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Germany and its Citizens in Uniform (November 15, 2009)

This German-based reporter for The New York Times describes the distant relationship between the German public and members of the German armed forces. He contrasts Germany with the U.S., where soldiers enjoy broad public support.

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No Parade for Hans

BERLIN — Often, as I have passed through the main train station here in the German capital, I have seen the sad, lone figure of a soldier, heavy pack on his back, waiting for a train like the rest of us, but separated from the crowd by the uniform he wears. No one would stop to thank him for his service or to ask whether he had been deployed to Afghanistan.

The loneliness was obvious, but at times I even sensed what I thought might have been fear, at the occasional hostile looks the soldier would receive alongside the impassiveness of the broader masses on the platform, who just tried to pretend he wasn’t there.

In Afghanistan recently, where German troops are engaged in ground combat the likes of which their military hasn’t seen since World War II, I described my impressions of the home front to a group of soldiers from a reconnaissance company.

A staff sergeant, who had been risking his life almost daily outside Kunduz, recalled a trip to Berlin during which he was wearing his uniform at a train stop. He was told to make himself scarce or he would be beaten up.

“It was shocking,” said the sergeant, Marcel B., who, according to German military rules, could not be fully identified. “We’re looked down on. With American soldiers, they tell me how they receive recognition, how people just come up to them and say they’re doing good.”

Last Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first German leader to mark the armistice that ended World War I with French officials in Paris.

It was one more sign of how far her country had come in repairing relationships with its former enemies, now its allies and partners. In fact, Germany carries the European sensibility about war — forged out of centuries of violence and in particular the 20th century’s devastation — even beyond where the French, the British, the Dutch and others do.

Instead of marking Veterans Day or Armistice Day on Nov. 11, Germany on Sunday observes Volkstrauertag, its national day of mourning for soldiers and civilians alike who died in war, as well as for victims of violent oppression. German society has a complicated relationship with war, due to the Nazi era. The result has been a generally pacifist bent and an opposition to most armed conflicts; that includes majority opposition to the Afghanistan mission, which often expresses itself as a mistrust of those in uniform.

In this, there is a profound contrast to current attitudes in the United States, where even opponents of recent military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken pains to express support for the ordinary soldier who has been sent to fight and perhaps die.

The German men and women in Afghanistan set off for war without the support of the populace, and they know that when they return there won’t be crowds cheering in the streets, ready to make heroes of them. Germany has turned its back on hero worship. The soldiers fight alone.

“This sense of appreciation, you don’t get that, the feeling that wearing your uniform people are going to be proud of you,” said Heike Groos, who has written about her time as a German military doctor in Afghanistan. “Young people die. Young people are badly wounded and one feels out of place and lonely when one thinks, ‘No one in Germany understands and no one in Germany is even interested’.”

The German military was revived in the 1950’s as a linchpin in the NATO barrier to Soviet expansion, but it was limited to a defensive role. Although they trained and took part in disaster assistance, German forces did not face combat until taking part in NATO’s Balkan campaigns in the 1990s. Now the German military is trying to come to terms with the radically different realities facing the professional soldiers in combat in Afghanistan (conscripts can be sent only if they voluntarily extend their service).

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