friendly fire

Defense Minister on the Defensive

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen arrives for a memorial service for the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Berlin
Down and out with the Bundeswehr? Source: Reuters

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen knows plenty about defense in political terms, too. She has been in the “death zone” – her word for political peril – several times. One of her biggest troubles came on a Sunday in 2012 as she sat in a village church. A medical doctor and mother of seven, preparations for the confirmation of one of her daughters were underway, but the then-labor minister was distracted.

Ms. von der Leyen had just made public her plan to vote in favor of legislation imposing a quota for women in management, even though the proposal came from across the political aisle. Lawmakers from her own party, the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists parliamentary group, were furious, including Thomas de Maizière, defense minister at the time, and Peter Altmaier, then-federal environment minister. If she gave in, she would lose her credibility, and if she held out, she would lose her job.

A text message from Chancellor Angela Merkel saved the day, suggesting a compromise: If Ms. von der Leyen voted against the proposal now, the quota would be added to the Christian Democrats’ election manifesto. Ms. Merkel thus saved her minister, because she needed the strong-willed, self-made woman.

This time, her troubles began on April 30, 2017, another Sunday, when the now defense minister pilloried the Bundeswehr, as Germany’s armed forces are known.

Five years on, the question is whether Ms. von der Leyen can still count on the chancellor’s support. She is back in the “death zone,” this time embroiled in a row that pits her attempts to modernize the army against the troops who accuse her of failing to understand what honor means to them. The word among the politicians and the generals is that her time’s up, her relationship to the troops “completely destroyed.”

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