BERLIN // Chancellor Angela Merkel's award of a new bravery medal to four soldiers on Monday marked an attempt to get Germans accustomed to a new reality - their troops are once again fighting and dying on foreign soil. The controversy that preceded the introduction of the Bundeswehr Cross of Honour for Valour, Germany's first army medal for courage since the end of the Second World War in 1945, shows how sensitive military matters remain in a country rendered fiercely pacifist by its wartime destruction and the memory of the Holocaust.
The Cross of Honour is a golden Maltese cross with an eagle in the centre attached to a ribbon in the national colours of black, red and gold. It is effectively a new version of the notorious iron cross, the award that became tainted by German military aggression and war crimes in the Second World War. but the government has emphasised that the new medal is completely different. Together with a plan to erect a memorial for fallen Bundeswehr soldiers this year, it is part of a government drive to raise the standing of the army in Germany at a time when its soldiers are becoming increasingly embroiled in the fighting in Afghanistan.
"Now is the right time to signal to the public what a difficult mission we have to perform especially in Afghanistan, but not just there," said Lt Col Ulrich Kirsch, chairman of the Bundeswehr association, a group representing the interests of active and retired soldiers. Germany is the third-biggest international troop contributor in Afghanistan with about 3,700 soldiers; 35 have been killed there since the army began its mission in 2002, even though Berlin has steadfastly refused to dispatch troops from bases in the relatively peaceful north to join Nato troops from other countries fighting militants in the more violent south.
But attacks on German forces have increased sharply this year, fuelling public opposition to the operation and undermining Berlin's strategy of focusing its military mission on aiding development and civil reconstruction. A recent opinion poll showed 61 per cent of Germans want an immediate withdrawal of the Bundeswehr from Afghanistan, whereas in 2002, 62 per cent supported the mission. It is likely to become an issue in the general election Sept 27.
The deaths of three soldiers in an ambush on their vehicle near Kunduz at the end of June prompted the government to introduce more aggressive rules of engagement for German troops in Afghanistan. A passage stating that German soldiers may only open fire in self-defence has been quietly dropped this year. A medal rewarding military heroism would have been unthinkable a decade ago, and its introduction is a further sign that Germany is emerging from the shadows of its past.
"The medal and the planned memorial symbolise the fact that military missions have become more normal, that it's become more clear that fighting, dying and killing is part of the soldier's profession," said Jochen Hippler, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Until the 1990s, foreign combat missions were so taboo in West Germany that they were not seriously discussed and the country resorted to playing "chequebook general", paying billions to support the United States in the first Gulf war.
But since the unification of East and West Germany in 1990, the country's allies have urged it to take on a greater military role in the new post-Cold War era of foreign military operations. Over the past decade the country has responded to those calls, sending thousands of troops to peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and taking part in its first combat mission since the Second World War by assisting in the bombing of Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Today it has 250,000 men and women under arms, of whom 35,000 are conscripts and 25,000 voluntarily extended their service.
Under Mrs Merkel, Germany's annual defence budget has increased to ?31.2 billion (Dh160bn) from ?24bn in 2005 to pay for new transport aircraft, tanks and weapons systems to prepare it for a future of international missions. On Monday, German firms Rheinmetall and KraussMaffei announced their biggest contract since the Second World War - a ?3.1bn Bundeswehr order for 405 modern "Puma" infantry fighting vehicles that offer greater protection against roadside bombs of the kind used by Taliban militants.
Despite increases in recent years, German defence spending still remains significantly lower than that of France and Britain. But the days are gone when the army was so short of funds that recruits were ordered to shout "Bang Bang" on training exercises, to go easy on toilet paper and to gut other vehicles for spare parts. Recent surveys have shown a reawakening of national pride, but one that takes the form of an easy-going, flag-waving, street festival patriotism rather than the militant nationalism of the past.
The government has been at pains to stress that German soldiers today protect international stability, peace, security and reconstruction. "Our soldiers should receive greater acknowledgement for their dedication," Mrs Merkel said Monday during the ceremony, which honoured four soldiers who risked their lives to help wounded comrades and Afghan civilians wounded in a suicide attack by the Taliban in Oct 2008.
"We still speak too little about this in Germany," Mrs Merkel said. firstname.lastname@example.org