No. 4 - Jul 1995
Vol. 43 - pp. 3-8


Director, German Society for Foreign Affairs,
Professor at the University of Bonn

Germany joined NATO 40 years ago - a not uncontroversial event at the time both within and outside the country. Chancellor Adenauer maintained that membership would bring unification, an assertion that was eventually to prove correct. Following unification and the end of the Cold War, a debate has got under way to create a consensus which would allow Germany to act together with its Allies to defend basic principles of international law and human rights. The Alliance, in adapting to its new role, is opening up to the new democracies in the East, and is facing a crisis which is a test both for itself and for Germany - how to deal effectively with the type of conflict now seen in the former Yugoslavia.

The Federal Republic of Germany's entry into NATO in May 1955 was an historic event. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer personally participated in Germany's first NATO Council meeting on 9 May, itself an historic date. Ten years after the end of the worst war in history, unleashed by Germany under Hitler, the Western democracies allied themselves with the Western part of that country to travel jointly on a long journey toward an uncertain future. To what end? To preserve peace in Europe, to resist totalitarianism and to restore democracy and freedom in the Eastern portion of Germany and of Europe. While everyone was hopeful, few thought then that this would be possible in less than four decades, a relatively short span of time by historical standards and definitely not very long if one considers the intensity and implications of the East-West conflict.

The entry into NATO created clarity after a long debate in a divided country. It was a debate that had begun in earnest in 1950 when North Korea invaded the South and when many Germans, and indeed many Europeans, thought that Europe could suffer a similar fate. Entry into NATO decided the course of German, and indeed of European and Western, history; but it did not end the controversy, either in Germany or abroad.

Inside Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) opposed NATO membership for another five years, until finally accepting the NATO course in 1960. Outside Germany, concerns about the remilitarization of the country that had been responsible for the Second World War were slow to die down, but they did finally disappear.

The rearmament debate was one of the great and most divisive debates in post-war German history. It was an extremely difficult decision. Was it not Franz Josef Strauss, who was later to become Defence Minister in 1956, who said: "The hand should wither that once again takes up a rifle"?

The pacifism of that day was not the welfare state pacifism of the contemporary period but a pacifism that was fed by the memories of a terrible war, with millions of dead, hence a moralistic pacifism which was politically very powerful.

It is not surprising that Germany was deeply divided during this period. In 1950, 46 per cent of the West German population was against German participation in a European army, while 36 per cent were for it. But the politicians of that period- on both sides by the way - were not the sort of politicians who always studied public opinion polls. They cared about the long-term goals associated with their policy, knowing what was at stake. The debate was therefore passionate.

The Opposition argued that entry into NATO would perpetuate the division of Germany. As a slogan in one of the protest demonstrations stated: "He who votes for this treaty (on rearmament) ceases to be a German. " Adenauer, however, persistently argued against this viewpoint. Two days before Germany joined NATO, he said, "We will now be a member of the strongest alliance in history. It will bring us reunification. "The German historian, Rolf Steininger quoted him disapprovingly in 1985, stating that, "If he truly believed what he said, history has proven him wrong. " Of course, today we know who was right in the long run.

The worst moment in this battle was, of course, produced by Stalin's note of 1952 which offered, in the midst of this divisive debate, all-German elections. Adenauer, supported by the Allies, refused even to negotiate the offer, dreading endless negotiations and assuming that it was nothing but a tactical device to derail the entire project and with it Germany's adhesion to the West. For years to come, he, and indeed his successors, had to face the accusation of having missed an historic opportunity.

NATO membership was, at that time, only considered as the second best option by those who advocated it, because it replaced a European solution that had been debated for three years: the European Defence Community. Had the European solution come about, history would have taken a different turn. There would have been an element of a federal Europe, a European Defence Minister, and indeed a two-pillar Alliance. Surely there would have been drawbacks and disadvantages to such a solution, but it is useful to keep this in mind. In any case, the French National Assembly defeated the project in 1954 and all governments involved moved on to the project of NATO membership for Germany, which was brought about speedily. Looking back on 40 years of German participation, what did these years give us?

NATO has always been, and still is, a political Alliance, but in the middle of the 1960s, the time had come to review its political purpose. Under the Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel, the Alliance examined this issue and reformulated its long-term strategy. This was the period of the Great Coalition in Bonn between the SPD and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which had joined forces after having opposed each other. When the Social Democratic-Liberal Coalition under Willy Brandt took office in 1969, there was to be a substantial change of policy. Brandt's policy of Ostpolitik was in line with the Harmel exercise but went much further:it included dialogue with the East, and recognition of the status quo in Europe. That was particularly difficult for Germany - especially in terms of recognizing borders - but it was necessary because, without it, the status quo could not have changed.

At that time, there was a great deal of concern in the West about Ostpolitik and Germany's opening to the Soviet Union. But Western governments nevertheless had sufficient trust in the Western orientation of the Federal Republic to support the policy, even though domestically, Germany was again deeply divided between the government coalition under Willy Brandt and the Christian Democratic opposition. In the end, however, the new policy proved successful. It was the combination of Western resolve in defence and openness in political affairs that carried the seeds of change to the East and brought down Communism as we knew it.

The debate on nuclear strategy and nuclear weapons was another element of jointly managing change. The German dilemma is well known:In the event of war, Germany would have been the battlefield of the two opposing alliances and, therefore, would have been more affected than any other country. Consequently, preventing war has always been the steadfast goal of German policy. But one could only prevent war by being prepared for fighting it. Deterrence was an imperative for the Alliance, but even more so for German policy. Deterrence through nuclear weapons was part of this equation but, at the same time, Germans did not want nuclear weapons to assume a war-fighting function, because it would have been Germany that suffered most. This created a schizophrenic attitude to nuclear weapons which profoundly disturbed German domestic politics for many years.

These developments came to a head in the late 1970s, with NATO's "double-track" decision, when the then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, facing the protest of a vociferous minority, stood firm and paid the highest political price for his perseverance - he lost office. It was Chancellor Helmut Kohl who actually implemented the policy. Today, we know from Mikhail Gorbachev, who said so both to Chancellor Kohl and to former Chancellor Schmidt, that without Western resolve during this particular phase of East-West relations, the old Soviet policy would not have crumbled. It was Western firmness which demonstrated the bankruptcy of the Soviet policy of overstressing the military dimension of security.

One of the great French Ambassadors to NATO, François de Rose, has just published a book about the North Atlantic Alliance, entitled "La troisieme guerre mondiale n'a pas eu lieu" (The Third World War did not happen) which appropriately summarizes the central achievement of the Alliance:the prevention of a great war which could have escalated to massive nuclear destruction. Quite a few opponents of NATO and of nuclear deterrence, including personalities in Germany, considered such an outcome to be almost certain. The longest period of peace in this century has, of course, many sources, but the single most important factor was the existence of this Alliance of democracies. No country is as grateful for this accomplishment as the once divided Germany which would have suffered first and most fatally.

A new Bundeswehr

During this period, a new German army emerged - the Bundeswehr - which was built on a democratic concept. Its representatives in NATO headquarters and the various NATO institutions were strikingly different from the heel-clicking officers that people remembered from the preceding period. A new German military class that grew up under democratic principles cooperated within the NATO institutions, numerous contacts developed and partners became friends, making war among them unthinkable. They were cooperating for a common purpose.

The military integration of Germany into NATO was an essential part of the process of reconciliation between Germany and the Western nations. Germany created the strongest conventional forces in Western Europe, in cooperation with the Allies. In doing so, it demonstrated that it could deal responsibly with power, in particular with military power, and thereby established the kind of trust in Germany's political system and armed forces without which the creation of a strong united Germany in 1990 would hardly have been thinkable.

On 3 October 1990, the historic day when Germany was united, the then German Ambassador to NATO, Hans von Ploetz, delivered a message to the NATO Council in which he expressed what is an overwhelming consensus in Germany: "We, today, gratefully recall the many men and women who, for decades, in the governments and parliaments of the Alliance countries, in their armed forces and in other responsible capacities, practised all-embracing solidarity, firm resolve and in many instances making personal sacrifices far away from their home countries. . . ". At the same time,he expressed to the Council the sincere gratitude of the Chancellor and the Foreign Minister. All Germans remember what the Alliance, and in particular the three Western Powers, did to preserve the freedom of Berlin, a city and enclave, militarily almost indefensible, which had become a symbol of hope and which will now once again be the capital of a reunited Germany in a reuniting Europe.

Spreading freedom to the East

NATO brought freedom to East Germany and to Central and Eastern Europe. It is important to recall that for Adenauer and the majority of Germans, freedom, not unity, was the priority of national policy. Germany could have had unity without freedom in the post-war period, but that course was rejected. In fact, in the first NATO Council attended by Konrad Adenauer, he said: "The Federal government is determined to strive together with the other member states for peace and freedom. I know that this is the way the German nation as a whole is feeling and thinking as are those 18 million of our brethren who are still being denied the right of free speech and of deciding freely their destiny. " The strategy was: freedom first!And if the conditions for freedom were created, this would automatically resolve the German problem and indeed the problem of Europe's division.

Looking back to the 1950s, one cannot but be impressed by the extraordinary far-sightedness and vision of the politicians and statesmen of that time. The Paris Agreements, first formulated in the 1952 treaty between the Three Western Powers and the Federal Republic, slightly amended in 1954 and signed in October 1954, stated that the signatory states ". . . will cooperate to achieve by peaceful means their common aim of a reunified Germany enjoying a liberal-democratic constitution like that of the Federal Republic and integrated within the European community". This formulation in Article 7 of the agreements describes exactly what happened several decades later. It is very rare in history that a long-term strategy is implemented in its entirety. Western democracies can congratulate themselves that they were able to produce such an outcome.

In 1989 and 1990, an historic opportunity arose. The Western countries, in cooperation with a Soviet Union that was then rapidly changing, seized the chance and produced what can be considered as the greatest triumph of diplomacy in this century. Not even a full year passed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the final act of creating a united Germany. Thanks to the keen sense of strategic opportunity of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the then Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, as well as that of their Western counterparts, it was possible to produce this extraordinary achievement in such a short time. The leaders of the United States, France and Great Britain, who had special responsibilities, backed by NATO throughout this period, succeeded in cooperation with their German and Soviet partners in achieving an outcome that many had considered impossible, including many German politicians who had thought that unification would not occur in their lifetime. Along with East Germans, 400 million human beings were freed from Communism, an achievement unthinkable without the persistent efforts of the NATO Allies.

Adapting to the new era

Since the historic events of 1989/1990, both united Germany and NATO are trying to adapt to the changing international environment and to redefine their roles.

Considering its role in NATO, it is important to note that there is greater support for NATO in Germany today than ever before. The Left, except for the Greens, is no longer divided and supports NATO more than in the past. The outside world's fears at the time of unification of a too powerful Germany, have died away. Germany's problem is not strength, but weakness. The integration of East Germany turned out to be much more difficult than was assumed by those who predicted the "Fourth Reich" in 1989 and 1990, and equally difficult was the adaptation to a new role in the security field.

In the middle of the Two-plus-Four negotiations, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the second Gulf war began. At that time, many were demanding German military participation but the Two-plus-Four negotiations had not yet ended. When the Coalition, mandated by a UN Security Council Resolution, launched its counter-attack against Iraq in January 1991, the demand for a German role was repeated. At that time, President Gorbachev, already politically weaker than in the preceding year, had not yet succeeded in ratifying the various bilateral and multilateral agreements accompanying German unification. Thus there were good reasons for the German government not to send troops to the Gulf. Neither the public nor the Bundeswehr were prepared for such a radical departure from post-war policies, which Allied governments had not asked for anyway, realizing that such action was neither advisable nor possible. Instead, the Federal Republic made a contribution to the war effort - indispensable in the eyes of knowledgeable observers - by providing military equipment, training, logistical support and financial means.

The adaptation to Germany's new role in security affairs has been and remains difficult. Many of Germany's allies, the large democracies in particular, have been involved in a number of conflicts and UN missions since the Second World War, some of them requiring quite substantial commitments of armed forces. It was in May 1945 that the last German soldier had died in action. Sincethat time, it was not until two years ago that the first German soldier was wounded in a conflict situation- a pilot on an aid mission to Sarajevo - and the first German to be killed in a multilateral action was a member of a medical unit murdered in Cambodia last year. During the long period in between, the German public, despite the sacrifices made by German soldiers, was never truly obliged to face the consequences of what it really means to use armed forces in a military conflict. It has only been over the last few years that the German public has genuinely faced up to these issues, which are inevitably associated with the country's new responsibilities.

The decision of the Constitutional Court on Germany's military participation in multilateral actions produced a ruling which virtually all constitutional experts had predicted, arguing that such a role for the Bundeswehr was in accordance with the terms of the Constitution. But now politics has to move beyond the legal dimension and create the political consensus for a new role for the Bundeswehr. It would not be enough to have 51 per cent support for such actions. A democracy needs broader support when it comes to matters of war and peace. Germany is now in the midst of a debate to create that consensus which is slowly evolving.

Obviously, Europe's largest democracy cannot stand aside when it is a matter of acting together with the Allies to defend basic principles of international law and human rights. Thus, one can be confident that, as the internal debate evolves, the Bundeswehr will take part in multilateral actions along with the armed forces of NATO Allies. But in taking that step, Germany still needs the political support of the Allies, because it continues to be a difficult process for politicians to go through.

NATO is adapting to its new role and at the same time, of course, preserving old ones. Particular tribute must be paid to the late Secretary General, Manfred Woerner, whose leadership helped enormously to advance and accelerate this process of change in the Alliance and particularly to open it to the new democracies in the East. Today, NATO and the European Union are the most important instruments for creating stability and producing constructive change in Europe, a process still in its early phase.

War has come back to Europe. During the Cold War, while peace between East and West was preserved, the Southern hemisphere was still plagued by war, and Eastern Europe by repeated conflicts that marked unsuccessful attempts to shake off Soviet hegemony. Today, the crisis in the Balkans is of profound concern to the Alliance. NATO was primarily created to defend its members and to produce political change, and on both counts it was very successful. Its new role is difficult to develop because this amounts to no less than an active engagement outside the Alliance area. Meanwhile, our democratic publics watch the tragedy in the Balkans and become increasingly impatient and frustrated.

The capacity of the Alliance to deal effectively with the ongoing war in former Yugoslavia could also decide its future. If, in this case, the Alliance is unable to moderate the conflict or to bring it to an end, what will be its future purpose?Of course it will retain its residual task of providing defence against aggression, but the forces that could attack the Alliance are not apparent, at least not for the moment, although they could of course arise again. The most important task for NATO for years to come is therefore to deal with the types of conflict that are now occurring in former Yugoslavia. Consequently, this crisis is a test for NATO and for Germany as it enters a new phase of foreign policy, freed from earlier constraints, endowed with new responsibilities and called upon to make its contribution along with the other Allies to a redefinition of NATO's role for the difficult era of world politics that lies ahead.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1995.