German veterans' day proposal gets mixed response

Thu, Apr 5, 2012, 01:00

A TABOO-BREAKING German plan for an annual “Veterans’ Day” honouring former German soldiers, living and dead, was given a mixed reception yesterday.

Defence minister Thomas de Maizière said the proposal was timely, given Germany’s increasing military presence around the world. Some 14 years after the Bundeswehr deployment in Kosovo, Germany’s first military operation in Europe since the second World War, about 300,000 soldiers had been deployed and over 100 killed.

“Against the backdrop of our operations and the questions they pose to our society, it is time to speak objectively and openly about our veterans’ policy,” said Mr de Maizière. He suggested holding Veterans’ Day on May 22nd – the anniversary of the Bundeswehr’s foundation in 1956.

The proposal was greeted as “appropriate and correct” by party colleagues in the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU). The move comes as part of a wider government effort to reform the Bundeswehr and generate a shift inattitudes to the military. Three years ago, a memorial to fallen soldiers was unveiled on the grounds of the defence ministry in Berlin.

Ulrich Kirsch, head of the Bundeswehr representative association, welcomed the proposal but said it was “important to get answers to the question of who is defined as a veteran”.

Germany has not had a Veterans’ Day since the Third Reich and does not remember the seven million German servicemen who died in the two world wars. Instead, on November 11th, it observes Volkstrauertag – a national day of mourning for soldiers and civilians killed in war and victims of violent oppression.

Rainer Arnold, defence spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD), said he was “sceptical that there can be a day that really gets through to society”.

The opposition Left Party suggested the defence minister should improve soldiers’ pay rather than “invoking some cheap ‘ideal of honour’”.

The proposal follows a public condemnation by German teachers’ union GEW of what it sees as the Bundeswehr “striving for more influence in schools”. “Exhibitions of weapons and similar Bundeswehr events have no place on school premises – not at weekends nor as extra-curricular activities,” it wrote. “Reports about traumatised returnees from Afghanistan and those killed in action must also be included” in information to interested students, it believes.