The German Army’s Dirty Secret

Kaserne in Illkirch
Memorabilia from bygone days of the German military in the lounge of infantry battalion 291 in Illkirch. Source: Patrick Seeger/dpa

There are four pictures still hanging on the wall next to the bulletin board in a semi-public section of the German military’s Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg. Here, only students, their guests, military supervisors, and cleaning personnel are allowed in. One picture is conspicuously missing.

The visible photos are of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Bundeswehr Chief of Staff Volker Wieker and a student ombudsman. Up until last Thursday, there was a fifth picture of Helmut Schmidt, posing in a uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German Nazi army. Mr. Schmidt, who would go on to become defense minister and German chancellor, started out as a first lieutenant in Hitler’s army. Nobody at the university knows any more who hung the picture or when. Some say it had been there for twelve or thirteen years before Mr. Schmidt’s name was added to Bundeswehr University in December 2003.

What is clear is that in the wake of the scandal surrounding right-wing extremists in the Bundeswehr, Ursula von der Leyen had issued an order to remove anything to do with the Wehrmacht from the military property. The result? No more Lieutenant Schmidt.

Some see the move as a hysterical purge. Others say it should have been taken down a long time ago. Even at the university, the debate runs the gamut between these two extremes. Briefly, another image had taken its place – one of YouTube’s frustrated emoji, which pops up when a video is unplayable. It was accompanied by a text: “This picture is unfortunately no longer available because it displayed Helmut Schmidt as an officer in uniform. Apparently, showing common ground between the university’s namesake and aspiring officers is unwelcome. We’re sorry about that.” That picture had to go, too.

Mr. Schmidt, who would go on to become defense minister and German chancellor, started out as a first lieutenant in Hitler’s army.

Some students were so angry about the removal of Mr. Schmidt’s picture that the president of the university, Wilfried Seidel, drafted a circular letter and responded to questions from students. For Mr. Seidel, the main argument against the photo of Mr.Schmidt was that it reduced the former chancellor to his time as a Wehrmacht officer. He also believes that “the Bundeswehr uniform and that of a dictatorship have no commonality.”

Indeed, there are also photographs of Helmut Schmidt in a Bundeswehr uniform. In 1958, Mr. Schmidt took part in a military reserve exercise. As one university lecturer said, anyone wanting to see Schmidt in uniform can view him as a Bundeswehr reservist. He added that he had never personally noticed the Wehrmacht Schmidt. “The picture had been hanging there for such a long time – nobody took a closer look at it anymore.” A university spokesperson stressed that the removal of Wehrmacht Lieutenant Schmidt is in no way directed against his person or memory. “We bear the name Helmut Schmidt with pride,” he says. “But we are the Helmut Schmidt University –not Lieutenant Helmut Schmidt University.”

One thing that has become clear, regardless of whether one views the photo’s removal critically or favorably, is that in its 62 years of its existence, the Bundeswehr has never completely shaken off the Wehrmacht. Recently, defense Minister von der Leyen has insisted that the Wehrmacht can “in no way be seen a source of tradition,” with the exclusion of resistance fighters such as Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. It seems some soldiers see things differently.

To find out why, it’s helpful to look at the Bundeswehr’s founding document, the Himmerod Memorandum of 1950. Five years after the end of World War II, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer secretly tasked 15 former Wehrmacht officers with devising a concept for the future German armed forces. In the meeting, which took place at Himmerod monastery, military reformers came up against traditionalists. While together they developed the Bundeswehr’s guiding principles – including that of the “citizen in uniform” and acting in accordance with the German constitution – much of their basic military strategy fell back on that of the Wehrmacht, including maneuvers reminiscent of Hitler’s tank divisions on the Eastern Front.

When the Bundeswehr officially began in May 1955, almost all of the leading positions were filled by former Wehrmacht officers. Adolf Heusinger, the general who had been standing directly next to Hitler during the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, was made the army’s chief of staff. He was soon surrounded by Wehrmacht cronies. Suddenly, officers that had blindly obeyed Hitler’s command ten years previous were preaching ethical responsibility in combat. These two contradictory tendencies defined the Bundeswehr for years – and led to conflicts. Numerous former members of the Waffen SS in the Bundeswehr fanned the flames.

Numerous former members of the Waffen SS in the Bundeswehr fanned the flames.

The Wehrmacht’s presence in the Bundeswehr was further anchored following the 1965 memorandum “Bundeswehr and Tradition.” While it was supposed to establish guidelines for “understanding and cultivating traditions” and praised the resistance movement, it also makes reference to “eternal military virtues.” Clause 8 states: “The proper cultivation of traditions is only possible in gratitude and reverence for the achievements and suffering of the past.” It also calls for the fostering of comradely relationships to the former soldiers of the Third Reich. In the years immediately following the memorandum, the Bundeswehr named a large number of army barracks after leading figures in the Wehrmacht – a key step to normalizing its legacy among both soldiers and civilians.

Little was changed when, in 1969, several Bundeswehr generals publicly questioned the primacy of politics in solving conflicts and openly resisted planned reforms. The minister of defense at the time, none other than Helmut Schmidt, fired them all. A change in tradition didn’t come until 1982, when Hans Apel, the Federal Republic’s first minister of defense to not have served in the Wehrmacht, ordered a second memorandum. At first glance, it appeared to be the beginning of the Bundeswehr cutting its connection to the Nazi army: “An unjust regime like the Third Reich cannot be the basis for tradition,” it stated unequivocally. However, the memorandum also painted a picture of an innocent Wehrmacht that was misused by the Nazis. This myth was debunked once and for all by the now famous traveling Wehrmacht exhibition in the mid-1990s, which documented the involvement of Hitler’s army in war crimes on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945.

The first six clauses of the 1982 memorandum may have been clearly formulated. The other 24? Not so much. For example, the text draws a curious distinction between the cultivation of tradition and military customs: “Not every minor point of military custom . . . must be democratically legitimated.” That ultimately legitimates putting a Wehrmacht helmet on display in the lounge of an army barracks. The same goes for a photo of Helmut Schmidt in a Wehrmacht uniform. As Clause 25 states: “The manner in which the historical military exhibit is displayed must indicate its place in an historical context.” This means if a sign contextualizing Helmut Schmidt’s time as a soldier would have hung next to his picture, it could have stayed put. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

It’s clear that the connection between the Wehrmacht and the Bundeswehr was intentionally established and maintained in the army’s most formative years. Historically, the Wehrmacht’s veneration is particularly widespread among combat troops, who often see themselves as an elite in line with “heroes” of the past. And while the tradition had been viewed critically since 1982, few members of the military spoke out against it.

Defense minister Ursula von der Leyen now plans to change things with a revision of the Bundeswehr’s memorandum. The reworked text will underscore the democratic principles of the German constitution as well as a commitment to NATO and missions abroad. Such a change would have very much suited Helmut Schmidt, whose bronze bust at the Bundeswehr University won’t be going anywhere.


This article first appeared in the German weekly Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de.

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