Germany’s dangerous code of silence

Last week the president of Germany quit his job. Just like that. “I declare my resignation from the office of president,” said Horst Koehler, “with immediate effect.” And he walked away.

Koehler was, he said, merely responding to criticism: He had been widely attacked for remarks he made during a trip to Afghanistan last month, so much so that he felt he could not continue. The German president is a ceremonial figurehead, elected by parliament, and in theory he is not supposed to say anything contentious. Having been accused of violating this convention, he quit.

So far, so ordinary. But before you shrug and say “that could happen in any country,” read what Koehler said that sparked so much criticism: “A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that . . . military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests.”

In the United States, Britain or France, no one would even notice such a statement. But in Germany, Koehler broke two major taboos. First, he admitted that the German military is in Afghanistan for a military purpose, once again undermining the public’s firm belief that their soldiers do charity work. (Fighting is for Americans. Germans build roads.) Last September this fiction was blown open when German forces in Kunduz called for American airstrikes, which in turn killed 90 Afghan civilians.

The public was angered by the mistake but was even more disturbed to hear that German troops sometimes call upon American troops for help. That implies that Germany is part of a coalition that is actually fighting a war — a fact that few German politicians have ever had the nerve to convey to voters. In Afghanistan a couple of years ago, I met a German pilot flying south from Kabul to the rougher part of the country; he wouldn’t give his name to a German journalist traveling with me, on the grounds that Germans weren’t supposed to be flying to the south — even though circumstances and alliance requirements sometimes force them to — and he didn’t want to start a controversy.

But Koehler’s second blunder was worse: By declaring that Germany is a large country with a large export sector and economic interests around the world, Koehler broke the even more powerful taboo forbidding German politicians to speak of any use of the military in any foreign engagement. Germany’s passivity is a matter of national pride, German pacifism is written into its constitution, and Germans don’t talk about themselves as “a country of our size.” In polite company, Germans never, ever talk about using the military “in an emergency to protect our interests.”

Yet as time goes on, as World War II fades into history and as even the Cold War becomes a distant memory, Germany’s conventional way of speaking about itself is becoming increasingly unreal. Germany is indeed a large country, the largest in Europe: When Greece got into trouble and the euro had to be bailed out, it was Germany that made the major decisions and Germany that pushed hardest for draconian Greek economic reforms. If it all goes wrong, Germany may well be blamed.

Germany really does have many economic interests outside of Europe, too, including in several countries that could well present military challenges to the West someday. Iran — where Germany is one of the largest outside investors — comes to mind, as do China and Russia. In an Iranian-Israeli fight, would pacifist Germany stay neutral? What if China attacked Taiwan, or Russia went to war with Ukraine?

I am not suggesting that any of these conflicts should or will occur, nor would I necessarily want Germany to join them if they did. I don’t want Germany to re-arm, go to war or even pick fights with anybody, either. But it does seem strange that the president of a country whose economy depends on exports — including exports to authoritarian and militaristic regimes — is not allowed to ponder aloud the possible military consequences of its economic policies. Americans sometimes make the mistake of thinking that every conflict has a military solution. But it is equally myopic to pretend that no conflict will ever have a military solution, and dangerous not even to talk about it.

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