Germany Debates Instituting Veterans Day

April 9, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière greets troops of the 37th Armored Infantry Brigade at the Bundeswehr combat training center on March 9, 2011, in Letzlingen, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Germany is debating introducing for the first time a day to commemorate its military veterans—something that’s been a touchy issue since the end of the second world war.

After World War II, West Germany’s military activity was restricted by the Allied forces to defending its borders. In 1955, it joined NATO and created a federal armed forces, known as the Bundeswehr, a move that was highly controversial in some circles. Conscription was also instituted.

It has only been since the reunification of the two Germanys in the early 1990s that the Bundeswehr began taking part in overseas operations.

The debate over a veterans day comes just few weeks after Germany marked the loss of its 100th soldier in an international mission.

Currently there are 7,000 German troops serving on three continents, the bulk being in Afghanistan and Kosovo, both under NATO command.

And after last year, Germany’s conservative government under Chancellor Angela Merkel abolished conscription, the process of becoming an all-voluntary army will be soon completed.

In the face of these developments, Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière submitted a recent proposal arguing for a nationwide holiday to commemorate veterans. The idea is to “provide an impetus for the recognition of the veterans” service” as well “to keep the bond between the Bundeswehr and society alive and resilient,” his proposal says.

De Maizière admits that this is “new, but only in Germany” since other countries have long traditions of veterans’ days.

The minister is suggesting May 22 as Veterans Day, the day the constitution was changed in 1956 allowing the Bundeswehr to be established.

Leading politicians of his ruling Christian Democratic Party supported the suggestion. General Secretary Hermann Gröhe, said such a day holds “great symbolic value” and corresponds to the “image of a modern army in the middle of society,” according to a statement from his office.

The biggest opposition party, however, responded with skepticism. Rainer Arnold, the defense expert of the Social Democrats, criticized de Maizière’s proposal as too vague and doubted that such “a day that can penetrate society,” according to the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

It is still an open question how veteran might be defined. According to general perception in Germany, the term only refers to World War II vets.

De Maizière mentions two possible definitions Germany could adopt. One follows the Scandinavian model, in which only those who have served abroad, currently, or in the past, would be considered veterans. The other is the Anglo-American model, which accords veteran status to any past member of the armed forces, regardless if they saw active duty or where they served.

In an effort to gain widespread support, the minister was careful not to indicate which model he preferred. “It is important to avoid a split in the armed forces among the soldiers with and without veteran status,” he said in the proposal.