Troops in Afghanistan and a shaky eurozone have left Germany searching for ways to redefine itself. Can the militaristic values of the old kingdom of Prussia fill the gap?by Roger Boyes / January 26, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Those were the days: “The proclamation of Prussian king Wilhelm I as Emperor of Germany at Versailles in 1871,” by Anton von Werner
When politicians visit the troops in Afghanistan, their schedules and speeches are adapted to the relentless rhythm of 24-hour TV news. Although they may be sweating buckets under their body armour, they know that a calm, statesmanlike soundbite is the essence of their trip—the cartilage that connects combat, injury and death in a distant land to the voters at home. But when Angela Merkel paid a visit to dusty Kunduz province in December, her address to the troops defied the usual demands for reassurance. Wrestling with a lifelong habit of circumlocution, the German chancellor tried straight talking instead. “We don’t just have a ‘war-like’ situation here,” she said. “You are actively involved in battles that only occur in war.” The soldiers nodded glumly, a little mystified by her presence. “For us, this [war] is a totally new experience,” she went on. “Before now, all we had to go on were the second world war tales of our parents.”
So it’s official: Germany is at war. After 65 years in which German politicians avoided combat or even mentioning the K-word (K for krieg) Merkel had spelled it out. Consciously or not, she was echoing the words of Prussian thinker Carl von Clausewitz, who in On War (1832) set out the conditions that made armed conflict “a continuation of political intercourse.” One priority, he wrote, was to call it by its real name. When Merkel did just that she was tapping into a growing national urge for ancient military heroes. And the closest Germany has to those are ghosts of Von Clausewitz’s Prussia.
Unlike the regimental chapels of the British, French or Americans, Germany’s are not decked out with tattered standards once carried into battle. There are no marble plaques listing victories; the glorification of Rommel’s Afrika Korps or Guderian’s Panzer armies is out of the question. Instead, the country must somehow distil the courage and skill of the Prussian military caste as an inspiration for troops in Afghanistan, and as a way of legitimising the practice of fighting abroad in defence of the national interest. It was Prussian officers who tried and failed to blow up Hitler, Prussian commanders who defeated the French in 1871 on the bloody road to German unification. The venerated generals of the 19th century—August von Gneisenau, say, or Gerhard von Scharnhorst—are being demummified.