Can Germany get the Bundeswehr fighting fit?

Despite the heavy baggage of the twentieth century, the country must now step up to its NATO responsibilities.

German Army Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion transport helicopter performing at the Tag der Bundeswehr. Credit: VDWI Aviation / Alamy Stock Photo
German Army Sikorsky CH-53 Stallion transport helicopter performing at the Tag der Bundeswehr. Credit: VDWI Aviation / Alamy Stock Photo

Germany’s armed forces have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. For years, the Bundeswehr has been ridiculed for the woeful state of its combat readiness. More recently, the war in Ukraine has revealed the depletion of its arsenal. Now, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promised drastic change. But delivering it will take more than money and words.

When the Bundeswehr was originally set up in 1955, only ten years after the end of the Second World War, it had to make a conscious effort to start as an entirely new force without legal or ideological ties to the German armies that preceded it. It needed to distance itself from the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht under the Nazi banner, as well as the long-term taint of Prussian militarism, in order to convince the West that it could be trusted after its role in the bloodiest war in human history. The name Bundeswehr (Federal Defence) was suggested to highlight its intent to defend democracy rather than expand dictatorship.

The Bundeswehr was also immediately and deliberately shackled to NATO. Hastings Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, famously remarked that his organisation existed to ‘keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. Yet, under its first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, West Germany quickly regained the trust of the democratic world and made its NATO contingent the backbone of the alliance’s defence of Western Europe. Crucially, West Germany began to allow the Americans to store their nuclear weaponry on German soil, which could be deployed from German Tornado bombers, allowing the country to take a stake in nuclear deterrence without developing its own technology.

However, since reunification in 1990, Germany took the view that tensions with Russia had come to an end and defence spending could be reduced. East Germany’s army was dissolved and the Bundeswehr itself was systematically scaled back over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. Whereas the West German government had spent around 3% of GDP on defence throughout the 1970s and 80s, unified Germany reached a nadir of 1.1% in 2005. The result was a Bundeswehr no longer able to defend the country, never mind Europe or the Western alliance. It lacked funds, as well as purpose and direction.

Then, in response to Putin’s war, Scholz announced a Zeitenwende, a watershed moment in German security policy. Pledging that Germany would raise military spending to 2% of GDP, he also provided a staggering €100 billion to kickstart the rebuilding process.

The sheer scale of this investment is a statement of intent, doubling the entire annual budget of 2021 on top of regular defence spending. Such intent is desperately needed. In 2017, when Angela Merkel clashed with Donald Trump over Germany’s lack of commitment to NATO, the country was spending a mere 1.2% of its GDP on defence.

Chronic underfunding has hollowed out the Bundeswehr. When Eva Högl, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, inspected German troops stationed in Lithuania in February, she was shocked to find that they lacked ‘warm coats and underwear’. German army chief Alfons Mais then admitted that the Bundeswehr had been ‘caught with its pants down’ by the conflict in Ukraine.

But the Bundeswehr’s wish list includes a whole lot more than underpants. The country’s aging Tornado jets need to be replaced by American F-35s at an estimated cost of €4 billion. Replenishing ammunition will add €20 billion to the bill; another €5 billion sum is earmarked for helicopters. Civil defence has also been neglected. And so the list of maintenance needs goes on, not leaving much room for innovation.

Changing minds will pose an even bigger challenge. The entire political spectrum had seen German reunification in 1990 as a happy ending to the troubling story of human conflict – a notion too comforting to taint with doubt. The heavy baggage of Germany’s twentieth century could finally be offloaded into the annals of history, or so it had seemed until the invasion of Ukraine.

While Scholz himself may have acknowledged this turning point, not everyone has responded with the required urgency. Crucially, Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht seems reluctant to embrace the immense challenges for her department. The German weekly, Der Spiegel, has gone as far as to dub her the ‘Can’t-Be-Bothered Minister’.

Recent scandals over taking her son to a holiday retreat in a government helicopter aside, there are deeper issues with Lambrecht’s lack of commitment. The Defence Ministry overseas the work of 265,000 men and women and, while nobody expects a new boss to find her way around a large body of staff immediately, Lambrecht, now months into the job, has seemingly not even learnt the name of her Air Force commander (she had to check her notes when introducing him at a public event). What’s more, she has admitted that she has no intention of trying to understand the rank system of the forces she leads and will simply address everyone by their last names. Such indifference makes her utterly unsuited for the mammoth task of restructuring the Bundeswehr.

Another huge obstacle is the somewhat fractious relationship the German public have with their armed forces. On the one hand, surveys have repeatedly shown that Germans trust the Bundeswehr and see it as a force for good. On the other hand, a majority has also tended to oppose an increase in spending. In 2018, a YouGov survey showed that only 15% of respondents thought it was right to exceed 1.5% of GDP on defence spending. Germans had no idea how woefully underfunded the military was.

This is largely due to a lack of contact between the Bundeswehr and the public. Due to Germany’s history, the country has been reluctant to embrace a close relationship with its military in the way other countries, such as the UK, the US or France do. It is rare for German soldiers to visit schools, for example. Instead, they are often exposed to open contempt. As Professor Hedwig Richter from the University of the Bundeswehr put it: ‘Every idiot feels free to insult soldiers on the train.’

As a result, the Bundeswehr comes across as rather clumsy when it comes to PR, as a large-scale exercise currently being carried out with 7,500 soldiers in Lower Saxony shows. When Major Florian B. arrived to inspect the local area, he was astonished to find that ‘lots of children turned up and fired endless questions at us about the equipment, vehicles and tents’. The mayor of the local village showed similarly keen interest, requesting if primary school children might be given a tour of the camp. The soldiers agreed and showed the students around – an encounter that touched Brigadier General Alexander Krone so much that he spoke of a ‘loving interlocking’ of society and the Bundeswehr. And yet there are no plans to roll out similar public encounters to normalise the existence of strong armed forces.

The scale of the task to make Germany fighting fit can hardly be overestimated. Berlin’s wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly at the best of times. But the situation is urgent: Ukrainians need support, Russian threats require deterrence, and Germany needs to grow into a role within NATO that befits its size, wealth and geopolitical position.

If Scholz means business he needs to do more than commit funds. Germany needs a capable, creative and determined defence minister. Experts from outside the old political establishments should be brought in to energise Germany’s security strategy and the Bundeswehr should be given the means and motivation to reset its relationship with the public. What is required is nothing less than what Scholz announced: a turning point in German history, a Zeitenwende.


Katja Hoyer