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HERE are men of the Bundeswehr, pretending to be toy soldiers. They pose, caught in different attitudes, different uniforms, like models on a child's floor. Toys do not have enemies. You can push them this way or that, but the gun never fires, the mortar bomb never soars, the medical orderly's stretcher is never unfolded.

German soldiers have forgotten what it feels like to have enemies. From the 1950s, when a West German army was created, to unification in 1990, there was an opponent "over there". But nobody shot at the Bundeswehr, only at defenceless civilians trying to climb a fence or a wall. In consequence, the Bundeswehr never shot at anyone either. The Basic Law of 1949 forbade German armed forces to be used for wars out of the Nato area, so that it was many years before they could even join international peacekeeping missions. East German soldiers, in contrast, were once used abroad: in August 1968, they took part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In the past, German soldiers had - to put it mildly - an image. But foreigners and Germans had very different versions. For the rest of Europe (and beyond, for Hessian and other German troops fought in the British armies against American independence), they were impassive, obedient, ruthless robots, the brains stamped and screamed out of them on Prussian barrack-squares. Later, after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, it began to be said that they were also brutal. Colonial wars like the extermination of the Hereros in south-west Africa, and then the German occupation of Belgium in 1914 were held to confirm this. Prussian grenadiers were succeeded by the Reichswehr of the Weimar republic and then by Hitler's Wehrmacht.

Germans did not perceive their army as brutal or brutish. At first, there was a lot of breathless, uncritical hero-worship. Then the image settled down. The old word for a German soldier was Landser, a patient, foul-mouthed, fundamentally decent fellow who trudged down roads to disaster paved by stupid generals or mad dictators. The rain ran down his neck. He shifted his rifle on his shoulder, thought of the girl he would never see again, and said "Scheisse!" (shit). He dug graves for his comrades, in foreign soil, and he expected to join them there.

There was always something sentimental about the Landser idea. After the Second World War, there appeared all over West Germany - in station bookstalls, mostly - the so-called Landser-literature: paperbacks about gruff, tough soldiers fighting the barbarous Bolsheviks. In this pulp fiction, the German soldier never murdered civilians or committed atrocities. Others - the SS - did that sort of thing. But the Wehrmacht stayed decent.

Everyone preferred to believe that. But now the myth has exploded. An exhibition in Hamburg ("War of Extermination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1941-44") shows in dreadful detail how widely and frequently the German regular troops took part in mass murder. They slaughtered Jews, killed Soviet war prisoners (600,000 of these were shot), and put to death all civilians found in free-fire zones. The eastward march of the doomed Sixth Army to Stalingrad was lined with mass graves and gallows. And many of these crimes are only known (as the exhibition demonstrates) because those smiling lads took snapshots of everything they did... including murder.

It's all far in the past. The men in these photographs belong to a quite different army. In the Bundeswehr, "superior orders" are no excuse, and obedience is sought by example and persuasion rather than by bellowing and Kadaver-Gehorsam ("corpse-discipline"). This system is called "inner leadership", and the Bundeswehr troops are treated as "citizens in uniform". Back in the 1960s, recruits even won a constitutional case for the right to wear long hair, and the ministry of defence had to order thousands of camouflage hair-nets for its younger Panzer Grenadiers.

This citizens' army is just beginning to put its feet in more dangerous places. After unification, the Constitutional Court decided that the Bundeswehr might, after all, be used for international peacekeeping. A naval vessel went to the Adriatic to help blockade Serbia and then, in 1993, German troops flew to Belet Huen in Somalia as part of the UN peacekeeping force. It is said that they fired shots in anger, at looters and again at roadblocks obstructing their withdrawal last year. But nobody seems to be quite sure.

Are these peacetime young fellows, with their new guns and clean fatigues, too pampered to be real German soldiers? That depends. The old General Staff knew how to attack, with overwhelming, unexpected force, and that gift has vanished. But the infantry knew how to defend, with a stubborn, professional skill and guts which never collapsed into rout.

My guess is that the stubbornness remains. You can push these toy soldiers, but they will not fall over. Under the mild, scrubbed, concerned exterior, these are German soldiers who can defend their country as doggedly as their grandfathers did. !