Germany uneasily ratchets up military might in Europe
By ANTHONY FAIOLA | The Washington Post | Published: March 5, 2017
SESTOKAI, Lithuania — A vermilion-colored locomotive slowed to a halt, its freight cars obscured in the blinding snow. A German captain ordered his troops to unload the train's cargo. "Jawohl!" - "Yes, sir!" - a soldier said, before directing out the first of 20 tanks bearing the Iron Cross of the Bundeswehr, Germany's army.
Evocative of old war films, the scene is nevertheless a sign of new times. Seven and a half decades after the Nazis invaded this Baltic nation, the Germans are back in Lithuania - this time as one of the allies.
As the Trump administration ratchets up the pressure on allied nations to shoulder more of their own defense, no country is more in the crosshairs than Germany. If it meets the goals Washington is pushing for, Germany - the region's economic powerhouse - would be on the fast track to again become Western Europe's biggest military power.
Any renaissance of German might has long been resisted first and foremost by the Germans - a nation that largely rejected militarism in the aftermath of the Nazi horror. Yet a rethinking of German power is quickly emerging as one of the most significant twists of President Donald Trump's transatlantic policy.
Since the November election in the United States, the Germans - caught between Trump's America and Vladimir Putin's Russia - are feeling less and less secure. Coupled with Trump's push to have allies step up, the Germans are debating a military buildup in a manner rarely witnessed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Perhaps nowhere is the prospect of a new future playing out more than here in Lithuania - where nearly 500 German troops, including a Bavarian combat battalion, arrived in recent weeks for an open-ended deployment near the Russian frontier. The NATO deployment marks what analysts describe as Germany's most ambitious military operation near the Russian border since the end of the Cold War. It arrived with a formidable show of German force - including 20 Marder armored infantry fighting vehicles, six Leopard battle tanks and 12 Fuchs and Boxer armored personnel carriers.
"Maybe, with respect to the United States, you need to be careful what you wish for," said Lt. Col. Torsten Stephan, military spokesman for the German troops in Lithuania. "Mr. Trump says that NATO may be obsolete, and that we need to be more independent. Well, maybe we will."
The German-led deployment - also involving a smaller number of troops from Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway - is designed to send a muscular message from Europe to Putin: Back off.
Yet on a continent facing the prospect of a new Cold War, the deployment is also offering a window into the risks of renewed German strength - as well as the Russian strategy for repelling it by dwelling on Germany's dark past. In the 21st-century world of hybrid warfare, the first proverbial salvos have been fired.
Recently, coordinated emails were sent to Lithuanian police, media and top politicians, falsely claiming that the new German troops had gang-raped a local 15-year-old girl. The Lithuanian government quickly disproved the allegations - but not before a few local outlets and social-media users had spread the false accounts. Officials are investigating whether the Russians were behind it.
"But if you ask me personally, I think that yes, that's the biggest probability," said Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis.
Pro-Russian websites, meanwhile, are preying on old stereotypes, harking back to Adolf Hitler and portraying the NATO deployment in Lithuania as a "second invasion" by Germany.
As Germany grows bolder, outdated imagery is roaring back to life through Russian propaganda. Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the building of a reproduction of the old German Reichstag at a military theme park near Moscow, offering young Russians a chance to reenact the 1945 storming of the structure during the fall of Berlin.
Yet in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic now living in the shadow of Russia's maw, the Nazi legacy is seen as ancient history. To many here, modern Germany is a bastion of democratic principles and one of the globe's strongest advocates of human rights, free determination and measured diplomacy. And facing a Russian threat in times of uncertain NATO allegiances, the Lithuanians are clamoring for a more powerful Germany by its side.
"I think U.S. leadership should be maintained, but also, we need leadership in Europe," Karoblis said. Noting that Britain is in the process of breaking away from the European Union, he called Germany the most likely new guarantor of regional stability.
"Why not Germany? Why not?" he said.
For many Germans, however, there are many reasons - including overspending and fears of sparking a new arms race. According to a poll commissioned by Stern magazine and published this year, 55 percent of Germans are against increasing defense spending in the coming years, while 42 percent are in favor.
The German military has staged several military exercises in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, and its pilots form part of the air police deterring Russian planes buzzing the EU's eastern borders. It has also begun to take on more dangerous missions - deploying troops to the Balkans, Afghanistan and, last year, to Mali. The military also has taken on a logistical support role in the allied fight against the Islamic State.
But the Germans are slated to do much more. In 2014, German officials agreed with other NATO nations to spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense within 10 years - up from about 1.2 percent in 2016. Until recently, however, many German officials privately acknowledged that such a goal - which would see Germany leapfrog Britain and France in military spending - was politically untenable.
Since Trump's victory, however, German politicians, pundits and the media have agonized over the issue, with more and louder voices calling for a stronger military. Last month, the Defense Ministry announced plans to increase Germany's standing military to nearly 200,000 troops by 2024, up from a historical low of 166,500 in June. After 26 years of cuts, defense spending is going up by 8 percent this year.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for cool heads, but also for increased military spending. Her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has been more forceful, saying recently that Germany cannot "duck away" from its military responsibility. Although considered a distant possibility, some outlier voices are mentioning the once-inconceivable: the advent of a German nuclear bomb.
"If Trump sticks to his line, America will leave Europe's defense to the Europeans to an extent that it hasn't known since 1945," Berthold Kohler, publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote in a recent opinion piece. That could mean "higher defense spending, the revival of the draft, the drawing of red lines and the utterly unthinkable for German brains - the question of one's own nuclear defense capability."
Germany, along with its regional allies, has begun exploring an increase of military activity through joint European operations - and experts see that, and NATO, as the most likely funnels for German military power. Germany's deployment in Lithuania, for instance, is part of a broader allied deterrent in Eastern Europe, with the Americans, Canadians and British leading other contingents in Poland, Latvia and Estonia.
In some of Germany's neighbors - particularly Poland - there remain pockets of opposition to renewed German military might, positions based at least in part on war memories. But old prejudices are dying fast.
Take, for instance, tiny Lithuania - a nation the Nazis overran in 1941, kicking out the occupying Soviets. The Third Reich held on there through 1945, exterminating more than 200,000 Jews. After World War II, Lithuania reverted to Soviet domination before winning independence at the end of the Cold War. Over the past decade, Lithuania hitched its star to the West - joining the EU and NATO in 2004, much to the chagrin of the Russians.
Now, Lithuanians' fear of the bear on their doorstep is surging. Since the de facto invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Russian politicians have begun speaking ominously about a key warm-water port that they say was wrongly "gifted" to Lithuania after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hackers thought to be linked to the Russians have targeted government servers and national television channels.
In the city of Jonava, about six miles from the barrack housing the new NATO troops, the Nazis killed more than 2,000 Jews in the 1940s. Yet in the oral histories, the German occupation is portrayed in a far better light than the Soviet era that followed.
Nadiezda Grickovaite, 86, the town's only living resident with vivid memories of the World War II era, said she recalled her mother taking her into the woods "so we didn't see the shooting of the Jews." But she said the Soviets were comparatively worse - a history she has passed down in speeches and talks at local schools.
"I don't feel any bad feelings against the Germans because of the past," she said. "This was history. We can't blame them now."
The new German troops, meanwhile, have received special sensitivity training about the Nazi legacy in Lithuania and to insist on gentle interactions with locals. Jonava's acting mayor, Eugenijus Sabutis, said the only incident since the troops arrived in late January was an altercation between an American GI and local men over the attentions of a woman.
"I don't feel part of that history - the history of Germans who were here before," said Sebastian, a 27-year-old German private stationed in Lithuania who only gave his first name per the German army's rules for the interview. "What I know is that we are in a kind of new Cold War, and now we are here to help."
The Washington Post' s Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.