World Europe

Amid global unrest, Germany rethinks its security – and its place in the world

a shift in thought

There is a growing acceptance among Germans about increasing spending on defense, greater surveillance, or tougher policing – and even a confidence about Germany’s stepping into a leadership role in its own.

Police guard in front of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in Berlin on Sunday.
Ralf Hirschberger/dpa/AP | Caption

At the high-powered Munich Security Conference in 2014, German officials made news by acknowledging their nation’s new responsibility in foreign and security affairs. At the time, it still seemed more like rhetoric for tomorrow than a willful resolution.

Less than two months later, Russia annexed Crimea, bringing a security crisis to Germany’s front yard. Less than a year after that, Islamic radicals shot their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, setting off a series of deadly terror attacks across Europe, including in Germany. Populism, fueled by hostility to Europe's refugee crisis, spread across the continent in 2016.

Now, President Trump has threatened to rip up the entire liberal world order. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared after Mr. Trump’s inauguration: “The old world of the 20th century is finally over.”

Now the world is looking to Germany to see what it brings to the 21st.

Indeed, as this year's Munich conference starts Friday, Germany is no longer in a state of existential pondering of its global role. It has to respond. Germans have been forced into new thinking about some of the values they hold dearest: military restraint that feels reflexive, privacy that they cherish, and a rigorous political correctness.

“Germans, as a core trait, want to have structure and order,” says Erich Vad, a former security adviser to the German government. “Now they need to redefine what security means to them.”

Becoming a 'normal country'

John Deni, a former senior political adviser to US military in Europe, says he saw a shift this summer when Germany released its “white paper” outlining its defense capabilities and goals. In 2006, its “white paper” was explicit that “German security policy was tied to its interests but driven by its values,” says Mr. Deni, an analyst at the US Strategic Studies Institute.

“In the 2016 German ‘white paper,’ that relationship is flipped. And so now it says very explicitly that German security policy is driven by interests but tied to values” – in other words, he says, Germany is becoming “a normal country.”

It is also spending more on defense now, as much of Europe is doing. That’s not to say it seeks any kind of military domination. It has neither the military prowess, money, nor sensibility for that. Michael Brzoska, a researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, points out that German military involvement so far, though increasing, has been indirect, like arming and training Kurds in Iraq fighting the self-declared Islamic State. “The German government knows it would not be very popular if there were more direct involvement,” he says.

At home, Germany is also striking a new center ground on security. When Anis Amri, the Tunisian asylum seeker awaiting deportation in Germany, drove a truck into a German Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12, a host of tougher security measures were floated. Germans have debated plans to deport rejected asylum seekers faster and monitor potential terrorists with ankle bracelets, proposals that are likely to grow as federal elections near this fall. Even the Green Party, long reluctant to call for more police, issued a statement for stricter security, including more officers on the street – a sign of how central safety has become to the populace.

Some of it has pushed Germans out of their comfort zone. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere penned a piece at the start of the year calling for an overhaul of security policy, including moving the federalized domestic intelligence operations from the states to centralized government control, almost like a German FBI.

With a history of fascism and monitoring by the Stasi, communist East Germany's secret police, it’s a recommendation not taken lightly, and many dismissed Mr. de Maiziere’s proposal as politicking. But “what’s happening, as we don’t live in an island anymore … we are losing these strict rules and kind of becoming more average,” says Rafael Laguna, who was born in the former East Germany and is the CEO of the Germany-headquartered software company Open-XChange. “What people who haven’t lived under such a regime don’t get is that, just by the very fact that it’s there, you’re losing freedom because you start behaving differently when you know you’re watched.”

Security vs. values

Germans are also concerned about a culture of tolerance giving way to fear. Cologne is an open, vibrant city on the banks of the Rhine. But the New Year’s Eve assault last year against women, who identified their attackers as of foreign descent, has hardened the mood, says Claus-Ulrich Proelss, director of the Cologne Refugee Council in Cologne.

This year, police, determined not to have a repeat, inadvertently made public they had stopped “Nafris,” or men of “North African” descent, leading to accusations of racial profiling. Just a few weeks ago, they circulated a letter to some refugee homes telling staff not to bring asylum seekers to the Carnival celebrations later this month.

Mr. Proelss says he was aghast. “We took it to the media,” he says. He says many people have supported the police for being tough and doing their jobs. “But they forget that we are living in a democratic republic and forget that we live within a system of laws. Maybe they forget what Mr. Trump forgets, that there are checks and balances, and they forget that we have a special history.”

Still, many Germans say they feel confident about the balance being struck between freedom and security. Antonia Rauch, a young German student in Cologne who was at this year’s New Year’s Eve celebration, defends the police, and the necessity of tougher action. She says that what she witnessed was not racial profiling in an overtly aggressive way. But given the risks, it’s important that police carry check out their suspicions, so “that people are safe too.”

Max Beckmann, who owns a business building skate parks around the country, compares Germany post-attack to France, which issued a state of emergency that is still in effect after the Nov. 13, 2015 attacks. “I feel good that we aren’t going over the top,” he says.

A poll this month by Infratest Dimap showed 75 percent of respondents in Germany say they feel safe or very secure in public spaces.

Ms. Rauch says she sometimes gets scared when she watches the news about the rise of populism and intolerance on both sides of the Atlantic. But she says she has faith that Germany, and allies, will safeguard an open and liberal society. “I think Germany is the right role model for the times,” she says.

So does Mr. Steinmeier, who was elected Germany’s new president Sunday night: “Isn’t it actually wonderful, that this Germany, our difficult fatherland, that this country has become an anchor of hope in the world for many?”