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Vol 2, No 21
29 May 2000
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German News Review News from Germany
All the important news
since 20 May 2000

Jens Boysen

Correction: In last week's edition, SPD North-Rhine Westfalia chairman was incorrectly named as Günter Müntefering. The chairman is actually Franz Müntefering.

War of attrition over the army

Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping is trying to secure a leading role in the restructuring of the German army, the Bundeswehr, after the Weizsäcker Committee came forward Tuesday with a drastic proposal to cut army strength from 320,000 to 240,000, at the same time reducing the share of Wehrpflichtige (conscripted recruits) from 130,000 to 30,000.

The Committee's chairman, former Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, defended the proposal as an intent to adapt the Bundeswehr for its most likely future tasks, which include rapid crisis reaction. Weizsäcker said the present army is "too large and disproportionately organised."

The committee's report stated unambiguously that, following the Cold War, "the preservation of the nation [through territorial defence] is no longer an issue" for the armed forces. Weizsäcker refuted the "lack" of Wehrgerechtigkeit (just distribution of the burden of service), saying that the freedom of citizens must be limited by conscription only to the extent absolutely necessitated by military requirements, which would rule out universal conscription in a given year if it was not required by the actual situation.

Weizsäcker emphasized that Minister Scharping had given the committee complete freedom, but criticised him for having simultaneously commissioned the Bundeswehr's Führungsstab (de facto General Staff) with a similar assessment of the army's needs.

Scharping, whose personal views are known to run quite contrary to the committee's proposals, nevertheless stated publicly on Tuesday that he endorsed the "core" elements of the report.

Having made von Weizsäcker, one of the most senior figures in German public life, the committee's chair, Scharping likely expected very different results in the committee's final report.

Surprisingly, Scharping dismissed, or rather accepted, the retirement of the Bundeswehr Generalinspekteur General Hans-Peter von Kirchbach, who had led the internal committee which arrived at significantly higher figures. No reasons for this move have been officially revealed, but it was obviously a sacrifice made by the Minister and represents another blow to army professionals who for years have had to fight the political class' neglect and disregard of the armed forces.

The Greens, as the more left-leaning partner within the ruling coalition, are keeping a low profile regarding army reform. Knowing that they might face a rift over this matter at their forthcoming party congress, Green cabinet ministers stated that the reforms were not going to be the "pivotal issue" in the government's work.

Interestingly, Rezzo Schlauch, the chairman of the Green parliamentary club in the Bundestag, said that what the Bundeswehr now needs is not Scharping but "a Scharnhorst or a Gneisenau of the 21st century," referring to the famous Prussian military reformers of the early 19th century.

French freshness

German politicians, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, sought this week to downplay hostile utterances from French Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement. Chevènement was reacting to German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's visionary speech on the future of Europe two weeks ago at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Fischer called, in a classical "federalist" manner, for real integration and the development of democratic government in the European Union (EU). He underscored that unique national identities would be preserved in such a federal Europe.

On the eve of France's presidency of the EU, neither President Jacques Chirac (Rassemblement pour la République, RPR) nor Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (Parti socialiste, PS) showed much enthusiasm for Fischer's views, but paid polite tribute to the Europhile position of their strategic partner.

In contrast, Chevènement, who is known as a left-wing nationalist maverick within the PS, showed a most peculiar interpretation of history in his comments on Fischer's vision. He compared the idea of a federal Europe to the ancient Holy Roman Empire (which is not an unfair image), but added, in an entirely unconnected way, that Germany's political ideal would be based on race and, moreover, that Fischer's attitude showed that "Germany still had not recovered from the historical sidetrack that was the Third Reich."

This confused and unlearned reproach of Fischer provoked the condemnation of President Chirac as well as former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. They were joined by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a German-French radical left-wing veteran and political associate of Fischer who is presently a French Green deputy in the European Parliament.

In Berlin, however, politicians called Chevènement's outburst an internal French matter caused by campaign fever. Avoidance of overt criticism of French politicians has been a feature of German politics since the 1950s, and the German government has pledged its full support to the forthcoming French EU presidency.

Chevènement himself apologised shortly afterwards, saying that his statements had been quoted out of context.

Mighty provinces

The heads of the German Länder are threatening, in a fairly blunt manner, to block the ratification of a potential new EU Treaty at the end of 2000 unless their legal participation rights are preserved as they are now under the Basic Law. At a meeting with Commission President Romano Prodi in Berlin on Thursday, Länder presidents expressed worries that regions at the EU's "third level" might not be given due attention within a newly structured union. They demand a "clear delimitation of competencies" not only between the Union and national levels but also between those two and the regions.

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More specifically, the Länder insist on reducing the competency of the Commissioner for Competition by preserving the subsidy principle. In their view, EU regions must be able to safeguard "essential public services" such as health by being able to retain specific subsidies and power over public procurement, which would ensure they are not forced to open tenders to all European suppliers interested in bidding. Otherwise, they claim, they may "encounter problems with the ratification" of a new EU Treaty.

The position of the German Länder is unique among the EU regions in that they alone have "state equality" under Germany's extremely federalist system. Under this provision, they enjoy the constitutional right of co-decision next to the Federal government in both national and European affairs. The Austrian Länder and the Belgian communities, as their equivalents in the EU's two other federal countries, do not wield such power. The fact that they can send representatives to the Council of Ministers has also given the German Länder the lead in the EU regions' self-organisation embodied in the Committee of Regions.

Equal treatment required

Federal Minister of Economics Werner Müller sharply criticised other EU countries for being slow in liberalising their markets and said that he would only execute Commission demands for more access to Germany markets if all member states were equally pushed by Brussels. In this respect, the minister believes that Germany has been unfairly singled out by Competition Commissioner Mario Monti.

Financial solidarity?

Leading corporate representatives have called anew on German enterprises to pay into the national fund for restitution to victims of forced labour during the Nazi regime. Still, DEM two billion (EUR one billion) is missing to complete the DEM five billion (EUR 2.5 billion) fund.

Manfred Gentz, a member of the board of automobile giant Daimler-Chrysler, underlined that all of German industry, not merely those companies that profited from forced labour, needs to contribute in order to raise the pledged sum. The fund's managers have recently published large advertisements displaying the names of the companies that have contributed and, moreover, publicly lauded the generous contributions of young German firms with no connection to the Nazi era. In this manner, fund managers are bringing moral pressure to bear on those who are still abstaining.

Democracy under scrutiny

According to a survey in Munich by the Deutsches Jugendinstitut (German Youth Institute), a large percentage of youth in eastern Germany is highly critical of the manner in which democracy is practiced in Germany today, if not necessarily of democracy itself.

This corresponds to the more general fact that, after decades of non-democratic rule under Nazis and Communists, the "transfer" of West German political structures to the new Länder has not been effected with as much attention and sensitivity for the region's people as would have been required.

As a result, many people in the eastern Länder have developed sort of a "colonial syndrome," a feeling of being overwhelmed by the "victorious" West Germans and of being regarded as second rate. They, in turn, resort to a regional nostalgia aptly called ostalgia (from Ostdeutschland). Some "emigrate" to the west or Berlin, while others become supporters of either the post-Communist "regional champion party" PDS or acquire right-wing extremist views.

Democracy in eastern Germany is assessed according to politicians' actual performance rather than according to abstract definitions and, so far, German political parties and personalities have widely failed to foster "inner reunification."

A wreath to the heroes of the revolution

The founding members of the civil movement Neues Forum, which in 1989 took the lead in challenging the Communist rulers of the GDR, have been awarded the German National Prize. The prize is awarded annually by the Deutsche Nationalstiftung (German National Foundation) to persons or bodies that have made special contributions to German reunification. The foundation was established in 1993 by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

The Neues Forum was, to a point, the equivalent of Solidarity in Poland or Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, all of which demonstratively avoided -in the mould of "anti-politics"- the use of the term "party." A significant difference lies in the fact that, after the end of the SED regime in the GDR, Neues Forum advocated a "third way," a democratic, non-capitalist socialism, rather than reunification with the Federal Republic.

In hindsight, their failure was unavoidable given the quick takeover of the GDR's political sphere by West German parties. As a consequence, some few of the Bürgerrechtler (civic rights activists) of the Neues Forum joined one of the larger parties in the hope of changing them from within - to little, if any, avail.

Most left political life in the 1990s and turned to other fields of activity, most frequently non-political ones where they could maintain their idealistic views.

Jens Boysen, 26 May 2000

Moving on:


ZDF (Public German TV) Online News
Frankfurter Rundschau
Süddeutsche Zeitung
Der Spiegel
Die Zeit
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


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