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.”

“The Bundeswehr has an attitude problem and it has apparently weak leadership at different levels.”

Ursula von der Leyen

Can she keep the post of commander-in-chief if most of her 250,000 subordinates – soldiers and civilians alike – are against the way she sees it? That depends who you believe: Ms. von der Leyen and her backers insist that only a small and bitter conservative minority oppose her attempts to modernize the armed forces.

The defense ministry is known for being a destroyer of careers – many politicians have headed in with great expectations and left in disgrace – but Ms. von der Leyen took the job with alacrity in 2013. Survivors can become chancellor, after all.

But unpleasant surprises are known to pop up in the Bundeswehr, as the German armed forces are known, ones that can spell the end of a career. Such as an aircraft that winds up costing three times more than planned but is only capable of half of what was promised, or soldiers who set fire to refugee homes, or dead civilians.

Before that fateful Sunday in April, there were several nasty surprises, such as the news that a first lieutenant in the Bundeswehr named Franco A. applied for asylum posing as a Syrian refugee, was granted it, and planned a shooting attack. When she asked the military about him, she was told he was their best man. Then she learned this best man had submitted a racist master’s thesis at a French military academy. And that the elite soldier adorned himself with Nazi era army memorabilia in his barracks and had stolen 1,000 rounds of ammunition. When asked what became of the 1,000 rounds, the answer was “no idea.”

Ms. von der Leyen delivered a sweeping, scathing judgement to a TV show: “The Bundeswehr has an attitude problem and it has apparently weak leadership at different levels,” she said. The military was outraged and responded by bombarding Ms. von der Leyen with blistering responses like “leadership begins at the top.”

In Ms. von der Leyen’s version of what happened, her comments weren’t just based on one right-wing extremist lieutenant but a litany of stories that shocked her. Stories of women soldiers expected to pole dance half naked, combat medics forced to submit to being grabbed between the legs, drill instructors calling recruits “genetic trash” and others have made headlines since the start of the year. Ms. von der Leyen was disgusted that senior officers tolerate such transgressions and downplay them when they become public. The aim of the defense minister is to change the culture in the army.

But her mistake was making a blanket statement; if she had preceded her remarks by saying, “the overall majority of the soldiers do outstanding work, but..,” the outrage would have easily washed over her. But she apologized only later, and though she now is careful to word criticism more subtly, this is now seen as the tactic of a power player.

Her critics see these measures as making the military soft, taking it from being dashingly masculine to irrelevant.

Ms. von der Leyen’s goal is to attract young recruits in these times when the draft is no longer, meaning not all young men have to join up. But she has seen plenty of resistance from some of the armed forces against her aims to change the Bundeswehr’s culture. She wants child daycare facilities in the barracks, transfers in sync with school years, part-time work, job sharing, maternity uniforms, and even brought in a lesbian management consultant to shake-up the defense industry as state secretary. Her critics see these measures as making the military soft, taking it from being dashingly masculine to irrelevant. They are upset by her use of the word “diversity,” and the prospect of an army with more women and soldiers with a Turkish background.

Sometimes, Ms. von der Leyen is surprised by the way soldiers talk about equal rights and women. It reminds her of the way her conservative party talked 10 to 12 years ago. In her experience, there’s a time lag with debates in the army, a delay in catching up with social developments. Given this, the trend toward Bundeswehr right-wing populism, for example, is yet to come. And at the same time, it is also particularly susceptible to authoritarianism.

So when she criticized the army on April 30, it was with such dangers in mind – and with the hope of bringing the Bundeswehr into line with the modern age. As with the conservative party, it is about leading a male-dominated club clinging to the past into a better place, against its will. Nothing new.

Her critics, by contrast, see a calculating power strategist, seeking the spotlight and announcing changes while pretending to be the great enlightener. They saw her criticism as an attack on the identity of every individual soldier. Her high-profile visit to the army barracks where the right wing extremist was stationed drew a lot of negative criticism too. “Dragging the army inspector in front of live cameras through Illkirch over the Nazi ring – that’s something you don’t do,” one general said.

It comes down to the question of honor, for the military. Her critics say she fails to understand how the troops view themselves, what honor means to them and how she has injured this.

"He really let her have it,” one said. “Right on!”

No one has more sharply formulated this discrepancy than André Wüstner, who heads the Bundeswehr association. Mr. Wüstner was the last speaker to take the microphone at reception at the end of June, hosted by the German parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces. He spoke directly after Ms. von der Leyen – and turned the minister’s accusations against her.

What is it other than failure of leadership when one fires the army’s chief instructor – and he only finds out about it in the media? And who really has the attitude problem? The Bundeswehr, which is attacked as a whole, or the minister who publicly takes a stand against it? At the close of his speech, all those in uniform applauded long and loud. “He really let her have it,” one said. “Right on!”

For Ms. von der Leyen, her work modernizing the army is not done. She is still trying to complete her unfinished business. She has survived political death zones in the past. The quota for female managers that everybody opposed was eventually implemented.

But whether she stays or goes won’t be decided by the army. It will be decided by Ms. Merkel. And the question is, how much does the chancellor still need that strong-willed woman?

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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