EUROPEAN AFFAIRS by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Germany's new army: Will it roll the iron dice?
, February 25, 2017
Armed forces are one of the primary attributes of a nation state. Even the Vatican has the Swiss Guard to safeguard the Pope.
After World War I, the victorious Allies, and the United States, attempted unsuccessfully to prevent German rearmament. Following World War II, the Allies were similarly unenthusiastic about German rearmament, until they realised that the Soviet Union was the more likely antagonist.
Historically, the invasion routes from East to West in Germany have been the same since Roman times, probably even earlier. The Fulda Gap contains two corridors on an East-West axis, along which Soviet armoured divisions could be expected to mount a surprise attack. During the Cold War, most U.S. troops were stationed here.
General Colin Powell, later chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff and then U.S. Secretary of State, was stationed here twice – first as a young lieutenant and later as corps commander. His role was to plug the Fulda Gap. The alternative to halting the Soviet tanks on the battlefield was to use tactical nuclear weapons: not the most savoury option. The frontline manpower in central Europe for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is largely German.
The BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Army was mainly a conscript force. Morale was low and the Army was not held in great public esteem. The Army of the Federal Republic of Germany was being hobbled by its past. However, the Bundeswehr has gained new pride and grown in public esteem since it became an all-volunteer force.
Three times within a century Germany had rolled the iron dice. In the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870–May 1871) the German forces, led by Prussia, had crushed France. The consequence was a united Germany, led by the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. On war, Bismarck said in Parliament: “The decision will come only from God, from the God of battles, when he lets fall from his hands the iron dice of destiny.”
When Germany rolled the iron dice again in July 1914, the bloodletting only ceased in November 1918. Europe had not seen a war with this full horror in centuries. The Great War left Germany substantially weakened. As any map of pre-World War I Europe will clearly show, Germany dominated central Europe. It was left diminished in both territory and population.
Germany was stripped of its overseas colonies. The pride of the German Navy, the High Seas Fleet, was scuttled at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, following its surrender to the Allies. The Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet had not been able to defeat the High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, but the High Seas Fleet’s tactical victory was transmuted into a strategic disaster.
The end of conscription in Germany has raised the esteem of the armed forces in the eyes of the public. Technically, conscription has been “suspended” but forced military service is unwieldy in modern times and it is unlikely to return. The Bundeswehr has 177,000 active personnel, placing it among the top 30 largest armed forces in the world.
World War II, from its beginnings in September 1939 to its end in May 1945 in Europe, was an unmitigated disaster for Germany. The war was over in August 1943, when the Soviets fought the Wehrmacht to a halt in the Battle of Kursk, the biggest tank battle in history. This defeat at Kursk was worse, in military terms, even than the loss of Paulus’ 6th Army at Stalingrad. The Wehrmacht never regained the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. The Germans knew the war was lost, but they could not accept the only terms the Allies would offer – unconditional surrender.
Hitler was extremely lucky. He survived numerous attempts on his life, including the one that was most likely to succeed – the assassination attempt led by Claus Graf von Stauffenberg, a German aristocrat and career Army officer. The date of the assassination attempt – July 20, 1944 – is now celebrated as Army Day in the united Germany, to commemorate the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the cause of killing a murderous tyrant.
The Germans have always been at the forefront of military thought. The concept of the General Staff, while initially developed by the Austrians (who were, of course, considered to be German, if slightly removed) was more fully developed by the Prussians. The most celebrated thinker in military strategy is Carl von Clausewitz (1789–1831). Clausewitz’s most famous dictum is that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.
Had Hitler paid more attention to Clausewitz, he might have gone into war with more limited and achievable aims, not Operation Barbarossa, which aimed to conquer Russia and replace its Slavic population with Folksdeutsche and other Nordic peoples.
While the Wehrmacht did not usually execute the “lesser breeds”, it did cooperate with the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads). The aim was to kill the Jews and expel the Slavs to beyond the Urals. The man who did this was Odilo Globocnik (see Joseph Poprzeczny, Odilo Globocnik: Hitler’s Man in the East. McFarland, Jefferson NC, 2004). Wehrmacht cooperation with the Einsatzgruppen, while was not universal, was a source of great shame for the Wehrmacht: they were supposed to be warriors, not collaborators in the murder of women and children.
Among Clausewitz’s many contributions to the theory of war, propounded in his magnum opus, On War (German edition 1832, English edition 1873), was the idea of the fog of war, by which he meant that decision makers become disoriented due to poor information emerging from the battlefield.
Today, Germany has a population of 90 million – big, but not big enough to threaten Europe. Germany, like Russia, has been weakened by war and never really recovered from its losses in the world wars. Much of its equipment is run down and needs replacing. Defence spending, though, is rising. The threat, as ever, comes from the East.
The people of Germany have new pride in their Army. But armies need young men and Germany’s birthrate is among the lowest in the world. Will Germany roll the iron dice again? I very much doubt it.