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The rime of the ancient minister

The Local · 9 Mar 2011, 15:28

Published: 09 Mar 2011 15:28 GMT+01:00

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In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem about the Ancient Mariner, a sailor makes the mistake of shooting an albatross with his crossbow.

As any seafarer worth his salt knows, as long as an albatross follows a ship its crew can be sure of good luck. Killing the big white bird, on the other hand, brings bad luck. Coleridge's sailors and their ship were doomed, pulled down by the bane of the albatross.

A similar malediction is attached to the German Defence Ministry. I can only hope that Chancellor Merkel’s technocratic fixer Thomas de Maizière has already bought his retirement bungalow. Why? Because his political career will soon take a dive, just as it did for Theodor Blank, FJ Strauss, Georg Leber, Hans Apel, Manfred Wörner, Rupert Scholz, Gerhard Stoltenberg and Rudolf Scharping, to name only a few of his predecessors as defence minister.

But it is not that Germany's defence bosses are political incompetents. Rather, there is a structural problem with managing defence in Germany.

The ministry supervises a huge army, Europe's largest, that was never really intended to fight a battle. It’s an army that has not been allowed to have war heroes or keep regimental traditions.

The concept of "Citizens in Uniform" earned praise from abroad but only made sense for the first decade of the Bundeswehr's existence. In the long term, armies cannot be used as educational institutions. They are hierarchical organisations and their prime mission is not to make young men into better citizens but use weapons in an effective way to defend the nation.

And so here is the heart of the dilemma: for decades Germans have been unable to agree on the appropriate cost of weaponry, unable to reach a common definition of modern warfare, or how to train for it, and has been unable to define or commit itself to the nation that the army is supposed to be defending.

De Maizière thus has an impossible task; no other department of government has such a confused mission.

German defence ministers are often locked in conflict from the very start with their ministerial bureaucrats. They may – like Manfred Wörner and the recently disgraced Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg – be popular with the troops and have mutually beneficial relationship with the media.

But ultimately their main battle has to be to take control of the ministerial apparatus, its accountants, its politicised generals, as well as its intricate and often unhealthy relationship with the arms industry. Too much goes on in the Defence Ministry that never reaches the ears of the minister.

The first German defence minister that I knew personally was Hans Apel. As a young reporter in Bonn I wrote that despite his crazy hair, Apel was destined to be the successor one day to then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He was in some ways a Schmidt clone: Hanseatic (after the flamboyant disaster of Strauss, northern Germans were seen as natural defence ministers) with financial expertise and a sense of duty. He could even, like his mentor, sail a boat.

But it turned out to be the first of my many false predictions in German politics.

It was not easy to be a defence minister in a party that was so deeply marinated in pacifism like the Social Democrats. Even worse, Apel was systematically sabotaged within the ministry as costs for the Tornado jet exploded out of control. In parliament, a fellow Social Democrat called out to Apel, as he tried to defend his ministry: “Don’t be so hasty to shield your bureaucrats, don’t always take the blame yourself.”

That was not a mistake that Guttenberg made, of course. His early Kunduz-related sackings seemed like a commendable square-chinned attempt to take command of a troubled ministry. A year or so later the dismissals appeared more like examples of impulsive decision-making, the actions of a young upstart who would not last long in the job. The Gorch Fock affair stirred similar doubts. And what was the figurehead on the bow of the training ship? An albatross, of course.

Story continues below…

His faked doctorate revealed Baron Guttenberg to be over-ambitious, an irrational risk-taker, careless with his own words. The scandal was naturally about standards of honesty in public life. But there was another element: had it continued, Guttenberg would have faced increasing public ridicule.

Look at what happened to Rudolf Scharping, surely the funniest man to have ever emerged from the Defence Ministry. He let himself be photographed splashing in a pool on Majorca with his countess while his troops were supposedly defending the nation.

But he also tried to re-brand himself with Armani glasses and tax-deductible designer clothes. He also managed to fall off his bicycle while in office, and banged his head on the roof of his limo when a security trap was accidently sprung at the entrance of the Pentagon during his visit.

Once voters start laughing at ministers, you know that there is no chance of a comeback. Guttenberg got out just in time, only days before he was likely to become a figure of fun, a modern-day Baron Münchhausen.

Once you lose your luck, after you kill your albatross, nothing can save you in political life. The only defence minister who appears to have clung to his good fortune was Helmut Schmidt. Perhaps the 92-year-old is ripe for a comeback.

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Your comments about this article

18:02 March 9, 2011 by DrStrangelove
Well, most of the ministerial misfortunes that are enumerated here were self-inflicted. Woerner's misfortune was his handling of the Kiessling affair, which again was entirely of his own making, whereas Strauss was involved in corruption; these hardly qualify as unavoidable structural problems either.

Apart from Schmidt, there were other ministers who acquitted themselves well, for example Leber, Struck and Ruehe. So I think the story is a bit contrived.
19:13 March 9, 2011 by polecat
Using the derogatory phrase "Krauts" is arrogant, immature, offensive and unprofessional. In the US the nickname for the British is "Limeys", but I don't see that phrase used by professionals.
03:32 March 10, 2011 by ngwanem
"They are hierarchical organisations and their prime mission is not to make young men into better citizens but use weapons in an effective way to defend the nation. "

Defend the nation about against what and who? Aliens? Supernatural wildlife?

this is the flaw in the modern-day, where the so-called defense has been turned into aggression under the banner of preemptive attack.

Humans don't need the military, if people are not so dumb, under the imperatives of some politicians, to take up arms and fight wars manufactured for them. the funny part of the story is that war-mongers take the backseat, rave and rant and spur some the clueless on patriotic and nationalistic reasons to fight.... and of course the usual philosophy is that soldiers are war material and hence expendable!

As long as the endless stupidity continues, human history would all be the same.
14:14 March 10, 2011 by michaelhol
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
15:02 March 10, 2011 by A South African Lady
Too true michaelhol.
16:42 March 10, 2011 by Major B
"a huge army, Europe's largest"

Really? With the reserves added in?
22:20 March 11, 2011 by wenddiver
@Major B- There are two Army's left on the European Continent, the US and Russian. With the exception of the British Army, and the US I think the battle readiness of most of the European Armies committed to Afganistan, has realistically been disappointing. The Poles were really fantastic in Iraq, I think everybody was impressed.

Unfortunately, years of beating on their own armed forces and minimizing their role in society has turned the Armies into police forces.
06:36 March 12, 2011 by dr.makni49
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
18:11 March 12, 2011 by Yontrop
DrStranglove is right, but then Mr. Boyes never lets the facts get in the way of a good ramble.
20:52 March 12, 2011 by JAMessersmith
"unable to reach a common definition of modern warfare"

Seems strange to me, since the Germans basically invented modern warfare during WWII; i.e. jets, ballistic missiles, heavy tanks, assault rifles, radios, submarines, etc.. Seems pretty straightforward. Perhaps the debate is between conventional warfare vs. guerilla warfare? That would seemingly make more sense.


Unfortunately, aggression, jealousy, greed, hatred, etc... are just as much a part of human nature as pacifism, compassion, generosity and love are, as evidenced by countless centuries of human history. The same is true for Chimpanzees, which are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. They literally fight wars against rival families, and are extremely vicious in doing so. So don't kid yourself, as long as humans remain human, people will need to defend themselves from them. 'Thou shalt not covet' may be in the Bible, but that doesn't mean people pay attention to it, or are even capable of heeding it by their very nature. If wealthy countries didn't protect themselves, poorer countries would attack them for their wealth. The same can be said if a bank is left unprotected. Chances are, someone who wants the money will rob it. And very few people are content in their poverty. For instance, if you don't think the poor folks of Tijuana wouldn't want to live in Beverly Hills if given the opportunity to do so, you're fooling yourself.
16:40 March 14, 2011 by fryintl
ngwanem: We have armies and train them to protect us because of ignorant F's like you. We need to be protected form enemies, foreign and Domestic. There are people who don't like the status quo, and ewill bring about change, violently. Teh only thing that stands between you and the bad guys will be the Army.
18:36 March 15, 2011 by Celeon
He surely means the largest armed forces within the EU. Even that wont be the case anymore after the planned troop reduction.

After that, the british armed forces will be the largest.

The largest in Europe are the turkish armed forces with almost three times the current size of the german Bundeswehr.
20:55 March 23, 2011 by Englishted

What makes you think Turkey is in Europe ?,

One little piece that should be given back to Greece along with Constantinople.
03:42 March 24, 2011 by Stepp
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
01:52 March 29, 2011 by Ich
Barvo! Well saidn! But not enough said. After WW2, no European coutnry wanted to go to war, ever agan, and so most European armies were engineered deliberatgely be be ineffective. In terms of the EC, 1914 to 1945 was a European Civil War. The major antangonists of the Cold War compelled the EC, which was still too small to go it alone. Europe lost not only lives, money and real estate in WW2, but colonies and global domination, and nuclear warafare boded even worse. How to create an army under those terms? Probaly, get back to basics. Conscription, and stop apologizing about WW2. It was 50 years ago, and truth be known, there was a lot more to it than the popular press would have us believe. It's too much to go into here. But, if it were me, I'd start out singing soldatenlieds like "Westerwald" as loud as I could.
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