Riceburg: Germany’s army turns 60 – time to retire?


John Riceburg: Germany’s army turns 60 – time to retire?

Last Wednesday evening, the Reichstag was the backdrop for a strange spectacle: Soldiers were marching around with torches, drums and trumpets. John Riceburg investigates.

Image for John Riceburg: Germany's army turns 60 – time to retire?
Photo by John Riceburg

What if Marty McFly and Doc Brown had arrived in Berlin on Wednesday evening? On Wednesday, hundreds of soldiers were marching around in front of the Reichstag with torches, drums and trumpets. What would they have thought? “We accidentally travelled back to the time of the Kaiser!” I was thinking that myself, and I don’t even own a DeLorean.

Ironically, the organisers of this torch march were trying to appear modern and friendly. Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr, just turned 60. And they’re spending more than €10 million for a PR agency to try to convince people to become soldiers.

“We are also fighting for your right to be against us” is the patronizing slogan (among others) being printed on millions of postcards as well as in full-page advertisements in newspapers. Thanks.

They’ve also set up a showroom opposite the train station at Friedrichstraße – kind of like an Apple Store for militarism. But the Bundeswehr clearly lacks a Steve Jobs: Six months after opening, their storefront is usually empty. It’s “a waste of taxpayer money”, as MP Gesine Lötzsch told Berliner Zeitung.

This storefront costs €3000 per day, but the only people who seem to get any use of it are young socialists who need a place to protest. And in the early hours of Monday, unknown activists covered the facade with pink and blue paint. It looks nice, if you ask me.

During high school times in the US, recruiters for the military would interrupt classes for their sales pitches several times a year. A number of my classmates ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan. So one thing I’ve always loved about Germany is the widespread skepticism about the army. When recruiters come to schools here, they’re often greeted with protests.

So why is the army only 60 years old? Well, for marketing reasons, a number of German state institutions had to change their name in the middle of the 20th century. The German army had three different names in the last 100 years: kaiserliches Heer, Wehrmacht and Bundeswehr. But there’s still plenty of continuity, and not just in the officer corps. All three German armies bombed the city of Belgrade: in 1915, 1941 and 1999. In the immortal words of Walter Sobchak: “Fucking Germans. Nothing changes.”

When the Bundeswehr was introduced in 1955, there was broad resistance against the Remilitarisierung. Lots of people just wanted to live in peace – in fact, the Adenauer government prohibited a referendum on whether West Germany should have an army. Now, 60 years later, the Cold War is over and the Bundeswehr is approaching retirement age. Their recent interventions have been expensive and not exactly successful – or does anyone want to claim that they brought peace and prosperity to Afghanistan?

Plus, no one wants to be a soldier any more – just look at their empty showroom and their desperate PR campaigns. So as the army approaches 65, it’s clearly time to start closing up shop. The first thing they can get rid of are those creepy torches.