Refugee Soldiers

Uncle Fritz Wants You!

turkmen soldiers fatih aktis anadolu agency getty images edited
Turkmen fighters in Bayirbucak, Syria, in the northern Latakia province during a prayer break on October 27. Fighters in the predominantly Turkmen region of northwestern Syria are training to protect residents from attack by Syrian government and Russian military attacks.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany might help solve two big problems by allowing non-citizens to join the Bundeswehr.

  • Facts


    • The Bundeswehr has been having a problem with recruitment since the suspension of compulsory military service.
    • Hundreds of thousands of young people from trouble spots abroad are languishing in German refugees camps.
    • The United States allows non-citizens to join its military, and enlistees can accelerate their naturalization process by doing so.
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Here’s a case of mutual interest. There are hundreds of thousands of young men right now whiling away unneeded and frustrated in German refugee shelters, some boiling with rage and neglect. Not very far away sits the German military, the Bundeswehr, which has had problems recruiting volunteers since compulsory military service was ended.

How much imagination does it take to change this into a win-win situation?

None at all.

It just demands a sense of reality, a quantum leap of courage, and a couple of changes to German military law to make the Bundeswehr into an army that an immigration country needs, so it can serve both the newly arrived immigrants and their new home country.

At the beginning of this year’s great flood of refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave the country a pep talk and noted that, while German thoroughness and attention to detail are both clear pluses, what is needed now is a new value — German flexibility.

But despite her encouraging words, Germany hasn’t really become all that flexible.

So, especially in military matters, we must remain realistic. But we could get started with a rather modest project, for example, the creation of a German-Syrian military brigade.

A couple thousand candidates could readily be found among the refugees who’ve already been granted asylum in Germany.

Syrian men and women soldiers fighting for the joint brigade would bring a healthy dose of English, motivation and other skills to bond with German men and women in the military.

This multicultural brigade doesn’t necessarily have to be a combat unit, but one that could build bridges and military camps, or provide logistics, supply and maintenance, or paramedics and communication technicians.

In this way, the needy could be quickly turned into helpers for a just, common cause.

As urgent as the need is to gear up German cities and communities right now to handle the flood of refugees, so too it will be one day be the case to do the same in Syria, when it is time to rebuild there. Many refugees in Germany will want to do that, and do it wholeheartedly.

The U.S. Army counts close to 110,000 people from 34 countries having been nationalized this way since 2001, including from Afghanistan, Bahrain or Libya.

Germany would be doing the refugees – and itself – a big favor if it would prepare for peace in Syria when it eventually comes. Work is a means of assimilation. What better way to assimilate refugees than to channel their pent up, dormant energy towards a common goal that would help Germany and help them better assimilate into the culture?

The army isn’t the school of the nation (that is, after all, the schools), but it is very much a type of school. The Syrians need German language and integration courses. Why not add civics courses, foreign policy seminars, and class A through D driver’s licenses?

What, you may ask, are we supposed to put guns in the hands of potential Islamists? The fact that IS followers could try to infiltrate our armed forces as sleepers certainly is a risk. But weapons-training doesn’t have to be the first order of the day. It could be done at the end of an extended basic training after volunteers get to know each other and security checks can be made.

In the end, the trust-building gained from such an exercise is probably worth the risk.

Many a recruit from Saxony, the German state that hosts many anti-immigrant political demonstrations these days, would probably get to meet a real, live Muslim for the first time – and, what a surprise, as a fully non-traitorous buddy in the barracks.

Naturally, none of this will work as long as foreigners are banned from the barracks in Germany. How absurd and anachronistic is it to have a military tasked with nation building in foreign countries that bars precisely those nationalities from serving in the German military?

This would not be so radical compared with military approaches outside Germany.

In the United States for example, non-citizens can join the U.S. Army. When they do, they accelerate their naturalization process and get a leg up on eventually getting a better job and more quickly integrating into American culture.

At the end of the training, the swearing-in of a new U.S. soldier and the pledge of allegiance to the U.S. flag are practically one and the same. The U.S. Army counts close to 110,000 people from 34 countries nationalized this way since 2001, from Afghanistan, Bahrain and even Libya.

Considering the outcomes of recent U.S. military missions, perhaps they should have started sooner and in grander style.

But if Germany were to move toward this approach, and create a joint military brigade with Syrian refugees, the Bundeswehr would become the most culturally competent force for the permanently crisis-ridden region of the Middle East.

Not only would it have the most translators, reconnaissance scouts, and soldiers who actually know the region and grew up there, but also those with the best early warning system for avoiding the wrong path, when it presents itself.


Jochen Bittner is a political editor and columnist at Die Zeit. This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To reach the author:

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