The deliberations by the German parliament in early December over sending troops to a foreign war were notable for perhaps one aspect above all: the ease with which Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government gained approval to deploy 1,200 German troops to help in the fight against the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS). The government overwhelmingly won a vote in the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, which must approve all military operations. The mission will constitute Germany’s largest current overseas deployment. Germany will provide logistical support and conduct reconnaissance as part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, but German troops will not engage in combat.
Even opponents of the initiative seemed resigned to a move that just a few years ago would have been unacceptable to a majority of Germans. Stefan Liebich, responsible for the foreign policy of the Left Party, admitted on the eve of the vote that a protest his pacifist party had helped organize for that night had little chance of affecting the outcome. “I fear that Germany is becoming less and less willing to say no” to military engagements abroad, Liebich told Newsweek.
For decades, most Germans have been deeply skeptical about building up and using the country’s military. Germany started and lost two world wars in the 20th century, and many Germans feel the military should never again be involved in ventures beyond Germany’s borders. Debates in the Bundestag about sending troops abroad have often been long and rancorous. During the first Gulf War, German leaders decided against joining international allies in the fight against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
But as Germany has grown into Europe’s largest and strongest economy, its leaders are increasingly open to responding to calls from allies to send troops to take part in military engagements abroad. The vote on Syria suggests that the public hostility to such missions seems to be waning. The Left Party’s protest near Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate drew about 2,000 people but, as Liebich predicted, did little to sway members of the Bundestag, nearly 75 percent of whom voted on December 4 to support a campaign against ISIS in Syria.
After World War II, the victorious powers took steps to make sure Germany’s military would never again threaten Europe and the wider world. Allied powers embarked on a re-education process that taught Germans to be suspicious of their military, or Bundeswehr. The constitution limits the military’s activities to defense. “We, the Germans, have been rightly educated as being a pacifist society,” says Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin.
In 1992, Germany sent a small group of military medics to Cambodia, marking the first time it had sent troops overseas in the modern era, but for the most part the country practiced “checkbook diplomacy,” contributing financially to allies’ war efforts. But in 1995, after Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys near the town of Srebrenica, Germans struggled with the decision of whether to get involved in a European war for the first time since the end of WWII. The debate in Germany was cast as a choice between “not another war” and “not another Auschwitz.” Germany contributed to the NATO mission with troops that provided logistical and medical help, billing the mission as a humanitarian operation.
Just a few years later, in 1999, Germany had to decide whether to join NATO partners in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, this time without explicit authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Germany again justified the mission on humanitarian grounds, but critics felt the decision to send ground troops and aircraft to keep the peace in southern Kosovo was overstepping the Bundeswehr’s strict mandate. This was a region, after all, where the Nazi Wehrmacht had been active. “It broke a major taboo,” says Liebich.
Since then, it has become harder for German leaders to say no to calls from NATO allies to join in foreign missions. It still has to convince the German public on a case-by-case basis—but that’s becoming easier.
In 2001, politicians initially justified sending 1,200 troops as part of the NATO force in Afghanistan as a deployment intended to stabilize the country rather than to engage in battle. While the mission drew heavy protests, Germans believed its troops would be building schools and training locals, says Klaus Naumann, a historian at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. But when German troops began to come home in body bags (56 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan), Germans could no longer deny they were in a war.
Today, Germans are growing more accustomed to seeing their troops at war. Since 1992, it has been involved in more than 60 foreign operations, contributing equipment and troops to U.N. and NATO missions throughout Africa, Europe and Asia. About 40 percent of Germans polled in October by the nonprofit Körber Foundation say the country should take more responsibility for international conflicts, up from 34 percent this past January.
Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic Union, Merkel’s party, and a former general staff officer, believes Germany should be more involved in military engagements overseas, especially after the ISIS attacks in Paris in November, but he acknowledges that will require Germans to support increased military investment. Fifty-one percent of Germans surveyed in recent months support more military spending, up from 32 percent in 2014, according to the Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences.
Rainer Arnold, a defense expert for the Social Democrat Party, says politicians still have to convince the German public of the merits of military operations abroad, but he believes Germans are more receptive because they increasingly see the military as a potential force for good. The legacy of the Nazis’ ultranationalism and their ensuing war crimes has long made many Germans hesitant about being publicly proud of their country. Sending German troops overseas, for most Germans, has to be about helping other people, not conquering them. “Patriotism will never inspire the German people,” Arnold told Newsweek minutes after he voted for the anti-ISIS operation. “I believe that is a rather good thing.”