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Twenty-First Century Crusades?


Prediction 13: Continued build-up of the EuroArmy

Time for German military to take more active role?
BBC

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, wings outstretched.

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.
Looking forward

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 unique.

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 world?
Time to move on

Earlier this year German President Joachim Gauck made a rare political intervention.

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 Cold War.

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 ignored.

"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, the Reichstag.

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 steel.

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 intervention.

The fourth largest party in the country, its roots are in the ruling East German communist party, and it is still anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

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 little laugh.

"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.
'Big hammer'

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 of leadership.

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 immediately emerging.

"So you cannot design German foreign policy without knowledge of your history."
Ingrained caution

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 shame.

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 fighting?"

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.
 

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