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Germany is building what's expected to become Europe's largest military


German Chancellor Olaf Schulz's decision to more than double the funding for his country's military has caught not only Europeans, but also Germans by surprise. The country's reckoning with its own history has, for decades, prevented it from building a big military, but now there's a war on Europe's doorstep. And as NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, the continent's largest economy is building what's expected to become Europe's largest military.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The announcement came three days after Russian troops had entered Ukraine, and only a few people in parliament had been briefed about what Chancellor Olaf Scholz was about to announce - that Germany would infuse its beleaguered military with more than 100 billion euros, putting it on pace to be the third-largest military on the planet.




SCHMITZ: Germany's parliament erupted into a rare standing ovation - a roar that filled the main chamber of the Reichstag, a building whose destruction and rebirth were at the center of the horrors of the last World War and was now again witness to what Germans labeled a zeitenwende - an historical turning point.


SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).


SCHMITZ: Defense expert Jana Puglierin watched on in disbelief.

JANA PUGLIERIN: It was mind-boggling for me to see this because for many of the things that he had basically decided overnight, I had fought for years and I was sure to never see them materialize.

SCHMITZ: Puglierin heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. She says, for years, she's listened to Germany's allies urge it to step up and spend more on defense and provide more leadership, but she says Germany's government has traditionally dismissed the idea. She says defense spending wasn't even an issue in the country's elections this past autumn.

PUGLIERIN: And I think the main reason for it was because German citizens did not feel threatened for a very long time. They never saw that their security was actually a fragile thing. They took it very much for granted. And the sheer idea that, I don't know, a Russian missile would hit Germany was completely absurd.

SCHMITZ: This German mindset is rooted in a past that's difficult for many citizens to reckon with - a time when the country, under Adolf Hitler, built one of the world's largest armies, says military expert Constantin Wissmann (ph).

CONSTANTIN WISSMANN: They started a war, and obviously all industry was turned into army, and then, afterwards, everything was flattened.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The storm breaks in full final fury on the German Rhine.


SCHMITZ: Wissmann says that final fury in World War II not only destroyed the German Army, but left a residue of shame around its future military.

WISSMANN: And, actually, you can see a lot of problems which the German Army has now still sort of stem from that time because we never really got comfortable with having an army, I guess.

SCHMITZ: Wissmannn is author of "Not Quite Ready For Combat: How The German Army Became A Rubbish Army." After the end of the Cold War, Germany slashed its defense budget and used its reduced military not so much to protect its homeland as it did for foreign peacekeeping efforts. The state of Germany's military suffered so much that, in 2015, during a joint NATO training exercise, German troops were forced to use broomsticks painted black instead of guns because of equipment shortages. Wissmann says this new funding will help, but he says money won't solve everything.

WISSMANN: I think the structural deficits of the German Army run deeper. There are structural problems which should be resolved before you spend the money on it.

SCHMITZ: Even with the new money, military analyst Thomas Wiegold says Germany's armed forces are still playing catch-up.

THOMAS WIEGOLD: Funny enough, this does not mean increasing the size. This doesn't even mean to add completely different capabilities. First and foremost, it means to finance what actually should be there already.

SCHMITZ: Things like modern fighter jets - this week, Germany pledged to buy nearly three dozen F-35s from Lockheed Martin to replace its 40-year-old fleet of Tornado jets. Wiegold says Germany needs to buy new tanks, weapons, warships - you name it. And as Germany rebuilds its military, Wiegold says the rest of Europe will feel safer. He quotes a former Polish foreign minister, who said, "I'm not afraid of a strong German Army. I'm afraid of a weak German Army."

WIEGOLD: It's not that France or the U.K. or Italy or even the Poles would see a military-strong Germany as a threat. I think it's more or less the other way around - that they expect Germany, with its economic power, to do its part on the security side.

SCHMITZ: Defense expert Jana Puglierin says she hopes Germany will move forward with the responsibility that Europe's largest economy and what will now be Europe's largest military bring with it because for too long, she says, Germany has relied on the U.S. to help defend it.

PUGLIERIN: And I have had so many Europeans and Germans saying, thanks God we have the United States. But at the same time, we need to realize that we should not take it for granted that the United States is there to babysit the Europeans forever, so I think we need to become a much more capable partner in the trans-Atlantic relationship - to create a transatlantic relationship on eye level, on equal footing.

SCHMITZ: And that means, she says, sharing the U.S. military's burden, but also a fair say in how international security develops. She says Germany is not only wary of Russia, but also of China. And depending on who takes the White House in 2024, it's difficult to predict what the relationship with the U.S. will be like. A stronger military should help Germany navigate all of this uncertainty - a military that is now on track to be the world's third largest, behind only the American and Chinese militaries.

PUGLIERIN: What I would hope to see is that we develop a healthy relationship towards this notion of European serenity because I think it's definitely necessary.

SCHMITZ: Puglierin says, for decades, Germany's leadership believed it could bring peace through trade and, as a result, wouldn't need a big military. But the world has become more unstable and unpredictable, and a capable military, she says, is now a necessity.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "GLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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