At the end of May, German police commandos arrived outside a rural home owned by a sergeant major in that country’s most elite special forces unit, the KSK. Buried in the backyard they found a trove of weapons, explosives and Nazi memorabilia. In response, Germany’s defense minister announced that she would disband one-quarter of the unit because of the widespread infiltration of far-right extremists into its ranks. But as several news reports have made clear, it is suspected that the infiltration extends far beyond a single segment of the KSK.
Being a soldier in Germany has long been a fraught proposition given the stain of its Nazi past, a history that, like the explosives in the sergeant major’s garden, the government has been attempting to bury for decades.
Like the American military, the German Bundeswehr is an all-volunteer force, with conscription having ended in 2011; that, combined with the public disapproval of Germany’s participation in the war in Afghanistan and an increasing number of other commitments abroad, has created a widening civil-military divide, much like the one that exists in the United States.
Unlike the American military, though, the Bundeswehr is in many ways an ahistoric organization, officially cut off from its complicated past. The acceptable history of the German military is codified in the Bundeswehr by its “Traditionserlass” (“tradition decree”). In that document (first enacted in 1965; a new one was issued in 2018), the current army purges its Wehrmacht past and traces its lineage instead to dissident officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the failed July 1944 Stauffenberg plot.
Given the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes, Germany’s disavowal as it attempted to reestablish its military after World War II is understandable. But the KSK revelations raise the possibility that in scrubbing its military’s history, the government failed to confront its past, but rather buried it, and in doing so, left that history — one easily weaponized — vulnerable to co-option by radicals, unchecked by the sort of moral framework that the full, open engagement of a society can provide.
America’s military is now reckoning with chapters of its own past — from the genocide of Indigenous people that enabled the settling of the continent, to our Civil War and beyond — and I believe that Germany now offers us a cautionary example of what can happen when a nation buries its past too deeply. I worry that if our own military sets itself too stridently against its complex history, it might unleash similarly malicious forces.
I welcome many of the measures being taken to more fully render that history — proposals to redesignate bases named after Confederate generals and, as the Marine Corps has done, banning the display of the Confederate flag on base. But I am convinced that a much broader erasure of controversial figures and chapters of American military history would be a mistake.
Take Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general and former superintendent of West Point. Every young military officer learns about Lee. We learn about the Battle of Chancellorsville when, in May of 1863, Lee made the audacious decision to split his army and go on the offense against a force twice its size and subsequently routed the Union Army in a victory that became known as “Lee’s Miracle.” We also learn how two months later, at Gettysburg, Lee’s same offensive spirit and blind faith in his soldiers’ abilities led him to order Pickett’s Charge, his greatest strategic blunder, one that cost him the battle and, some say, the war. Our instructors taught this history as an example of how a commander’s attributes can be a strength in one case and a liability in another. We studied Lee to understand the human element that, with all its attendant complexity and contradictions, is omnipresent in war. You cannot understand war by understanding only its moral exemplars.
Suppose we cast Lee’s story outside the pantheon of American military history, following the German model? What if we focused solely on the military leaders who fought for causes of which we approved? That’s a dangerous proposition in a profession where your job is to understand and anticipate your enemy’s actions. Learning to think like a Confederate, a Nazi or a card-carrying member of Al Qaeda requires a psychological empathy and academic rigor to which “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are anathema.
Even if removed from military curriculums, Lee’s story and many like it will continue to be sought out and learned. But future tactical disciples who find Lee outside of a structured education risk omitting his failings. We want future soldiers to learn Gettysburg and Chancellorsville. To learn the brilliance and the failure.
That is what has happened in German military units like the KSK, where Nazis like the brash Otto Skorzeny — who led one of the most audacious commando missions of all time, the rescue of Benito Mussolini, and an attempt to capture the Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito — remain unclaimed by the Bundeswehr, and are venerated as spiritual fathers by the far right in unofficial, secretive meetings rife with Nazi symbolism, rather than studied with clear understandings of both tactical genius and ideological bigotry.
Much of what I learned about Germany’s military I learned in the context of our military. It should go without saying that this appreciation wasn’t ideological but tactical. In various military schools and courses, my instructors assigned a range of military strategists: from the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and wrote the seminal text “On War” (“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” he famously said), to U.S. Adm. William McRaven, whose first book featured the Wehrmacht’s 1940 commando raid on the Belgian fort Eben Emael as a case study to demonstrate principles we’d later use on raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tactical influence of the German Army appears everywhere from the Marine Corps core doctrinal publication “MCDP-1 Warfighting” (spelled as one word, in the German way) to the design of the standard-issue Kevlar helmets worn by soldiers in the U.S. military.
Although Germany’s airbrushed narrative has granted its military an acceptable place in society, some historians believe it has helped foster the current far-right extremism in its ranks. I spoke with Klaus Schmider, a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, who believes that the German government has “brought the current crisis on themselves by refusing to give German soldiers a positive self-image as soldiers.” To be a soldier in Germany, he said, one must “repeat a mantra how being a soldier isn’t really being a warrior.” This goes beyond the Nazi past: “Even units which are able to trace their lineage to the wars against Napoleon have recently been actively encouraged by the ministry to empty any display cases with mementos from that period, because of the eventual Prussian influence within the Wehrmacht,” Dr. Schmider said.
When I think of our nation’s complicated past — Confederate or otherwise — I prefer to associate those symbols with our society’s dead-enders. I would much rather see the “Stars and Bars” flown in a backwater by one of those brittle souls being left behind by a pluralistic, inclusive America, rather than unfurled in a basement one night 10, 20 or 30 years in the future by a group of active-duty, if disaffected, SEALs, Rangers or Marines who’ve appropriated it as their own. The former would be troublesome, but the latter would be a threat to our republic.
History teaches us that civil-military divides like those that exist in the United States and Germany can become fertile soil for grievance. The seeds of discontent exist in the pasts of both countries. But it is best to leave those seeds scattered on the surface, where they can be picked at and disregarded, instead of buried deep in the earth, where they can eventually take root, breaking ground in twisted, unexpected ways.
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