German army celebrates 60 years of service

The Local Germany (12 November 2015)

The German army has had a checkered history, to say the least – so much so that in 1955, it didn’t actually exist at all. But 60 years ago on November 12th, the German Bundeswehr was born as a new kind of army for a new kind of state.

On Wednesday evening, the German Reichstag played host to an important anniversary.

Soldiers performed the “Großer Zapfenstreich” in front of the German parliament building – a “Grand Tattoo” considered the country’s most important ceremonial act, and generally only performed during national celebrations or solemn public commemorations.

The occasion this week? November 12th marks 60 years since the formation of the Bundeswehr – Germany’s modern armed forces.

Moving on from Hitler’s army

Of course, it wasn’t as if Germany had never had an army before 1955.

The problem was that the country’s last official army – the Wehrmacht – had been headed up by Adolf Hitler.

But even before the Nazi period and the Wehrmacht’s intimate involvement in crimes against humanity, the German army had a troubled past.

After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Allied forces had agreed that while the newly formed Weimar Republic did need an army, it must be strictly limited in size.

According to the Treaty of Versailles, the new Reichswehr could only have a standing army of 100,000 men, and a navy of 15,000.

No submarines were allowed, and aircraft of any kind were off the cards.

But after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 he soon set in motion his grand plans for Germany’s army.

He quickly established the Wehrmacht –  with the goal of regaining lost German territory and dominating nearby countries.

Its soldiers swore personal loyalty to the Führer and embarked on the war of conquest and extermination that would bring about the destruction of the Third Reich.

By September 1945, the Wehrmacht was all but dissolved – a status made official on August 20th 1946.

Germany would have no army for the next nine years – and when it re-emerged in 1955, it was almost unrecognisable.

Paving the way for the Bundeswehr

Plans for a new German army began after West Germany joined Nato in May 1955, according to the official Bundeswehr website.

On June 7th, the Federal Ministry of Defence was formed – something which had been in the pipeline since October 1950.

Paris, 1955: NATO commander-in-chief General Alfred Gruenther shakes hands with German representative General Hans Speidel after Germany’s admission into Nato. Photo: DPA

During the summer of 1955, the West German government laid the legal framework for the new German army – and by August, around 150,000 former soldiers had made applications to the newly formed Ministry.

On October 4th, new Defence Minister Theodor Blank signed the first deployment order.

After the official opening ceremony on November 12th, volunteers would be conscripted into the Bundeswehr on a weekly basis – each Saturday, in fact.

No name, music or uniforms

But when the Bundeswehr was finally born, it was a fairly humble affair.

On November 12th 1955, six sergeants and 95 officers stood in the Ermekeil barracks in Bonn and received their certificates of appointment from the new Defence Minister.

With that, they became the first soldiers of the German Federal Republic.

But while many of the volunteers wore the new uniform, others were dressed in civilian clothes.

They didn’t even have a name yet.

It wasn’t exactly what German Chancellor Konrad Adenaur had expected.

Disappointed by the uniform shortage, it was also perhaps discouraging that the German national anthem wasn’t played during the ceremony – as no band was available.

November 12th, 1955: The day 101 men became the first soldiers of the Bundeswehr. Photo: DPA

One carefully arranged detail, though, was the date.

November 12th 1955 marked the 200th birthday of Prussian military reformer General Gerhard von Scharnhorst.

Scharnhorst led German troops through the Napoleonic wars between 1801 and 1815 – and his legacy had influenced Germany’s military for years and decades afterwards.

A statue of Gerhard von Scharnhorst on Unter den Linden in Berlin. Photo: Adam Carr/Wikimedia Commons

He had been the namesake for First World War armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst, as well as Second World War battleship Scharnhorst.

60 years of the Bundeswehr

The first Bundeswehr soldiers were mainly former Federal Border guards. In 1956, around 10,000 of the Border Guard’s 17,000 members transferred to this new German army.

But a problem arose when Adenauer visited the new soldiers in Andernach in January 1956.

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer inspecting the Bundeswehr in January 1956. Photo: DPA

As the Chancellor opened his speech with “Soldiers of the new armed forces…” it became painfully obvious that the new West German troops needed an official name.

The term “Bundeswehr” was adopted by German parliament on March 20th 1956 – just a few weeks before the first conscription laws were introduced.

Since then, millions of men and thousands of women have passed through the forces.

German men and women stood ready throughout the Cold War to fight alongside Nato allies in the event of an attack against the West by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

Today, the German Bundeswehr employs 169,172 professional and fixed-term soldiers, as well as 9,657 volunteer recruits (as recorded on the Bundeswehr website on 11 November 2015).

The Grand Tattoo illuminated the Reichstag on the evening of November 11th 2015. Photo: DPA

A far cry from the 101 men who stood in the barracks on November 12th 1955.

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