It is not hard to think of times when German military weakness would have been lauded as good news across the rest of Europe, but perhaps not when the German minister accused of running her country’s armed forces into the ground has just been named as the next president of the European Commission.
The most recent embarrassment for the Bundeswehr — the grounding of all 53 of its Tiger helicopters this month due to technical faults — is just the latest in a long series of humiliations to have sprung from Ursula von der Leyen’s spell as defence minister. A country once feared for its ruthless military efficiency has become a joke among European powers.
If von der Leyen can be transposed on to the British political scene she might be seen as a teutonic Chris Grayling — attacked from all sides, not least her own, for her chronic mishandling of her brief. To quote fellow Christian Democrat Rupert Scholz, who served as Helmut Kohl’s defence minister: ‘The Bundeswehr’s condition is catastrophic. The entire defence capability of the federal republic is suffering.’
It is not fair to blame all the problems of the German military on von der Leyen, who has been defence minister only since 2013. For understandable reasons, the German military was a little constrained in its development between 1945 and 1990, when defence was in any case effectively contracted out to foreign powers. Even now Germany remains bound by military constraints — under the Treaty for the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which returned the country’s sovereignty in 1991, German armed forces are limited to 370,000 personnel, of whom no more than 345,000 are allowed to be in the army and air force. It cannot have nuclear weapons. After the Cold War, German governments of all colours did not consider defence a priority — unwilling to see that Russia could ever rise again as a threat.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t excuse some of the inadequacies of the military which have come to light under von der Leyen’s leadership.