The German involvement in the Afghan war was already underway when in October 2002 Peter Struck was asked by the Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to take over the defence portfolio. Struck's predecessor at Defence was Rudolf Scharping, under whom the Bundeswehr , or German armed forces, participated for the first time since 1945 in a war outside Germany, in the former Yugoslavia. Scharping was removed shortly before the Bundestag elections in 2002, after a photo of him with his girlfriend appeared on holiday in Majorca just before the Bundeswehr was about to embark on a difficult operation in Macedonia.
Struck took responsibility for a force of over 251,000 men and women conscripts and volunteers. During his time at the Defence Ministry he oversaw the early years of Germany's engagement in Afghanistan, famously coining the phrase that "German security is being defended in the Hindu Kush".
With a contingent of more than 5,000 soldiers and policemen, Germany was, and is, one of the main contributors of troops to coalition operations in Afghanistan. Although German troops mainly operate in the relatively quiet north of the country, they have suffered a number of casualties during participation in the ISAF mission. German involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere remained controversial and Struck had to get used to being the bearer of bad news.
In 2002, a helicopter crash in Kabul which was first thought to be due enemy fire, turned out to be the result of a mechanical failure. Seven servicemen died. Then in 2003 four NCOs died and 29 soldiers suffered serious injuries when a suicide bomber in a taxi rammed the bus they were travelling in. The soldiers were scheduled to leave Kabul that day after a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.
This was a turning point for Struck. In 2004 there were 10 deaths, and up to November 2005, when Struck was replaced, several more casualties. Struck was a strong opponent of the 2003 Iraq war.
He also faced some controversy over the ill-treatment of service personnel. In December 2004, he informed the German parliament of over 10 such cases. These were said to be training exercises simulating hostage-taking that had got out of hand. He emphasised, "We have 130,000 recruits and 12,000 trainers. Only 30 to 40 are being investigated," but he was unable to convince everyone. On top of that he had to face criticism from the defence community over expenditure cuts.
Born in the university town of Göttingen, Struck studied law at the universities of Göttingen and Hamburg gaining his doctor of law, in 1971. He then entered the service of the Hamburg city administration. Having joined the SPD in 1964 he began his political career at the local level in Uelzen, an ancient north German town which is part of the Hamburg Metropolitan region. There Struck was elected to the local council in 1973. In the same year he was appointed deputy town manager. Election to the Bundestag came in 1980, via the party list, for the constituency of Celle-Uelzen. Due to his growing popularity, in the years 1998, 2002 and 2005, Struck was directly elected.
From 1990 to 1998 he was chief whip of the SPD parliamentary group and from 1998 to 2002 served as chairman. In November 2005 the elections led to a grand coalition of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) with the Social Democrats, and Struck lost the Defence job to Franz Josef Jung. He then became whip of the SPD's Bundestag group once again, until his retirement in 2009.
After retiring from active politics following the 2009 elections, Struck was most recently chairman of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a political think tank with connections to the SPD. He had suffered from poor health for several years and died of a heart attack in the Charité hospital in Berlin.
He was known for his plain-speaking and as a colourful character, who enjoyed pipe-smoking and motorcycling. Chancellor Angela Merkel, said it was with great sadness that she heard of Struck's death, describing him as a "significant parliamentarian and a great social democrat ... For me, he was a tough arguer, but was always a reliable and valued partner."
Peter Struck, politician: born Göttingen, Germany 24 January 1943; married Barbara (three children); died Berlin 19 December 2012.