TOPICS > Politics

In Germany, ‘National Guilt’ Stirs Against Afghan War

December 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Germany has the third largest contingent of forces in Afghanistan, yet among a population still haunted by World War II a deep-rooted anti-war sentiment persists. Margaret Warner reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the war in Afghanistan as seen by a country with its own troubled connection to war.

Margaret Warner, who’s reported all week from Europe, sent this from Berlin.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s the Christmas season in Germany, and Berliners are deep into the festivities at one of this city’s traditional Christmas markets — among the crowd, three soldiers home between tours of duty with their medical regiment company in Afghanistan.

The two young sergeants, both paramedics, and their captain feel the work their company does helping Afghans is vital and appreciated.

So, you liked going on international missions?

MAN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And why?

MAN: To bring — to bring — to — can help to the people in the other nations, to help the children.

MAN: German citizens, they support us.

MARGARET WARNER: Germany has 4,300 troops in Afghanistan, the third largest contingent after the U.S. and Britain. Germany insisted they be sent as peacekeepers to the relatively tranquil north. After eight years, they have lost 34 soldiers. The British, who are seeing fierce combat, have only twice as many troops, yet seven times more casualties than the Germans.

But the German public’s feelings about the mission are as chilly as December in Berlin. A recent poll showed nearly 70 percent want their forces to leave.

PAULINA SINT: I think it’s a senseless war. And it’s not — I think it’s good to feel responsible even for other countries and other cultures, but I think it’s not right to do it this way, like to send troops.

WOMAN (through translator): When soldiers kill, it’s murder. There is no good reason to fight wars, for Germans or anybody else. Of course, for Germans to do it, it’s even worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Constanze Stelzenmuller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said, the reason for these feelings is clear.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER, senior transatlantic fellow, German Marshall Fund,: Well, I think it’s the legacy of a profoundly pacifist culture created by the guilt and the knowledge of our guilt in perpetuating two World Wars and a Holocaust. It’s that simple.

MARGARET WARNER: That national guilt is on display in this sea of gray slabs marking one of those dark chapters.

The key to understanding why Germany is so wary about any offensive military mission that could kill civilians lies here. The Germans were so intent that succeeding generations would never forget the horrors of aggression, that they built this memorial to the victims of the Holocaust right in the heart of Berlin.

MARTIN OSTROWSKI, Berlin tour guide: It’s a site full of historical interest.

MARGARET WARNER: Berlin tour guide Martin Ostrowski took us to some stops on his historical Third Reich tour.

MARTIN OSTROWSKI: We have here the former headquarters of the S.S., which administrated the concentration camps. There, you can see the Ministry of Aviation, once built for Hermann Goering. He was one of the top Nazis.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think Germans take from that history that affects their thinking about the Afghanistan conflict, and Germany’s role in it?

MARTIN OSTROWSKI: Our history just tells us that a war was leading us into a catastrophe, into such a catastrophe that we don’t like to be connected again so much to a war.

MARGARET WARNER: We went to a cafe next to Checkpoint Charlie, a remnant of the 50-year division of Berlin. He recalled his own family’s bitter experience with war.

MARTIN OSTROWSKI: I think there is no good reason for any war. The best reason is how to avoid a war, and, instead of making conflicts, is how to find a solution of cooperating.

MARGARET WARNER: But whether Germans like it or not, their mission in Afghanistan is moving in the other direction. In the last six months, the Taliban have stepped up attacks in north, drawing German soldiers into combat.

Retired General Harald Kujat, former chief of staff of the German Armed Forces, says German troops were caught off guard, outmanned and outgunned.

GENERAL HARALD KUJAT (RET.), former chief of staff, German Armed Forces: The Germans were more and more in a defensive role. And my personal assessment is they are no longer in the situation to provide a secure environment in the north, because they have to defend themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: That was brought home by a bloody September 4 incident near Kunduz, when a German colonel called in a NATO airstrike on two Taliban-hijacked fuel tankers, killing more than 140, including dozens of civilians. Since then, three top German government officials have resigned, amid charges they withheld information about the civilian deaths.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: The idea that civilians might be killed recklessly in an act perpetuated by a German officer is deeply disturbing to the German public. By calling in an airstrike, the Germans found that they had done something that they had been lecturing the Americans for doing all the time.

MARGARET WARNER: The Kunduz incident also made it crystal-clear to the German public that their soldiers are indeed engaged in combat. That’s been unsettling to a nation that saw its disgraced Nazi-era army dismantled after World War II and street protests against remilitarization at the creation of the new army and a draft in the 1950s.

And, for 35 years, that Cold War-era force was restricted by law to defending the home front against a possible Soviet invasion.

The German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, have been in combat in the north of Afghanistan since the early spring. That is something that took the Germans a long time to take on board, but, now that they have, they are very uncomfortable with it. They’re very unhappy with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet, that unhappiness didn’t bring people out to the streets this time. And some Germans agree with what President Obama said yesterday in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, that the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany teach there’s sometimes a duty to intervene.

Ad copywriter Matthias Wernicke says, Germany’s past shouldn’t restrict its military future within NATO.

MATTHIAS WERNICKE, advertising copywriter: I think it’s the past. That’s 60 years ago. And, yes, it was terrible and everything. But nowadays are other days. Today, Germany is not the Third Reich anymore. It is a modern democracy, and so it has a responsibility to the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, it’s politically risky for the German government to step up to Mr. Obama’s call for NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Germany will decide after an international Afghanistan conference in late January.

Peter Altmeier, the parliamentary whip for Merkel’s party, was noncommittal on what Germany will do.

PETER ALTMEIER, whip, Christian Democratic Union Party: I cannot tell you today what concrete measures will be adopted, but we are aware of the challenge, and we will certainly respond to it.

This government, led by Angela Merkel, has been a reliable partner over the last four years. And I’m 100 percent convinced we will remain and continue to be a reliable partner for the future. General Kujat argues, Germany needs to add forces immediately to protect its mission on the ground.

GENERAL HARALD KUJAT (RET.): We need to act now. Actually, we should have acted already yesterday, but we need to act now. We don’t have time.

MARGARET WARNER: So, as Germans revel in the magic of the season, they know they have a big decision ahead.