April 30, 2019

What Does German History Actually Say About German Defense Spending?

Few aspects are more sensitive in Germany’s fraught relationship with history than the role and status of its military. Indeed, many Germans seem to think that, given its past, the country cannot have strong armed forces; such a military, they contend, is inconsistent with Germany’s postwar history and its repudiation of its militaristic legacy. They therefore cannot conceive of how Germans can responsibly commit more resources to defense spending, let alone develop a formidable military. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, for instance, suggested just this point at the 70th anniversary of NATO celebrations in Washington in April.

But, to an outsider, this looks like a very tendentious reading of German history. Fulfilling Germany’s noblest historical legacy would actually be to meaningfully contribute to Allied collective defense.

It is, of course, true that Germany has a history of militarism and conquest. But the result of that was not to turn Germany into a pacifist state. Indeed, Germany was specifically not demilitarized after the Second World War. Rather, after heated debate among the Western allies and internally, Germany rearmed after 1955 and developed an enormously capable Bundeswehr. In 1988, for instance, the Bundeswehr boasted twelve active divisions arrayed along the inner-German border, with three in ready reserve.

What characterized postwar Germany’s role for its military was a powerful force dedicated to collective defense of free Europe within an Allied framework – not pacifism or disarmament.

That postwar force differed from previous German militaries, however, in its focus on defense – of the Federal Republic itself but also of the whole Western Alliance, since West Germany was the Alliance’s main frontline state during the Cold War. Another key difference was that that force was subject not only to national direction, but rather was integrated within the structures of the North Atlantic Alliance. What characterized postwar Germany’s role for its military, then, was a powerful force dedicated to collective defense of free Europe within an Allied framework – not pacifism or disarmament.

Indeed, the Federal Republic itself was not shy about demanding a high standard of defense of its territory from its fellow NATO allies. Throughout the Cold War, West Germany insisted on an effective forward defense of its territory, even at military risk to the Alliance, since defense in depth at the expense of West German territory seemed to many a more promising way of defeating a Warsaw Pact invasion of the West. American forces joined British, Dutch, Belgian, and other national forces in manning the inner-German border, backed by the Alliance’s nuclear forces.

This posture worked. The Soviets never tried to invade the Alliance, and largely gave up on trying coercion in Europe after the Berlin Crises of the early 1960s. The historical legacy: A strong NATO posture, coupled with political engagement such as arms control negotiations, works.

Fast forward thirty years. The world is entering a period of great power strategic competition. The United States is committed to NATO but is increasingly focused on China as its priority challenge. And NATO states in Eastern Europe fear Moscow will turn its reinvigorated military power against them, as it has against Ukraine. Its NATO allies need German help. Americans need Germans to shoulder more of the burden as the United States competes with China; Easterners need Germany to deter Russian adventurism; and the rest of NATO needs Germany’s leadership.

So what is Germany’s historical responsibility now? It is to provide a decent contribution for collective defense of the Alliance, especially from Russia, just as it benefited so greatly from that same Alliance in its hour of need. 2% of GDP is what the Alliance has agreed is the fair standard, but more important than number of Euros spent is what the Federal Republic can put in the field.

An effective defense of Eastern NATO against Russia does not require recreating the Western forces of the 1980s. Rather, it requires just a few highly capable German divisions that can move quickly and, along with American and other Allied forces, help defend the Baltics and Poland from a Russian fait accompli. Right now, Germany – Europe’s largest and one of its healthiest economies – can barely summon a division. We are merely talking about a NATO-dedicated force a fraction of the size of what a smaller West Germany put in the field in the late 1980s.

This seems a small price to pay to give the Eastern NATO states, countries which suffered so mightily in World War II and under Soviet dominion, a shade of the forward defense that West Germany received in the Cold War. What would be a better indication of Germany’s much vaunted multilateral bona fides than a concrete, meaningful contribution to European collective defense?

Germans are to be admired for their attention to their difficult history. But that history does not command passivity or avoidance of hard matters, such as providing for an effective defense. Rather, Germany’s troubled but also proud history shows how we can together build and preserve a community of free nations – but only by shouldering the burden of our collective defense together.

Elbridge Colby is the Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in 2017-2018.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2019 in Die Zeit.

  • Commentary
    • Sharper
    • April 17, 2024
    Sharper: NATO 75

    From July 9–11, NATO leaders from across the Atlantic will gather in Washington, DC for the 2024 NATO Summit, which marks the 75th anniversary of the alliance. This meeting wi...

    By Anna Pederson, Anna Avanesyan & Charles Horn

  • Podcast
    • July 3, 2023
    NATO’s Security Guarantees for Ukraine

    As NATO prepares for its annual summit in Vilnius this July, one of the biggest topics on the agenda will be how to guarantee long-term security for Ukraine. Given that member...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Liana Fix & Eric Ciaramella

  • Commentary
    • The Wall Street Journal
    • April 2, 2023
    Putin’s Shakespearean Demons

    Imagine the condition in the heart of Europe today had NATO’s boundaries remained frozen after 1989....

    By Robert D. Kaplan

  • Podcast
    • February 17, 2023
    Assessing NATO’s Evolving Role

    Over the past year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO, with the presence of major war on the European continent highlighting the alliance’s importance for co...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Benedetta Berti & David Cattler

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia