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May 31, 2010


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...yes and no. But, actually, mostly no.

The sticking point wasn't the history as such. It was that the German constitution explicitly forbids military action for anything but self-defense. (It's Article 26.1.) So, suggesting Germany might have to deploy troops for economic reasons? Pretty clearly unconstitutional.

There's no close American equivalent, but it's a bit as if a US President were to stand up and say, well, sometimes the government /should/ support a particular church, you know? And also, maybe the executive branch should regulate the press -- to keep them responsible, like.

The ex-President had a well-deserved reputation as a clumsy speaker; this wasn't his first malapropism. But it was well over the line of acceptable discourse.

That said, most people think he should have apologized instead of resigning. There's a perception that, instead of backing down and admitting error, he chose to pitch a hissy.

Doug M.

Doug, it seems to me that you're mistaken.

Constutitions prohibit lots of things. Some prohibitions can be questioned within the realm of acceptable public discourse; others cannot.

In German political culture, questioning the prohibition on using force for reasons other than self-defense is cause for resignation. Yet Germany is currently engaged in a shooting war that stretches the definition of self-defense, has troops deployed elsewhere, and the FGS Emden is taking part in Operation Atalanta.

Presumably, it is Germany's particular history what's made it verboten to question the constitutional prohibition, even though it seems about as dead as the U.S. clause reserving war powers to Congress.

This could mean that I'm missing some context. Or it could mean that you're wrong! Eagerly waiting to hear which.

It's especially bizarre that this was treated as so outrageous when Germany does, in fact, have armed forces operating in order to keep trade routes open. Specifically, the German Navy has been helping to patrol the sea routes around the Horn of Africa in order to protect merchant ships from piracy.

Word. That's Operation Atalanta. The FGS Emden is there right now and German vessels have engaged in combat with pirates.

Doug? We're throwing down a gauntlet, here.

"FGS Emden is taking part in Operation Atalanta"

Better yet, FGS Hessen is in the Gulf acting as one of the battle-wagons escorting CSG 10. Though that might count as protecting a trade route, no? And there have been (intentional?) sightings of an SSN crossing Hormuz. (USS Jimmy Carter?) Gonna get interesting.... :^)

Doug, there are three people now claiming that the constitutional argument is specious, given that Germany already engages in “military deployments” in order “to protect [its] interests, for example, when it comes to trade routes [and] preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence [its] trade, jobs and incomes.” Most notably in Kosovo, the Horn, and the Gulf.

With hyperconstitutionalism ruled out, we're left with the Germany's legacy from the war, unless there's another explanation. Is there?

...I very rarely invoke the argument from authority. However, I have to note that I live in Germany, speak German, read and watch German news, and regularly discuss stuff like this with actual, living Germans.

Let's take it from the top. The German Constitution specifically prohibits "Angriffskriege". That translates as "offensive war", but the meaning in German is a bit broader. "No Angriffskriege" pretty much precludes anything but self-defense.

Note that the Germans didn't put this provision in themselves! The Allies insisted -- almost literally at gunpoint -- that it be included. The initial German reaction to this was something like "glum resignation". But over time, they got more enthusiastic about it, and today it's as important -- and as central to their identity -- as any provision of the Bill of Rights is to Americans.

Anyway: just a few years after its drafting, the restriction hit its first snag: how could it be reconciled with German membership in NATO?

Answer: NATO formally assured the Germans that this alliance was /strictly defensive/. The Bundestag then solemnly passed a law saying "the Constitution allows us to join defensive alliances". Subsequent court decisions confirmed that, okay, this was constitutional. This was back in Adenauer's time, when the judiciary was pretty conservative and inclined to defer to the executive on security issues. It's anyone's guess if it would have flown a generation later. But fly it did, and 50+ years later it's firmly established as both precedent and policy.

The odd result of this is that NATO occupies a special constitutional space. Basically, if NATO does it, it's presumed defensive -- not Angriffskrieg! -- and therefore constitutional.

In 1999, the Kosovo war forced Germany to thread a very narrow passage: they simultaneously argued that the war wasn't "offensive" because it was in defense of the helpless Albanians, while at the same time carefully limiting German participation. (This is why, for instance, the air offensive made use of Belgian and Dutch airplanes, but not German.) The German courts subsequently reviewed this and -- barely and grudgingly -- agreed.

This in turn provided a precedent for German participation in Afghanistan. Again, it was limited -- no German troops storming Taliban strongholds. Arguably the Germans could legally do this, but the political leadership wisely decided not to stretch the envelope.

Note that there was a huge internal debate over Kosovo, and another one over Afghanistan. This flares up again every time Germans do anything new in Afghanistan ("Can we do that?") or every time a German soldier is killed ("What are we doing there!?")

Somalia, on the other hand, was easy. There's a body of law going back around 300 years stating that anti-piracy actions are never offensive. The reasoning is that pirates are the common enemies of all civilized nations; hoisting the Jolly Roger is legally equivalent to a declaration of war against the world. Once you become a pirate, ships of all nations are free to attack you at will. So, there wasn't much controversy over sending German ships to help. (In fact, there was a bit of relief -- here's something useful we can do, without having a wrenching internal debate!)

Which brings us to the President's resignation. You said this happened because of the burden of history. I say this is partly true, but also very incomplete; it ignores the 65 years of history /since/ the war. To put it another way, it confuses proximate and ultimate causes. It's like saying Paris Hilton is screwed up because Conrad Hilton made a huge pile of money after he formed the Hilton Hotels Corporation in 1946. Germans didn't think the President's statement was wrong because Germany has a history of offensive, hugely destructive war. They thought it was wrong because Germany is a peaceful, lawful nation that would never do anything that might be "Angriffskrieg".

Germany has an extremely strong self-image of itself as a nation that is peaceful and law-abiding. Obviously that has historical roots in the postwar settlement imposed by the Allies, but it's comfortably outlived both the war and the settlement and is now a historical fact in its own right. The last withered, centenarian WWII veteran will probably drop dead around 2035, but the Germans of that day will almost certainly still be pacifistic and inclined to hand-wringing over most forms of military action.

Doug M.


Returning to the Gulf situation, what would you expect German reactions to look like were that particular balloon to go up?

The Hessen is officially an "air defense frigate", designed for exactly this mission: protecting a larger ship or ships (or, more improbably, a coastal installation) from attack by airplanes or small boats. It's got radar that can pick up anything larger than a rubber duck within a sea area the size of Wisconsin, and then it's got a wide array of weaponry -- purely defensive, of course! -- to fend off an attack by said duck or its allies.

The official mission profile says that "The Hessen will be limited to supporting the Americans in air surveillance operations."

There are some interesting wrinkles to this. The Hessen is, in cold fact, a destroyer reconfigured for air defense. However, "destroyer" sounds too aggressive for modern Germany, so it's called a frigate.

The mission is happening because of dramatically improved relations between the current US and German administrations. (This has gone almost entirely unnoticed by American media, but it's attracted some attention here.) The two countries hadn't held a joint naval exercise outside of NATO since the 1990s, and AFAICT this is the first time a German ship has been placed under direct American command.

Sending an air /defense/ frigate to the Gulf on a strictly /defensive/ mission to /defend/ that American carrier group from attack is a very clever bit of hair-splitting on the part of the Merkel government. Of course, it's interesting to speculate about what would happen if the American admiral ordered the Hessen to attack something... In practice, I suspect the Admiral has been carefully briefed on the mission limitations of the Germans. (And I also suspect that briefing has been kept very confidential, so as not to disturb the good feelings all around.)

Doug M.

"To put it another way, it confuses proximate and ultimate causes."

That would be accurate, but simultaneously misleading and useless. What you should have written is: "To put another way, it identifies necessary but not sufficient conditions."

I don't mean to be persnick ... no, actually, I do. It's the difference between elucidation and snark. Or, if snark wasn't intended, good social science history and a point I don't understand.

AFAICT, we're in agreement. The peculiarities of German history, caused by the fact that it started World War 2, have caused Germans today to denouce violations of a hyperpacifist rhetoric that is only tangentially related to the reality. By the time you've carved out exceptions for piracy and alliance operations (especially given the fact that the German military is basically incapable of operating outside NATO), then you've engaged in sophistry.

In this case, I still think that sophistry is good!

Well, the distinction between a frigate and a destroyer in most modern navies is pretty tenuous. The old County class were considered to be guided-missile destroyers by the RN, but would have been classified DLGs - missile frigate - by the USN (and indeed were by NATO), and were quite similar to what the Soviet navy would have called a cruiser and the French navy would have called a Frégate lance-engins.

And the Hessen and her sisters are virtually identical to the Dutch De Zeven Provincien, which the Dutch call an air defence frigate. That sounds weird to me, but then, the USN had those big nuclear-powered carrier escorts (Bainbridge and California classes ) that they called DLGNs - frigates, guided missile, nuclear, and they were anti-air optimised.

Of course, Blohm & Voss made a very good living by making ships out of standardised modules, so you can order a MEKO with the long oceanic hull, big frigate (or destroyer...) armament, and big engines if you need something like Hessen or Cornwall, or save money by keeping the deep sea hull and dropping some of the armament as an antisubmarine escort, or go further and delete one third of the engines for an ocean patrol vessel.

Alternatively, why not keep the Full Ahead engines and the weapons fit, delete half the cruise engines, and scale the hull down drastically, if you won't be keeping the sea for months but are expecting a big fight? That gives you something like the Turkish navy's big corvettes/mini-frigates.

And don't forget about the Japanese ship that's a DDH - Destroyer, Helicopter...

Noel, I think we're at a point of diminishing returns. Continue over a beer sometime, perhaps.

Alex, that's true, but the Germans used to have destroyers named as such ("Zerstoerer"). The last ones seem to have gone out of commission around the end of the Cold War, and it's been 'frigates' ever since.

Incidentally, there's some speculation that putting the Hessen under US command is a chess move on Merkel's part. It's a significant commitment that puts Germans in an active theater without actually putting them in much danger. If things really go pear-shaped in Afghanistan, this could give them some cover for withdrawal: "Well, yes we're pulling our troops out, but hey -- we'll make up for it! What say we deploy two more of these nifty air defense frigates over there in the Gulf?"

The Turkish navy's big corvettes: IANA war nerd, but I confess I felt a flash of -- intellectual interest? Morbid fascination? Something -- at the prospect of a Turkish-Israeli confrontation. It's very very unlikely, and that's good. But when you look at the respective force structures... yeah, it's pretty interesting to contemplate.

The Japanese DDH: note that the Japanese have managed the trick of being even more pacifistic than the Germans while basically barely acknowledging any war guilt at all.

Doug M.

Köhler did apparently try to explain that he was making a reference to merely the operations in the Horn of Africa and Hormuz. Which makes sense, given the content of his statement, but making the statement when he was actually, you know, in Afghanistan was definitely very clumsy.

Doug is wrong about Kosovo, by the way. The German participation was limited, but not to the extent that he's implying. Those German Tornados were in the first wave of the NATO air offensive against the Serb air defences.


J. J.

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