Sebastian Vagt struggles to link current conflicts in the world to Germany’s history. The young students he speaks to each day can’t really relate to the past anymore – not to Germany as a divided nation, and certainly not to its Nazi era.
“Better to reach them on an emotional level,” said Mr. Vagt, one of 94 youth officers in the German military, the Bundeswehr, who are invited into high schools to discuss matters of national and international security.
Instead of drawing parallels to the Cold War, Mr. Vagt said he invokes the current refugees of war in Ukraine and the Mideast. He tells students to imagine themselves fleeing a country – Iraq or Syria for example. “This is more effective,” he said.
Getting young Germans in their teens, 20s and 30s to relate to the current situation is a challenge.
Ask their parents and you get a different story: The conflict in eastern Ukraine awakens bad memories for the generation that grew up with the Cold War at their front door, a country split in two and a wall that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989.
“The acceptance of the need for engagement has definitely grown.”
“The post-Cold War generation certainly has a different perception and different foreign policy priorities than the Cold War generation,” said Harald Schoen, professor of politics and security at the University of Mannheim, who is studying how Germany, Britain and other countries perceive the Ukraine and other conflicts.
The elder German generation can still imagine war: A poll by Emnid, a research institute, for Germany’s Bild newspaper last month found that 49 percent of people in Germany believe the Ukraine conflict could lead to a military standoff between Russia and the NATO alliance, while only 46 percent rejected the idea.
For a younger generation that grew up after German reunification in 1991, the idea of war that threatens Europe’s core, even a war on its borders, is still a foreign concept.
“It’s just too far away,” said Robin Friedlein, a 25-year old law student at the Free University of Berlin. “I don’t have any friends over there.”
And yet, paradoxically, the younger generation might be more open to Germany playing a greater role on the international stage.
Mr. Friedlein said while Ukraine didn’t affect him personally, Germany should be doing “something…there can’t always just be talking.” He said he supported tough sanctions against Russia.
Such views are good news for German policymakers, who over the past two years have begun calling for the country to take a more active role in global security. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has led Germany into foreign conflict situations, including in Mali, and in the last month started a public conversation about how to reorient Germany’s military doctrine.
As Germany begins to take on more foreign responsibilities, observers say there seems to be an increasing acceptance among the public of Germany playing the occasional military role. The younger generation might be leading the way.
“The acceptance of the need for engagement has definitely grown,” said Mr. Vagt. An increasing number of students will speak out in favor of Germany’s role in foreign military engagements, he said. The arguments in his classrooms for and against are usually about 50-50.
The lack of history might work in their favor here. Today’s youth have less of a hard time with the occasional display of patriotism and pride of country, said Jürgen Klau, who runs a new military recruitment office located on a busy shopping street in Berlin’s city center.
The showroom itself is a sign of a new quiet confidence of Germany’s military these days. The center, not unlike the famous army outpost in New York’s Times Square, opened in November to showcase the German army, or “Bundeswehr”, to the public and engage with potential recruits.
The more public display has not been easy. While the role of the military is a fact of life in the United States, where soldiers will often be stopped on the street or honored at sports events, Germany’s relationship with its military and with the idea of patriotism more broadly has been an uneasy topic since the Second World War.
Even in the time of the Cold War, when Germany was split into two countries, the politically-engaged youth in Germany was very clearly anti-war, supporting pacifist causes and challenging military armament, says Wolfgang Gaiser, who worked for 30 years for the German youth institute DJI before retiring in 2011.
“Those young people in the public domain that wanted to have a political impact were generally pacifist, rather than fearing war for Germany as a result of any geo-political concerns,” Mr. Gaiser said in an interview.
These days, Mr. Gaiser said the priorities have clearly shifted. If there is to be a protest by youth groups, it’s in support of environmental causes or human rights. While they may not like military action, young people are unlikely to take to the streets over Germany’s role in a foreign conflict as they may have in the past.
Given these priorities among the youth of today, Mr. Klau of the military recruitment center in Berlin took pains to note that the Bundeswehr is hardly only about military conflict these days. Most of its work is in supporting humanitarian causes, fighting natural disasters or nation-building. Armed conflict is the exception not the rule, he noted.
The military, which since 2011 has been unable to rely on conscription to fill its ranks, has launched a recruitment drive in the past two years. Sebastian Wanninger, a spokesman for the Bundeswehr on personnel matters, notes that an ageing population in Germany means fewer potential recruits will be coming out of school.
For now, the campaign is showing some success. For the last two years the military has had some 60,000 applicants and taken on about 20,000 new soldiers – full-time and reserve – per year. It has filled 95 percent of the positions needed, said Mr. Wanninger.
The Bundeswehr is climbing up the ranks. Trendence Institute said the Bundeswehr was the second-most popular employer among school children behind the police: About 10 percent of Germany’s youth can see themselves one day becoming a soldier.
Christopher Cermak has worked as a correspondent in the United States and Germany for over a decade and is an editor with the Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org