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German pacifism is dead It can no longer afford to hide behind its demons

Germans used to be the conscience of Europe. Credit: Henning Christoph/ullstein bild/ Getty

Germans used to be the conscience of Europe. Credit: Henning Christoph/ullstein bild/ Getty


March 17, 2022   5 mins

I was a teenager when my father was posted to Munich, on secondment from British Aerospace to work on the Eurofighter Typhoon. None of us really understood what he did there — all I knew is that he was an ex-RAF engineer, had model cruise missiles as paperweights, and wouldn’t talk about his job.

But I suppose I had some idea what he was up to. Aged 17, studying for my A-levels at boarding school, and more interested in the female company of Munich than in the politics going on around me, my father’s work was off-limits. The Cold War was my adolescent playground.

There is one disturbing thing I do remember very vividly. My father was a member of the American PX in a little town 20 miles or so north of Munich. There was a cheap, tax-free supermarket there, and a recreational facility for its military members, including a golf course. There my father taught me to swing a club at a little white ball, to take pleasure in the satisfying sound of a well-struck shot. I still have the bug. But the name of the town was Dachau. And right next door to the club was the former concentration camp.

I still have disturbing dreams about that course, 40 year later, given how inappropriately it was situated. In some I slice a ball out of bounds and into the place where men, women and children were shot and burned — my fun-filled summer holidays coming into direct emotional contact with the horror of the Holocaust. The dreams interweave my father’s mysterious job, his Jewishness, the ovens of the camp, Hitler’s face on a violently defaced poster in the exhibition at Dachau, images of emaciated men being tortured in ice baths — all jumbled up with my own summer holiday recreation, barbecues down on the banks of the River Isar, the nudist colony in the Englischer Garten, of course, and my own teenage fumblings. Lots here for my shrink to unravel.

Of course, I felt guilty at having so much fun. Sex and golf were my peace dividend. My girlfriend was a pacifist; all of the people I met my age were pacifists. We sang 99 Luftballons by Nena. And in the year I arrived in Germany, 1981, a peace demonstration was held in Bonn, a protest both at the existence of nuclear weapons and at the presence of American and British bases on German soil. Around 300,000 people turned up that day: Christians, union members, students. I didn’t tell my new friends what my father did.

I also remember the graffiti. Munich was a seriously tidy and ordered town, but hate-filled graffiti was still puked up on the walls under flyovers, mostly about Turkish Gastarbeiters — immigrant workers. “What is the difference between a Turk and a Jew? Forty years”, was the one I cannot forget. The tidiness of the place wasn’t able to hide the fact that this was Hitler’s home patch.

How different Germany today is from the Eighties. At Berlin’s train stations — yes, trains too are inevitably a part of the nightmares — tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees are now being welcomed by generous open-hearted German volunteers, providing shell-shocked families with hot drinks and food, advising them where to find permanent shelters. In 2015-16 Germany took in over a million refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. During my lifetime at least, the Germans have been the conscience of Europe, responding to their defeat in the war and their national shame with a reinvention of their national consciousness.

This process — VergangenheitsbewĂ€ltigung, or “overcoming the past” — was the only way Germany could come to terms with Nazism and the Holocaust. Nobody wants to look at the darkest parts of their history. It is the equivalent of discovering that your parents were killers. After decades of post-war denial, a new German generation, coming of age in the Sixties, insisted on digging up the past. They were called Nestbeschmutzer (“nest-foulers”) and were derided. But what they began set in motion the process that created modern Germany.

Today, the country pauses to engage in what the historian Susan Neiman calls “public rites of repentance” around events such as Kristallnacht, and the liberation of Auschwitz. There are the “stumbling stones” — plaques placed throughout Berlin to mark where Jews lived before the Nazis deported them. And, where it cannot be missed, at the centre of the capital: the Holocaust Memorial.

Of course, there was (and is) some barely hidden recidivism — especially in the East. But I never really encountered it, apart from dark messages scrawled under flyovers. I lived in Germany before the wall came down. For me, Germany was a place of peace and love. But also a place of hidden secrets. They only met in sleep, when a golf ball was sliced from one psychic realm to another.

Two weeks ago, the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, announced a massive €100 billion rise in German defence spending. This includes the purchase of F-35 fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The rational side of my brain thinks this is a good thing, the Germans rising to the challenge of this new era of Russian aggression. For too long, the Germans have not contributed their fair share to Nato — something Nato has calculated as 2% of GDP — or to the defence of the vulnerable globally. Some might say that they have freeloaded on the defence spending of other countries, and kept their own hands clean by relying on others to make the impossible moral decisions that keep down dictators like Assad and Putin. But my emotional side mourns the final end of that 1981 summer of love in Germany and fears the sight of what looks to me like an Iron Cross on the side of the aeroplanes that my father helped to develop.

Putin’s war against Ukraine has destroyed the long taboo about Germany and the military. After the war, the Germans were allowed to maintain a small army, looking East across the wall, towards the Soviet Union. Out of the ruins of the Forties, a kind of default pacifism was established as the norm.

As recently as 2019, the German government refused to even consider an American request to send ground troops into Syria. One year previously, 72% of the population were against committing the German military against Assad, even if he was using chemical weapons against his own people.

On the 70th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy, the head of the German Evangelical church, Margot KĂ€ĂŸmann , refused to countenance the idea that the defeat of the Nazis could constitute a just war: “There can be no just war,” she said. “That was even true of the Second World War”. No one pushed back against this. “German pacifism is here to stay,” wrote the political editor of Die Zeit in 2019, “and there is no use asking the country to be what it isn’t.”

All of which makes the events of recent weeks so much more extraordinary. German pacifism is no more. Germany is about to have the third largest defence budget in the world, behind only the US and China. Some will feel that this is as it should be. For others it will bring back dark and disturbing memories. For me, it is both.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Germany is about to have the third largest defence budget in the world, behind only the US and China.
I admit I’m cynical but I say let’s wait and see how much Germany spends on the military over the coming years when the Ukraine crisis has passed.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes, they’ve already given themselves wiggle-room – they talk of starting to meet their NATO commitment from 2024.

The shock and fright caused by Russia’s attack will be long gone and, possibly, so will the current resolution to pull their weight militarily.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Why wouldn’t they? No matter what they do now it will be too late for the current crisis in Ukraine. If Putin gets what he wants they might increase their NATO spending a little bit while still buying Russian fossil fuels. On the other hand if this goes poorly for Putin, then they might claim there was little reason to increase their spending and start focusing on ways to meet their energy goals. Bottom line, they would be stupid to commit one way or another right now.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’ve heard from German acquaintances that they feel there has been a revolution in German thinking and policy that is very widely felt.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“During my lifetime at least, the Germans have been the conscience of Europe, responding to their defeat in the war and their national shame with a reinvention of their national consciousness.”
And encouraging millions of economic migrants to the continent on the back of their short sightedness, as one recalls Cologne New Years Eve. Their growing consciousness has been a blight in many ways.

Andrew Fergar
Andrew Fergar
2 years ago

Hi Giles – good piece ..but the hundred million is a one off investment ( as I understand it ) that will bring the German armed forces into some sort of reasonable shape . I am unsure of how quickly this money will be spent and how the cash will be raised . Their target is the 2% of overall spending that we ( amongst a few others ) already meet . I guess that 2% could equal the world’s third largest defence budget , but have my doubts .
BTW we have met in 2007 at Putney church for the debates ( with the THTB )

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Militarism-Pacifism-Militarism-Pacifism…….

If somebody physically invades your world you become militarist but, of course, this is justified as defending yourself… “It was self-defence Your Honour.”

If somebody physically invades another world, then you can smile and claim Pacifism.

I have a cunning plan to remove all Pacifists. Show propaganda films of the Ukranians killing and eating their pet dogs in order to survive.

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Simon Diggins
Simon Diggins
2 years ago

Good article but one slight correction. At the end of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr was anything but small: 500k under arms; 12 divisions and 000s of armoured vehicles, and a very competent territorial defence organisation to organise everything from refugees to destruction of infrastructure that might assist the Soviets.

The issue is that the peace dividend the Germans awarded themselves effectively neutered themselves and left them with little choice but to be ‘peaceful’.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

The size of the British Army in 2002 is 72,500!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

As for 99 Red Balloons, the 1984 hit song, there is a line that goes, “The war machine springs to life. The President is on the line, as 99 red balloons go by” – I’m pretty sure.
Looks like the Chancellor is on the line, now.

When the film, of the fictional book by Frederick Forsyth, The Odessa File was showing in cinemas in 1974, it must have given a push in the minds of the audiences in Britain and America to do with the reality of reflection and reconsideration of WW2 that was taking place in West Germany, among ordinary Germans, in the 1960s (when the film was set) and into the 70s. The British-made film, if shown in West Germany at the time, may have heartened some Germans who felt that the world beyond now knows that good Germans, a new post-war generation, are in abundance and attempting to run things; have neither turned away from unresolved injustices nor neglected responsibilities to do with the legacy of the war. The Odessa File film showed that redemption, if not forgiveness, was very possible. It was just a film. Nevertheless, it was a glimpse, albeit an imagined one, at post-war West Germany (where on-location scenes were shot). Most people in Britain would not have got any other glimpse of Germany, in colour, even on television, in 1974. Three TV channels then, eh? (In the 80s would come, filmed in Germany, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). The World At War TV series was being broadcast at that time. And the candid interviews with the participants, in colour, were 
 necessary for the watching nation. Nothing less than necessary!

It’s just that in the old days, when shown on TV a few years later, people watched The Odessa File. It’s a good, exciting movie. Nowadays, the weight of youth don’t watch TV. They watch snippets designed for dunces, and look up naasti torch-lit parades, from the 1930s, in colour, in the palm of their hand. The only chancellor of Germany before Merkel whom this youth I imagine can name is 
 that boss of Goering, Goebbels and co. They know nothing of the time in between. Nor of the good works of Adenauer, Brandt, Schmidt, Kohl. It’s silly technology and ridiculously tiny tyrannical screens that have probably re-ignited the recent howls by Germans to “do something” to atone for their past. Technology has given youth the worm-like vision of really only seeing the Germany of today and “Germany’s past”: as if its past can only be the period from 1933-45. But in some ways, it’s in part cosmetic, even in Germany, the recent programmes of atonement. The memorials to the Jews of Germany are respectful, poignant, and necessary – but inanimate. What of lively debate? Generally, in mainstream media, in Germany? Like everywhere else in the West, a grounded, candid language to do with actual events, often still within living memory, is dampened down by the overpowering sense of political correctness. The complaints and insensitivities industries are in full swing, aided and abetted by technology, of course. Any candid interviews today with the aged participants of the war are over after a few spoken sentences, and it’s then straight on to the sports or entertainment news, in case anyone should have noticed. In the blizzard of information, the grounded, real past is cast aside or rendered invisible. The memorials that are placed take on a little more tokenistic feel in our modern, unfeeling universe today. Even any recent movies made to do with the war, having been made anywhere in Europe, also take on that tokenistic feel. Unlike yesteryear, your neighbour knows nothing of it. And he or she has probably zero interest in it!

I don’t like the idea of an EU Army. It sounds like one big main army and all its auxiliaries from round and about. It’s good Germany is, however, able to begin to imagine having a better sense of its own security without feeling guilty about it. Like so many young Germans into music in the 70s and 80s, Germans need to look to the future. Right now now, that’s tricky. Maybe the young hip but serious Germans advancing themselves in the 2020s have never heard of 99 Luftballons. We need the 80s back!
Oh yeah, there was that TV show, Deutschland ‘83. Maybe a sign. But the politically correct posturing in the West has gotta go. God has forgiven us our sins already. Nobody believes so, 
sigh.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

The modern teaching of history in English schools (I can’t speak for Welsh and Scottish schools but I can guess) is WOEFUL. Sorry for shouting but it upsets me very much.

Nic Thorne
Nic Thorne
2 years ago

Knowing Germany today, I feel the new defence budget is simply as it should be.

Stephan Quentin
Stephan Quentin
2 years ago

Germany was allowed „a small army after the war“? Under NATO agreements Germany had to maintain a standing army of 500.000 soldiers. The German army is small now, but was not back then.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

Correct. The German army had as its core 10 armoured divisions fielding 4500 Leopard 1 and 2 main battle tanks, the linchpin of NATO’s ground forces.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

My boss at the time of German reunification was German. He was a very thoughtful man and surprised me by saying something along the lines of “Europe will regret this one day, Germany needs to be kept weak.”

It’s stuck with me. Clearly right now Germany needs to stand up, but there is a part of the German psyche that takes itself very seriously. Would a Germany, capable and willing to be a serious world military player, be a force for good?

Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

It would be just as good as the USA, France or the UK. I doubt anybody would want to walk in the footsteps of You-Know-Who

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I tend to agree. Germany has always produced excellent soldiers, has significant manufacturing capability and, with a national psyche so badly scarred by WW2, may well be a very positive influence on the world.

I draw absolutely no parallel with the crimes of WW2, but the West has not covered itself in moral glory in the last couple of decades and doesn’t seem to have much conscience about it (at least at leader level).

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Thanks for this excellent juxtaposition of your own experience with the German change in policy. I really appreciate the additional insight that comes from such parallels being drawn.

aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago

Excellent piece, Mr. Frasier. High-handed ideals often fall to realpolitik, and all of the pacifism in the world may not stop a bad actor, and the greening might just pay for their ambitions.

George Carty
George Carty
2 years ago

Aren’t the Germans not so much pacifists as defeatists: not so much because of World War II or Nazism, as because of the trauma at being split for 40 years by the Iron Curtain?
They couldn’t even admit that their involvement in Afghanistan was a war, because in the German imagination “war = thermonuclear war = we’re all dead”.

Judith Downey
Judith Downey
2 years ago

Thank you for posting this. I have studied intensively elements of German history from 1914 to 2014. I was deeply engaged with the progress from militarism to pacifism. The move to rearmament has left me utterly shocked. I am feeling very uncomfortable.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Judith Downey

I vowel to thee, my country 
 the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Harry Child
Harry Child
2 years ago
Reply to  Judith Downey

Germany has freeloaded their defence on the back of the USA and to a lesser extent Britain for years . They are by far the largest economy in the the EU yet have not paid their 2% to NATO and now face the appalling fact of Russian aggression. Merkel’s policy of appeasement ihas now come home to roost.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Judith Downey

The progress from grifters to fully paid up Nato member you mean.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
2 years ago
Reply to  Judith Downey

Crikey…your expression of discomfort got downvoted six times! The commentariat has become a bizarre group indeed…

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Lightband

Yeah I’m a bit shocked at the reaction there too, for a fairly put comment.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

I just hope that in the fullness of time the Germans will forgive us for the monstrous occupations and humiliations and lootings that we have visited upon them since the end of WWII.
Because, really, after a century of keeping Germany down we are back where we started. We need Germany to do the dirty work keeping the Russians out of Europe.
Oh by the way, Germans, thanks for inventing modern philosophy, modern chemistry, modern physics, modern psychology and I know not what. We owe you.
And let’s not forget German composer Richard Wagner who invented movie music.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Chantrill
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

I don’t understand your first paragraph.

As for the second paragraph: are you nearly a century behind, living in 1932? Rather than 2022?

What’s all this modern this and modern that? I’m beginning to think you are referencing New Wave Eighties pop bands. Modern Love? Anyone? The Brits do owe Germany for spending money on British pop music, I’ll say!

“And let’s not forget German composer Richard Wagner who invented movie music!” That sounds like the rallying cry of some excited, homely tech whizz kid in the Big Bang Theory TV sitcom.

Roger Sponge
Roger Sponge
2 years ago

On an industrial scale, unique in history, Germany coldly, deliberately with forethought enslaved, tortured, murdered countless hundreds of millions for no other reason than they existed.

They displaced many millions more from their homes and countries. Entire countries, let alone cities, had to be rebuilt because of German attacks.

Modern Germany is only 30 years old. It’s born of two utterly vile regimes.

Yes, thanks for the film music and the rest. But that only makes their 20th century behaviour worse.

Last edited 2 years ago by Roger Sponge
Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

‘Oh by the way, Germans, thanks for inventing modern philosophy, modern chemistry, modern physics, modern psychology and I know not what’.
I think we could have lived quite happily without any of those. But Bach, Beethoven, Schubert on the other hand…