Germans agonise over role of army at home

French soldiers patrolling inside the sanctuary of Lourdes as part of the Sentinelle military force security mission while people gathered for the annual Catholic pilgrimage in France yesterday.
French soldiers patrolling inside the sanctuary of Lourdes as part of the Sentinelle military force security mission while people gathered for the annual Catholic pilgrimage in France yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

BERLIN • Heavily armed soldiers have been a common sight in Paris after France was hit by deadly attacks, but in neighbouring Germany, talk about troops patrolling at home for the first time since World War II has sparked an emotional debate.

For many, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen set alarm bells ringing when she ordered soldiers on standby as an 18-year-old went on a gun rampage in a shopping mall in Munich last month.

The troops did not end up hitting the streets, for the attacker committed suicide following the shooting, in which nine people were killed.

But after a string of attacks in the same week - including two claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group - German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented a nine-point plan to bolster security, including training the military to respond to major terror assaults. "It is now time to carry out exercises on major terror situations... which can involve the armed forces under the leadership of police," she said.

Ms Von der Leyen did not miss her cue and her ministry promptly confirmed the army and police were preparing for joint exercises.

But the possibility that the army may patrol at home for the first time in seven decades set off an outcry in the country haunted by its Nazi past, exposing a deep rift within the ruling coalition. Under the Nazi regime, the murky lines between the military and police in part enabled the regime to persecute Jews, Roma, leftwingers, gays and other declared enemies of the state.

Germany's post-war Constitution has since drawn clear lines between the country's internal and external security forces. It prohibits the Bundeswehr, as the federal armed forces are known, from deploying domestically, save for a few exceptions.

These include helping humanitarian relief in cases of natural disasters or emergencies, or in the event of a threat against "the free democratic order of the federal state".

The debate over the domestic role of the army has resurfaced several times, most recently in the wake of the Nov 13 Paris attacks targeting a concert hall and cafes that left 130 dead.Yet there is deep scepticism among the population.

A poll by Die Zeit weekly found that 66 per cent of the population did not think that deploying the army in Germany was a good idea. The Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner, were quick to lead the criticism, with party chief Sigmar Gabriel batting off suggestions of a deployment and arguing instead that police should be given more support.

The police force itself also did not appear to welcome the help, with the police union saying: "The armed forces are completely unable to offer the help that we need. We need investigators, we need policemen who are trained constitutionally."

Proponents seized on the July attacks to argue that it was better to be prepared. Interior Minister Klaus Bouillon in the western state of Saarland warned that it would be "paradoxical and absurd, if the police were strained to the limit in an exceptional emergency while the army had to watch helplessly from the sidelines".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2016, with the headline 'Germans agonise over role of army at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe