Selling Guns

German weapons exports test coalition and country's psyche

iraq kurd afp
Mind pointing your gun the other way?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The success of the Islamic State in Iraq or Isis and the plight of the Yezidis in northern Iraq have forced the German government to rethink its position on arms exports.

  • Facts


    • German weapons are in high demand around the world, prized for their precision and reliability.
    • Germany is the world’s third-largest arms exporter.
    • The German arms industry has often profited from both sides in military conflicts. Despite the strict export rules, some 62 percent of arms exports went to countries outside NATO and the European Union last year.
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There are so many ways that a single visit can change things. German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel had expected that by Tuesday of this week, he would have uncovered yet another issue on which he could count on the support of the majority of Germans. Because most Germans oppose arms exports, Mr. Gabriel, who also heads the center-left Social Democratic Party, believed that they would support his bid to reduce the number of tanks and guns Germany sells to other countries.

But arms manufacturers complained, as did the SPD’s coalition partners, the center-right Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. It was the kind of political conflict Mr. Gabriel welcomes.

That was until the Yezidis arrived.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Gabriel met with a delegation of the ethnic group in northern Iraq that is literally being slaughtered by fighters with the terrorist organization the Islamic State in Iraq or Isis. After meeting with the Yezidis, Mr. Gabriel was using language like “genocide” and “preparations for genocide.”

During the day, it became increasingly clear that Germany would provide aid to the Yezidis. And arms deliveries are also no longer a taboo – regardless of German public opinion over arms exports.

Policymakers in Berlin were long puzzled over what exactly is meant by the “new German responsibility.” In the previous coalition government of the CDU/CSU and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, arms exports had increased and yet Berlin had advocated restraint. And now, with everyone touting Germany’s “responsibility,” exports were expected to decrease?

It is a question of where German weapons can be used to help keep the peace and where will they make the world a more dangerous place.

Last week all differences among the coalition parties had melted away. But weapons shipments to war zones are prohibited under German arms export guidelines. That’s why Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen initially promised the threatened fighters in northern Iraq armored vehicles, protective vests and mine detectors. But then senior government officials indicated that in light of the situation in Iraq, Berlin might be prepared to do more.

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Fighters trying to ward off Isis forces position themselves. Source: AP


Now the war is creating precedents.

Last year, the German government approved arms exports worth more than €8 billion ($10.7 billion), with the volume of small-arms exports alone climbing by 43 percent. The government’s strongest argument for its policy was that it preserved jobs. But now more is at stake.

It is a question of where German weapons can be used to help keep the peace and where will they make the world a more dangerous place.

German weapons are in great demand and not just by the armies of friendly nations. They are found in places prohibited from buying German arms – hot spots where the arms can also be used against Berlin’s allies.

In Libya, both regime troops and rebels use the G36, an assault rifle made by Heckler & Koch. In Somalia, rebels fired at French soldiers with the precursor model, the G3. And in Iraq, the Isis militias are now allegedly firing at the civilian population with French and German-made MILAN missiles. Germany is the world’s third-largest arms-exporting country.

The German arms industry has often profited from both sides in military conflicts. Despite the strict export rules that exist on paper, last year alone some 62 percent of arms exports went to countries outside NATO and the European Union. The most important customers are countries with troubled human-rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

When Mr. Gabriel announced last week that he intended to impose tighter controls on weapons manufacturers’ export applications, the CDU and the CSU reactions were as expected. Mr. Gabriel’s approach would lead to “Germany no longer being perceived as a reliable partner,” said CDU business expert Joachim Pfeiffer. CDU deputy parliamentary leader Michael Fuchs warned of the “disintegration” of the defense industry, while CSU lawmaker Florian Hahn accused Mr. Gabriel of trying to “bury” the industry.

This kind of rhetoric is problematic for the CDU and the CSU, as some of it sounds as if it had been written by lobbyists for the arms industry.

There are close ties between some conservatives party members and the arms industry. CSU lawmaker Hahn used to work for the tank maker KraussMaffei Wegmann and he sits on the board of the German Association for Defense Technology, or DWT,  a lobbying group. Several major arms producers also have seats on the board. KraussMaffei Wegmann is headquartered in the election district next to Mr. Hahn’s district, which CSU politician Hans-Peter Uhl has consistently won since 1998.

The defense contractor Rheinmetall is located in the district of Hermann Otte, another CDU lawmaker. From there the company operates the largest privately owned testing and proving ground in Europe. It also manufactures both the Puma armored personnel carrier and ammunition at the site. Mr. Otte is on the board of both the German Army Support Organization, a defense-industry lobbying group, and the DWT, where he serves as vice president. In 2013, Mr. Otte and the DWT assembled a conference that included then-Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU), several generals and the heads of defense contractors Rheinmetall, Cassidian and Diehl.

Heckler & Koch has its headquarters in Oberndorf am Neckar, in the election district of CDU/CSU parliamentary leader Volker Kauder. The company said between 2002 and 2010 it donated €70,000 to the CDU, €20,000 to the FDP and €3,000 to the SPD. Because none of the individual donations exceeded €10,000, the company was not required to report them.

“We cannot send the Bundeswehr (the German armed forces) to Afghanistan with wooden rifles.” Mr. Kauder said after visiting the company during a 2009 election campaign. When contacted by Die Zeit, a representative of Mr. Kauder said that there had been “no political contact for some time” with Heckler & Koch.

Despite all this, the industry is not as critical to the national economy as it maintains. A study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs concluded: “The arms industry carries relatively little weight from an economic perspective.”  The industry provides 310,000 jobs, but when a sharper distinction is drawn between the arms industry and the defense industry as a whole, that number drops to about 98,000 and classic sectors, like weapons systems, weapons and ammunition employ less than 20,000 people, the study showed.  By comparison, the German automobile industry employs about 756,000 people.

After meeting with the Yezidis last week, Mr. Gabriel briefly touched on one of the main arguments against arms shipments to combat zones: that the weapons always remain in combat zones after the fighting has ended. The international community, he said, had “bad experiences” in this regard.

But a point that the SPD leader only mentioned in passing (“We have to reevaluate these things every day”) has long been decided for the coalition partners. “Of course, when it comes to arms shipments, there is always the risk that they will be used incorrectly or fall into the wrong hands,” says CSU defense expert Uhl. “Unfortunately, it’s a risk one can never completely rule out.”

This story originally appeared in Die Zeit.

Translated by Christopher Sultan

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