BERLIN — When Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a recent reception for military families, she greeted parents, wives and children whose loved ones were spending their holidays in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Kosovo and off the Horn of Africa. German deployments overseas, Merkel said, “will soon encompass the entire globe."
On that same wintry afternoon, members of Parliament debated whether to add to the nearly 6,000 German troops currently serving abroad by sending up to 400 soldiers to Turkey, where they would operate two Patriot missile batteries to help protect their NATO ally from a potential escalation of the civil war across the border in Syria.
“For decades, we Germans have benefited from the fact that our partners gave us the feeling of reliable security," Thomas de Maiziere, Germany’s defense minister, said during the debate last month. “Now we are in a position and have the duty, even, to make our impact felt."
Only a handful of shivering protesters passed out fliers in front of the Brandenburg Gate opposing the deployment. The vote easily passed in the Parliament two days later.
It was not that long ago that every German military action brought with it mass demonstrations, public hand-wringing and probing questions about the country’s militarist past. But the shadow of history continues to recede here, and Germany is, for better or worse, quietly approaching a normal relationship with its armed forces.
For the past three years, Europe has been preoccupied with economic issues as the debt crisis threatened to sunder the euro currency union. But strategic military questions cannot be ignored indefinitely. The United States is increasingly shifting its focus to the Asia-Pacific region and reducing the number of troops stationed in Europe.
“Europe has more responsibility for its own security, and Germany has to step up to that, particularly considering its new economic power in Europe," said Constanze Stelzenmueller, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
Conscription was suspended indefinitely here in 2011 as part of a drive to professionalize and modernize the armed forces. In August, the Constitutional Court ruled for the first time that the German military could be deployed at home under exceptional circumstances, like in the wake of a terrorist attack.
“Naturally, a great deal has developed further in terms of the acceptance of deployments outside of this country and outside the NATO territory," said Col. Ulrich Kirsch, chairman of the German Federal Armed Forces Association, which represents the interests of active and former military personnel. “But the Germans are, now as before, difficult to inspire for military operations."
Military business is another matter. Germany is the world’s third-biggest arms exporter, behind only the United States and Russia, sending weapons not only to NATO members and allies like Israel but increasingly to the Middle East and beyond. As the business grows, critics at home question sales to undemocratic countries like Saudi Arabia.
Germany’s military industry employs an estimated 80,000 people, jobs Merkel wants to protect, especially less than a year before September’s parliamentary election. In October, German opposition helped doom the proposed merger of two aerospace giants, British-based BAE Systems and the consortium EADS, in part out of concern that German jobs and influence might be lost in the new entity.
Germany’s path forward could well determine the shape of Europe’s military affairs for years to come. Whether that is through a growing leadership role and the assumption of more responsibility for regional security or a limited, some say cynical, emphasis on protecting its own interests still remains to be seen.
“Germany is back in the game as one of the most important countries in the Western Hemisphere, but the kind of responsibility that goes with that is not really reflected in German government behavior," said Olaf Boehnke, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If Germany wants to be in a leadership position, you need stronger military engagement."
German troops have been in Afghanistan for more than a decade, but mostly restricted to the safer northern part of the country. The Bundeswehr, Germany’s army, sent its first Tiger attack helicopters to Afghanistan in December. On Tuesday, the army announced that it had not suffered a single fatality in 2012 in Afghanistan.
“This conflict-averse basic attitude still remains, and one has to deal with it," said Martin Kahl, a political scientist at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. “People feel safer than before. There is no enemy on the European continent who could lead a classic conflict."
After World War II, West German politicians rejected military force for any goal other than self-defense, and a strong pacifist streak developed in the public. The end of the Cold War brought the beginning of a long period of halting change. Allies, particularly in the United States, have repeatedly called for Germany to take more responsibility and a larger share of the burden.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for the future of Europe to give Germany this refuge where Germany handles the economy and doesn’t have to deal with the dirty stuff," Boehnke said.