Semantics and the German “Nein” in Libya

Outside observers often find it difficult to grasp that even more than seventy years after the end of the Second World War, Germans are still largely opposed to military action to advance its foreign policy interests.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her vice-chancellor and foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, are under increased attack from all sides for their refusal to participate militarily in the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya. Although the Merkel government promises additional AWAC surveillance flights over Afghanistan, Germany’s traditional European allies––most importantly France––feel slighted by what they perceive as a refusal of Germany to share the necessary risks and costs of the coalition’s actions in Libya. After all, Westerwelle was one of the first politicians to call for support of the rebels and EU-wide sanctions against the Gaddafi regime. In a recent interview, he again stated, “Gaddafi has to go, no question about it!”

Despite the fact that Germany’s current diplomatic dilemma is a product of unforeseen circumstances (e.g., the United States voting for UN resolution 1973) and domestic political considerations (e.g., state elections in Baden Wuerttemberg), outside observers cannot grasp that even more than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, Germans are still largely opposed to military action to advance its foreign policy interests.

World-wary Germans, scarred by their tragic aggression in two world wars, need convincing evidence of a vital national interest to justify any military adventure. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the perception of Western vulnerability led Germany to join in the U.S. led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.  However, former defense minister, Theodor zu Guttenberg, created a stir when he recently referred to this limited engagement as Krieg [war]. And this despite the clear perception that Germany would not have been involved in 2001 had the country known that the assignment would go beyond a traditional peacekeeping role.

What many non-German speakers do not understand is that the semantics of certain terms related to war is still heavily drenched with the legacy of German militarism of the 20th century. Any references to Luftangriffe [air strikes], Bombadierungen [bombardments], Kampfgruppe [task force], and Luftueberlegenheit [air superiority] often evoke the ghosts of the Krieg. (In Germany and Austria, “the war” is still used to describe the Second World War). The conceptual history of certain military terms freely used in English differs dramatically from their use by Germans.  In a sense, modern military diplomacy with Germany is caught in a Wittgensteinean language game and risks being culturally skewed in translation.

Even the simple term war carries a very different connotation for Germans than for people in other countries such as the United States.  War for Germans means totaler Krieg [total war], a great upheaval fought on home soil, in close proximity to one’s own people with a large number of civilian casualties, military blunders, and military lies. The Second World War dangles over Germany like the sword of Damocles; whereas war for Americans occurs in a distant country with few or no U.S. civilian casualties and with little to no actual consequence for the larger public except the occasional lowered flag. The word Bombardierung for Germans still induces the horror of Dresden, with mangled and burned corpses, the utter destruction of civilian life, and the helplessness of confrontation by overwhelming force. For Americans, bombardments happen overseas in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Detached and by remote control the “collateral damage” may be seen on television but is never experienced directly.

Beyond parsing the semantic accretions of guilt and martial allusion, Germany is currently going through a new phase of dealing with the legacy of the Second World War. For the first time the nation is formally acknowledging the sufferings of the German people. The expulsion of approximately 12 million Germans from Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the rape of more than a million German women by the Soviet army, and the anguish of Germans forced into labor throughout Eastern Europe is gaining increased attention in the German media. The television production, Die Flucht [The Flight] portrays the plight of a young German mother in the last weeks of the war and was watched by more than 11 million German viewers. The book Der Brand [The Blaze], describing the German people’s experience during the Allied air campaigns, still remains a bestseller since its publication in 2002.

One reason for the focused attention is that the Kriegsgeneration, the war generation, is slowly dying. Many people only recently feel free to share their war experiences as a last chance to testify to posterity. The demise of the East German Democratic Republic occurred 20 years ago. For 40 years, 16 million Germans lived under dictatorship and were forced into collective amnesia regarding their country’s history during the war.   Many psychological studies conducted in Germany also describe the war trauma of those who did not witness it firsthand; posttraumatic stress syndrome was passed to children by parents who experienced the war as children.

It will take generational extinction and a profound national transformation before Germany can debate military action as freely as the United States or Great Britain without the epic burden of its history. Perhaps it is not a coincidence and provisionally justifiable that Germans are reluctant to commit forces to intervene in the bloody crisis in the sands of North Africa.  The last German forces to fight on Libyan soil were the German Afrika Korps, which launched its first offensive on March 30, exactly 70 years ago in a distant but all too familiar spring.

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Franz-Stefan Gady is an associate at the EastWest Institute. 

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  • anidam

    You are completely wrong or it is disinformation. Germans do not WANT war.
    It costs money, lives and it doesn’t serve but the interests of the olygarchs. You can go to war if you like. Just engage like mercenary, nobody cares but understand that there are also ethical people around who hat wars for oil, geostrategy or water.

  • linda

    I agree with anidam, we Germans do not feel guilty by the way, I’m proud to be German and I’m also proud that we Germans are multi kulti yep we Germans are multi kulti my family for example is and I’m proud that we have so many Muslims in Germany, they belong to us. We don’t want war because we ain’t like americans…damn leave us Germans alone, why don’t u ask Russia or China to help you guys or israel??? Or just fight with British and French allies like you did during ww2, we Germans wanna stay neutral…

  • linda

    Ohh and please take your bases out of Germany ww2 was 70 years ago if you would take your bases out of Germany that would help us Germans a lot to overcome our post traumatic war experiences or wtv u call it…everybody is welcome in Germany as tourist or immigrant but no soldiers and no “krieg”…

    • Edward

      I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above. Why should the Germans join the coalition of the wolfpack of nations led by America now roaming the world bringing terror, death and destruction to poor and defenceless people.

  • linda

    Ohhh and by the way it was over 2 million women who were raped by the red army and many others who were raped by American, British and French soldiers plus children were raped especially in Frankfurt, they were used as sex slaves…there are many books like after the Reich about the rapes and the starvation plans of millions of Germans.

  • Andrew

    Yes – the Germans want to move forward. Why do the rest of the us feel we have to stop them? Maybe because we’re more comfortable with the idea that Germans and Germany are frozen in time, stuck in a place where they can’t deal with or escape their nation’s past. It’s easier for the rest of us to keep them there as long as we can, as a scapegoat for the atrocities that the rest of us are committing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Palestine, etc etc every day. That way, when someone points out that we’re spilling the blood of innocents, we can always say (or think) “well, at least we aren’t as bad as those awful Germans were.”
    By the way, we’re simply repeating the mistakes that were made at the end of WWI – and we know what those led to…

  • linda

    Well Andrew you guys are already as bad as THE WEHRMACHT were. Let me remind you of guantanamo you guys r keeping there innocent little 13 year old teens, BTW many Germans weren’t NAZIS many people didn’t care for politics back then like many don’t do these days….and we already moved on nd no one is keeping us stuck in the past maybe in ur dreams tzz

  • Great comments here … Germany is wise to shun the path of aggression and world domination championed by the West’s corporatist oligarchy.