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Maya Zakrajsek, 19, brushes her horse, Columbo, in Mannheim, Germany.

Maya Zakrajsek, 19, brushes her horse, Columbo, in Mannheim, Germany. (Isaac Stanley-Becker/Washington Post)

MANNHEIM, Germany - As a child, Maya Zakrajsek took to heart the words she was taught - words that serve as a mantra for modern Germany, “Never again.”

They made her skeptical of the military and grateful to grow up in a nation at peace.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused Zakrajsek, 19, to rethink the mantra’s meaning. She holds firm to the vow that Germany will never again be an aggressor or commit genocide. But to never again prepare for or participate in a war? Suddenly, that seemed naive. War between nations had returned to Europe - “something,” she said, “we never thought was possible.”

Since the invasion, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has declared a “Zeitenwende,” or a turning of an era. Germans are broadly supportive of plans for a dramatic overhaul of the country’s approach to security and defense. Their relationship with the military could shift further still if Zakrajsek’s response to the war is shared by other young people. A flurry of inquiries to the Defense Ministry in recent weeks suggests that’s possible.

The 19-year-old had considered military service since receiving promotional materials in the mail several years ago. But she said she made up her mind after Russia’s invasion. Now, once she finishes high school, she plans to volunteer for a year of service.

She said she hopes to gain basic infantry training, learn how to launch missiles for the Air Force and serve as a reservist for the rest of her life. If she can persuade her mother, though, she may consider a career in the armed forces. (Her other interest is veterinary medicine.)

“I hope no war will come to Germany, but I want to be prepared to defend myself and fight for my country if it does,” Zakrajsek said as she brushed her horse, Columbo, at a stable in this southwestern German city. From here she can make out the sounds of helicopters nearing Ramstein Air Base, the U.S. military outpost in the hills of the Palatinate Forest.

Zakrajsek’s patriotic stance is commonplace in nations that venerate the military. In Germany, it’s peculiar. After reunification in 1990, Germans still searching for antidotes to Nazi crimes welcomed the chance to downsize their armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

From a fighting force of more than 500,000 at the end of the Cold War, when West Germany was on NATO’s front line, numbers have dwindled to 184,000 today, with an especially marked shift in 2011, when the draft was discontinued. Foreign missions have taken precedence over the defense of national and European borders. Basic equipment, from boots to protective vests, have fallen into disrepair.

So remote are the armed forces from civilian society - except when called in for disaster response or to manage something like coronavirus vaccination centers - that a 2019 initiative allowing soldiers to ride trains free of charge faced criticism for making military dress more prominent in everyday life. There are accounts of soldiers being spat on and slurred as Nazis, an accusation intensified by scandal. Extremist sympathies became so pronounced within an elite combat unit that it was disbanded in 2020.

But Russia’s invasion has marked a profound shift. The German chancellor, a Social Democrat, has pledged 100 billion euros to rebuild the armed forces. That commitment has been welcomed by allied nations, which want Germany to rearm and help counter a revanchist Russia - a stunning historical reversal.

Within Germany, there is some hesitation. Johannes Arlt, an Air Force officer elected to parliament last year as a center-left Social Democrat, said his constituents in the far northeast of the country have expressed fear of a new arms race. He faulted the government for not doing enough to prepare the public for a more active military role, comparing Germany to a delinquent student now trying to pass a final exam.

“It’s the end of the term, and we didn’t do our homework, so now we have to cram,” said Arlt, a member of parliament’s defense committee.

Still, nearly 3 in 4 Germans back the decision to spend more money on defense, according to recent polling, and clear majorities have a favorable view of the military.

Indeed, parts of the public are frustrated that the government isn’t moving more aggressively. They have criticized the chancellor for not acting fast enough to bolster the military or back Ukraine, wavering in particular on the issue of exporting heavy weapons.

“The general public is not the problem,” said Sönke Neitzel, a military historian at the University of Potsdam. “This was possibly an excuse from politicians. It’s more about the political culture - about the elites and the parties and the social circles around the parties.”

The public is open to arguments for a stronger military if politicians would only provide them, he said. Ukraine is an argument for the military’s relevance, Neitzel said, even if the war doesn’t change deep-seated cultural attitudes. “The U.S. has a culture of victory, and we have a culture of defeat, but that doesn’t mean everyone is against soldiers, or even being a soldier,” he said.

The extent of willingness among Germans to not only support the military, but become part of it, will help determine whether the country is able to follow through on plans to expand the armed forces to 203,000 active personnel in the next several years - an increase of 19,000 troops.

Surveys suggest that students see the armed forces as a desirable career option. And, since the war in Ukraine started, the Defense Ministry has seen an uptick in activity on the Bundeswehr’s online contact form and an increase in appointments for career counseling, said a ministry spokeswoman, Christina Routsi.

Still, she said it was too soon to draw conclusions about the long-term effect on recruitment.

Jana Puglierin, a defense expert who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said she was skeptical that the war would rouse new interest in military service. Even seeing military convoys on German streets, heading east to fortify NATO’s eastern flank, is a culture shock, she said.

“All this for Germans is pretty new,” she said. “Attitudes might change slowly, at best, because there’s a new threat perception. People for first time feel the Bundeswehr serves a purpose that is also good for them.”

Zakrajsek, the 19-year-old, said some of her friends who once entertained the idea of military service have backtracked since Russia’s invasion.

“Most of the guys think I’m crazy for going ahead with it,” she said. “I’m not the typical girl who likes nails and hair.”

Zakrajsek may also come at the question of military service differently than some in Germany. She was raised by her mother, Tamara, an office manager who was born in Belgrade and grew up unburdened by responsibility for Nazi barbarism. Her father was born in eastern Germany, to a pastor who eluded service in the Third Reich.

“I am for peace, but I think it’s important to defend your own country when it comes to war,” Tamara Zakrajsek said. The 49-year-old supports her only child’s decision to volunteer for service. Still, she said, “I’m afraid of losing her.”

Maya Zakrajsek said her mother’s fear weighs on her, but she doesn’t harbor doubts.

She recounted the moment she first heard about Russia’s invasion, from her best friend, who is studying to become an IT specialist for the Bundeswehr.

“’Did you read about it?’” she recalled him asking. “’We’re in a war now.’”

She said she was silent for a moment, but knew what was required of her - and of Germany.

“I think Germany is, in this case, important,” she said. “We have a strong economy, and I think it would be OK to have a strong military, too.”

The Washington Post’s Vanessa Guinan-Bank contributed to this report.


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