Berlin struggles to sell Afghan 'war' to gun-shy Germans

25th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Sixty-five years after the war, the German government is struggling to sell a largely pacifist electorate on the notion that the military is there to fight and die in countries like Afghanistan.

"Death and wounds have become companions to our military deployments and they will remain so in the coming years, and not just in Afghanistan," Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said at the weekend.

The remarks, made during a memorial service at a cathedral in the southern city of Ingolstadt for four German soldiers killed in Afghanistan this month, were among the frankest on the issue of battlefield bloodshed uttered by a German minister since World War II.

Berlin is not only attempting to convince Germans that the mission in Afghanistan is in the interest of national security, but to establish an accepted precedent of German soldiers sacrificing their lives in action abroad.

The German military has participated since national unification in 1990 in NATO and United Nations military missions from Kosovo to the coastline of Lebanon but Afghanistan is its first combat theatre.

And Germany, which still bears the shame of the horrors unleashed by the Nazis, retains a deep aversion to war.

Some 70 percent support the immediate withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, according to a poll by independent opinion research institute Infratest dimap.

The German deployment in the strife-wracked country began in 2002 and was long known as a "stabilisation mission".

The euphemism allowed Germans to believe the myth that the soldiers, now numbering about 4,400, were in the country to build schools and dig wells, not to fight Taliban insurgents.

The 38-year-old Guttenberg, who became defence minister in October, was the first to use the word "war" to describe the situation on the ground in Afghanistan -- breaking a long-standing taboo.

Earlier this month, at a funeral for another three soldiers killed in Afghanistan, he said Germans could be proud of the fallen men, calling them "heroes" -- flag-waving rhetoric that marked a similar break with postwar norms.

In a similar vein, Chancellor Angela Merkel last week saluted the "bravery" of the troops and called on Germans to appreciate their sacrifice after the death toll rose this month to 43.

"All soldiers serving in Afghanistan deserve our solidarity and our compassion. They live in constant fear of being injured or killed. They live with this fear so that we don't have to be frightened at home," she said.

"For this they deserve our gratitude, our respect and our support."

Merkel was long accused of failing to do enough to convince Germans of the necessity of the Afghan deployment and this week's straight talk won praise in the editorial pages, along with an acknowledgement of the uphill battle ahead.

"If the government wants something other than what the population wants, you speak of a communication problem," a commentator wrote in the issue of Der Spiegel news weekly due out Monday. But "the people are smarter than their leaders".

"Germans refuse war, which has become foreign to them. Let's hope it stays that way."

A woman brandishing a sign outside the memorial service in Ingolstadt Saturday echoed the sentiment: "I have three sons and I'm not giving any of them up to a war."

© 2010 AFP

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