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– Twenty-First Century Crusades?
Continued build-up of the EuroArmy
Time for German military to take more
Look at London, then at Berlin last weekend, and you will understand the
intense debate in Europe's richest country - does it dare to lead again?
A wave of red flowers laps against the walls of an ancient fortress, a
brass band echoes the demolition work of the trumpets of Jericho with
the addition of unbiblical balloons.
The toll of bells and then a silence broken only by the cry of gulls to
honour those who died.
In Germany there are not many memorials to the fallen, but I found one
at the Brandenburg HQ of the modern German army.
It was rescued from a demolished East German barracks; no-one was sure
of its exact dates. Maybe post-WW1, maybe earlier.
An ornate Pikelhaube, the distinctive Prussian helmet, lies between a
wreath of oak leaves and an unsheathed dagger.
Over these emblems a giant German eagle crouches, fierce and protective,
I ask Cpl Stephen Giese, 21, who has been in the German Army a year and
a month, what he thinks of those Germans who died in the two world wars.
"I'm very proud of how they served the army considering the
circumstances and knowing that the war was probably lost anyway.
"I think today you can't approve of it, but their courage and steadfast
duty is impressive," he said.
It is a welcome relief from the two-dimensional world of the tabloids
where heroes are always on the right side and their opponents are bad,
or mad, and always cowardly. His reflective, thoughtful approach to war
is very German.
But the young soldier is also determined that his country's past should
not hamstring its future.
"It is part of the education [of a potential officer] to be sent
overseas. I think it is our job and our duty to protect the liberty and
democracy of our own country and I'm ready to do so.
"I think there are regions in this world where it is necessary to fight,
because talking isn't enough or people wouldn't agree on talking.
"But the first step should always be a verbal exchange and no fighting."
In Berlin, history is never far away.
A short walk from the celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate is the
Holocaust Memorial, itself not far from the unmarked spot where Hitler's
bunker once was.
The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is overwhelming and
unsettling, as it is meant to be.
You walk down an uneven surface, deeper and deeper into rows of looming
stone blocks. They mark the pitiless murder of millions from many
countries by the leaders of one country.
If nations define themselves, and their sense of history, by what they
choose to remember, and what they choose to forget, then Germany is
It chooses to remember with dogged determination its darkest sins,
rubbing its own face in the mess of its past, to teach itself a lesson.
But history does not stand still.
Ever since the fall of the wall there has been a debate about when
Germany can become a "normal" country.
It is sometimes rather more philosophical than political.
But now the debate has reached a tipping point - what more can the
richest and most powerful country in Europe do in a very uncertain
Time to move on
Earlier this year German President Joachim Gauck made a rare political
He said the country could not continue to hide behind its past.
He warned that there were "people who use Germany's guilt for its past
as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world".
Forcefully, he added: "At this very moment, the world's only superpower
is reconsidering the scale and form of its global engagement.
"Europe, its partner, is busy navel-gazing. I don't believe that Germany
can simply carry on as before in the face of these developments."
The foreign minister and the defence minister have followed suit,
arguing that Germany should do more.
The times, some say, demand it.
This time last year, the thought of fighting in Ukraine would have
sounded like a sick fiction.
Now former leaders and important think tanks talk of a return of the
The war in the Middle East is hot enough to have melted the map, and
created a new enemy.
Volker Perethes, the director of the influential German think tank the
Institute for Foreign and Security Affairs, told me this cannot be
"If you want to be a co-leader in Europe it is not enough to concentrate
on economics and finance.
"You have to co-operate with others to take care of the geopolitical
environment. That is not in our political DNA.
"We don't start by thinking about the military when we think about
international relations. But what has changed is that we are no longer
excluding the military."
Call for intervention
Any decision will be taken in one of my favourite buildings in Europe,
It is something of a symbol of Modern Germany - partially destroyed in
what many believe was a Nazi arson attack in 1933, it was rebuilt in
1999 not by lovingly recrafting the past, but by defiantly topping it
with the very modern and very beautiful Norman Foster dome in glass and
Melding historical caution and future forays into foreign affairs may be
more problematic. But things are on the move.
One sign is that that even some in the Left Party want more
The fourth largest party in the country, its roots are in the ruling
East German communist party, and it is still anti-capitalist and
But the party's Stefan Liebich, a member of the foreign affairs
committee, told me the situation in Syria merits action.
"I think there can be situations where you need even German intervention
and there are situations, like Kobane in northern Syria, where the Kurds
are fighting for their life, where I'd strongly recommend the UN support
them with military action."
What about the German air force going in, I ask. "No," he says, with a
"So someone else should do it?"
"The permanent five of the UN Security Council have a strong
responsibility," he says.
This ambivalence has a real impact.
German spends just 1.3% of GDP on its armed forces, well short of the 2%
demanded by Nato.
A recent report to parliament indicates that helicopters, fighters and
tanks are in a serious state of disrepair.
Many of those I spoke to cautioned me: Germany would be doing more, but
that didn't automatically mean taking military action.
This is an important point for the rest of us - as Obama put it, just
because you have a big hammer, doesn't mean every problem is a nail.
But the past haunts not only the use of military force but the very idea
There is no doubt Germany has been forthright and firm during the
economic crisis - and the Social Democratic Party's Neils Annen wasn't
the only one to point to the result.
"If Germany was to change its leadership style and tell other European
countries what to do on Ukraine or Syria, it is not going to work.
"When Mrs Merkel introduced austerity programmes, we saw pictures of her
with the Hakenkreuz - the swastika, the old images of Germany almost
"So you cannot design German foreign policy without knowledge of your
It is clear that if Germany overcomes its hesitancy and guilt, it will
not overcome caution and a different approach to violence.
The many divisions between Britain and continental Europe are sharpest
when they come to World War Two.
For most countries, aggressors or victims in that war, it is a source of
For us, it was our finest hour, proof positive that standing up
forcefully, heroically, against all the odds can lead to victory.
British politicians are a product of a history that sees force as a
solution, and pain as a price. In Germany the haunting ghosts may
transmogrify into better angels.
There is no better example than the tall, genial, thoughtful man in
camouflage, the red eagle of Brandenburg on a shield on his uniform.
Lt Col Uwe Nowitzki tells me: "It is right for us Germans not to forget
our past and that comes up every day in the normal life of a soldier."
How? I interject.
"You are thinking about it. And if you are on a mission then you are
thinking very carefully whether an operation is right this way or that
way, are there other solutions, are there on the ground diplomatic
solutions that we could look at, are there any other ways than
I put it to him that Germany's soldiers have been mocked for their rules
of engagement, with one Nato officer apparently calling them "an
aggressive camping organization".
He says: "Of course we have rules given by the parliament and that is
what I want to stress, the final decision is done by the parliament.
"They talk before they send our sons, our daughters into a war where
they might lose their life.
"War is not now something you tell the population to do, and the
population goes into a war shouting 'hurrah!'"
Germany will never shout "hurrah" at war and it still hopes that it will
not have to do more of it.