Germany sets aside unease over its military to celebrate first Veterans’ Day

(CNN) — Germany is marking its first Veterans’ Day since World War Two on Saturday, a once unthinkable move that sets aside long-standing unease over the honoring of its soldiers.

In a sign of the “Zeitenwende,” or “changing of the times,” that Germany is undergoing in the wake of the Ukraine war, the country is actively seeking to increase the prestige of its military.

Germany has for decades felt uncomfortable over such pageantry given the role of its soldiers in World War II and the Holocaust.

But a bill to introduce an annual national Veterans’ Day was voted in on April 25 after being approved by nearly all parties in the German parliament.

Only the far-left Die Linke party raised objections. Party co-chairman Ates Gürpinar implied this was due to the party’s pacifist stance.

“We on the left reject this Veterans’ Day,” he told CNN in a statement. “It is based on cheap symbolic politics and at the same time ensures the minister of defense’s promise of war-readiness.” 

The new legislation states that the day should be celebrated “publicly and visibly” every year on June 15. It also mandates improvements to services providing mental and physical care for veterans, including rehabilitation and therapy.

The commemorations, modeled on Armed Forces Day in the UK and Veterans Day in the US, will honor all Germans who have worn military uniform – not only those wounded or killed in combat. Germany has around 10 million veterans, according to its ministry of defense

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius described the move as a “strong, important and, yes, an overdue signal of recognition and appreciation.”

During the Cold War, Soviet-occupied East Germany celebrated its National People’s Army with military parades. An equivalent was never established in the West.

Following the end of World War II, the first combat mission in which German soldiers took part was the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. Since then the most significant deployments of the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, have been in Afghanistan and Mali.

But the biggest spur to creating a Veterans’ Day has been Ukraine.

Germany was initially reluctant to send heavy weaponry to Kyiv for fear of becoming directly involved in the war, but eventually bowed to international pressure. Now, Berlin is the second-biggest supplier of military aid to Ukraine.

“The war against Ukraine has created the need for a significant build-up of the Bundeswehr (armed forces), increased spending and also recruitment,” Johannes Kiess, a sociologist at the University of Leipzig, told CNN. It was an opportunity, he added, that made it appear appropriate to upgrade the military “symbolically” as well.

A relationship of respect

This Saturday, the day will be marked with an event in Berlin. From next year, commemorations will take place nationwide.

Johannes Arlt, a former soldier who was deployed four times to Afghanistan and three times to Mali from 2014 to 2019, is now a lawmaker for the ruling center-left Social Democrats (SPD). He played a prominent role in forming the new Veterans’ Day bill.

Speaking to CNN, Arlt said he experienced first-hand the lack of recognition of the Bundeswehr in German society, particularly for deployments abroad, but acknowledged that this appears to have changed in recent times.

“For a long time, there appeared to be a sparse interest in people who served abroad, and there used to be little empathy, but we find that the population now has a great deal of respect for the Bundeswehr.”

Arlt explains he believes a Veterans’ Day in Germany is important to “commemorate military service – in all its facets – and thank the men and women who are committed to security in our country.”

Arlt said he experienced horrors during his military service abroad that he would not wish anyone to witness. “I had my worst experiences in Mali in 2019,” he said. “I flew a drone and saw all the things that others didn’t see on the front line. I was also present at massacres and had to watch these things and couldn’t do anything.

“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Mental health support leaves ‘room for improvement’

Part of the reason for the move is to improve the health services offered to soldiers returning from assignments overseas, as well as to raise awareness of what they have to endure.

Army veteran Andreas Eggert served in the Bundeswehr from 1999-2013, first in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2013 and went into rehabilitation in 2014. He is welcoming the efforts to improve aftercare for soldiers, many of whom are left with physical or psychological damage.

“Mental illness was still frowned upon in my time, especially if you were in a specialized assignment like I was, it was difficult to deal with it openly,” he told CNN. “But I did it back then, in 2013, I spoke out it openly and was criticized a lot for it.”

Eggert says that he has seen the Bundeswehr’s rehabilitation programs improve over the years, but there is still work to be done.

“[The programs] are not optimal, and the care is not optimal either. There are not enough therapists, especially not in the Bundeswehr. The Bundeswehr hospitals that do a good job are often overstretched… There is a lot of room for improvement.”

Regardless of the debate around marking Veterans’ Day, it is clear the country has had to adapt its anti-militaristic stance in recent years.

Pistorius has previously warned that Germany needs to prepare for a worst-case scenario regarding the specter of war in Europe. He has also not ruled out introducing some form of military conscription.

For now, though, the soldiers CNN spoke to were simply grateful for the acknowledgment.

“I don’t see myself as a hero, quite the opposite, but what I have missed is a time or even a day when we can also remember those who have fallen during their assignments,” said 42-year-old Stefan Huss, an active soldier who twice served in Afghanistan.

He added: “We have been fighting for this for a long time.”

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