The Bundeswehr becomes an “army of unity”

When the Cold War ended, the armed forces in Europe no longer needed the force levels they had maintained up to that point. International disarmament and German reunification presented the Federal Republic of Germany with three tasks at once: downsizing the Bundeswehr, disbanding the National People’s Army (NVA) of the former East Germany, and building up a new kind of Bundeswehr in reunified Germany.

Black-and-white shot of the soldiers who stood up
Bundeswehr/Matthias Zins

The Soviet Union’s new political course

Starting in 1985, it became apparent that the Soviet Union had changed its political course. These changes also had consequences for the Warsaw Pact. Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was trying to open up his country due to severe economic problems.

At the same time, he wanted a new dialogue of détente with the West. Other countries in the Warsaw Pact took the opportunity to make similar shifts. However, the East German leadership opposed opening up to the West, liberalising the economy and military disarmament. But these leaders were not the only ones observing the developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe:

The population’s criticism of the “real socialism” in East Germany could no longer be suppressed. What started with public prayers for peace grew into a widespread protest movement.

The mass exodus from East Germany starting in 1989 led to the collapse of the SED’s one-party rule.

Defense Minister Rühe shakes hands with a soldier

Volker Rühe, then Federal Minister of Defence, appointed the first former National People’s Army soldiers as career service members of the Bundeswehr on 2 October 1992 in Leipzig.

Bundeswehr/Detmar Modes

The fall of the Berlin Wall

The East German government’s attempt to control the political pressure of the masses by opening the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 failed miserably. The fall of the Berlin Wall ushered in the process of German reunification because the majority of East Germans did not want reformed socialism. Economic factors were one reason they wanted to be reunified with West Germany.

Challenges for reunified Germany

A Mig 29 fighter aircraft can be seen from the window of a Bundeswehr aircraft

The Bundeswehr took over MiG 29 fighter aircraft from the National People’s Army. Here is one of the aircraft belonging to what was then the Bundeswehr’s 73 Fighter Wing in Laage.

Bundeswehr/Detmar Modes

On the one hand, reunification on 3 October 1990 meant that the National People’s Army and other East German armed organisations (such as border troops and workers’ militias) were disbanded. On the other hand, some of the more than 90,000 temporary-career volunteers and career service members from the National People’s Army had to be integrated into the Bundeswehr. This effort was made more difficult by the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, which governed German reunification. This treaty called for disarmament of the Bundeswehr down to first 370,000 military personnel and then 340,000 military personnel as of 1994. Nevertheless, the Bundeswehr as an army of unity initially took on some 76,000 temporary-career volunteers and career service members from the National People’s Army.

The National People’s Army’s weapons, vehicles and materiel presented a further challenge. More than 15,000 large weapon systems (battle tanks, armoured infantry fighting vehicles and aircraft) and about 300,000 tonnes of ammunition had to be disposed of. The Bundeswehr temporarily continued the use of some transport aircraft and armoured infantry fighting vehicles, and kept all 24 of the MiG 29 combat aircraft in use until 2004. However, taking over these systems was an exception to the rule. Some NATO partners and third countries bought patrol boats, attack helicopters and armoured infantry fighting vehicles from the inventory of the former National People’s Army.

The Bundeswehr Eastern Command

Setting up Bundeswehr agencies in the federal states that had previously been East Germany was a particular challenge. On 3 October 1990, the Bundeswehr established the Bundeswehr Eastern Command and a branch office of the Federal Ministry of Defence in this acceding territory – often simply referred to as the “new federal states” – in Strausberg, Brandenburg. Until March 1991, these two transitional agencies had all the coordination and decision-making powers for the new federal states.

Within a few months, 2,300 National People’s Army agencies were dissolved, and 35 locations closed completely. At the same time, bodies such as 5 Air Division formed in the former East Germany. 5 Air Division encompassed all units of this armed service that were to be established there. The Army stationed six newly established home defence brigades and two divisions and military district commands, as well the Corps and Territorial Command East, in Geltow as the Army’s highest-level agency for this region. The Navy took over the Rostock-Warnemünde and Parow locations. New agencies and units formed from the command personnel of the old Bundeswehr and their new fellow soldiers from the National People’s Army.

New and old agencies

The Bundeswehr also moved a few central agencies to the new federal states, including the Army Officer School, which moved from Hanover to Dresden, and the Military History Research Institute, which moved from Freiburg to Potsdam. The new Bundeswehr Academy for Information and Communication was created at the location of the former East German Ministry of National Defence in Strausberg. A second official seat of the Federal Ministry of Defence in Bonn was also established at the Bendlerblock in Berlin.

Considerable need for improvement

However, setting up the new locations was not without difficulty: all of the former National People’s Army locations required considerable improvements and renovation. Many barracks did not correspond to the established standard for the Bundeswehr’s soldiers in the West. The facilities were often in very poor condition. In autumn 1989, the military personnel of the National People’s Army had already protested against the conditions. Placing Bundeswehr agencies at these locations always turned out to be an infrastructure programme as well.

Schönbohm, Stoltenberg and Eppelmann stand side by side, with the Bundeswehr logo in the background

Lieutenant General Jörg Schönbohm (on right) was the first Commander of the Bundeswehr Eastern Command. He is shown here with Federal Minister of Defence Gerhard Stoltenberg and former East German Minister of National Defence Rainer Eppelmann.

Bundeswehr/Matthias Zins


„We come not as victors to the vanquished…”

There was no time to prepare a master plan for dissolving the National People’s Army. German reunification came as a surprise, and the Bundeswehr also had to make many ad-hoc decisions on a case-by-case basis. From the beginning, Lieutenant General Jörg Schönbohm, Commander of the Bundeswehr Eastern Command, ensured that all personnel would have a trusting relationship: “We come not as victors to the vanquished, but as Germans to Germans”.

A new career in the Bundeswehr

Many members of the National People’s Army had little hope of being absorbed into the Bundeswehr. More than 60 percent of the officers in the National People’s Army had ended their military careers before 3 October 1990, including all generals and admirals, all political officers and unofficial collaborators of the Ministry for State Security, all women and all career service members who were over 55 years old. At the same time, the Bundeswehr took on around 12,000 officers and about the same number of noncommissioned officers, who then pursued a new career in the Bundeswehr.

Consequences for the soldiers – in the East and the West

In many cases, the new ranks for the officers were one or two levels lower than before because the National People’s Army had often assigned higher ranks to posts than the Bundeswehr did. As an army of unity, the Bundeswehr permanently took on some 3,000 officers, 7,600 NCOs and 200 units of former National’s People Army career service members for service in the armed forces of reunified Germany. At the same time, some 90,000 temporary-career volunteers and career service members left the Bundeswehr, due in part to various laws on its structure that made it easier to do so.

Soldiers stand in a square and make their solemn vows on the troop flag

After the reunification process, many conscripts completed their basic military service in what they saw as the “other” part of Germany. The first solemn pledge ceremony in the former East Germany, held in Bad Salzungen, is shown here.

Bundeswehr/Matthias Zins

Discontent among former National People’s Army personnel

Differences in pay caused discontent among the former military personnel of the National People’s Army who were now in the Bundeswehr. The noncommissioned officers did not receive the same pay as their counterparts in the West until 2007, and the officers did not receive the same pay until 2009. For the young soldiers joining the Bundeswehr, this disadvantage in pay was often bypassed by giving them their assignments and appointments as temporary-career volunteers in the western federal states.

As of 1991, many conscripts completed their basic military service in what they saw as the “other” part of Germany. This experience also became an important part of German reunification.

Putting the “new” Bundeswehr to the test

Defense Minister Stoltenberg shakes hands with a soldier

Gerhard Stoltenberg (on left), Federal Minister of Defence at that time, said that the Bundeswehr set the pace for German unity.

Bundeswehr/Matthias Zins

The Bundeswehr first proved itself as an army of unity during the 1997 Oder river flood. Thousands of military personnel from the garrisons between Rostock and Dresden, along with countless volunteers from other military elements, worked to contain the flooding. Under the direction of Major General Hans-Peter von Kirchbach and Matthias Platzeck, minister for the environment in Brandenburg, some 30,000 military personnel were temporarily deployed alongside helpers from the fire brigades, the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) and the Federal Police. They ultimately succeeded in preventing larger dike failures. Tornado reconnaissance aircraft took infrared photographs to provide key information on potential weak points in the dikes. Media coverage of the flood response – including the Bundeswehr’s participation – was overwhelmingly positive.

Admittedly, this operation could not hide the fact that the Bundeswehr had been in a difficult position since 1990, undergoing a virtually uninterrupted process of restructuring with constantly changing tasks.

Contributing to Germany’s “inner unity”

Federal Minister of Defence Gerhard Stoltenberg (in office 1989 – 1992) later said that the Bundeswehr set the pace for German unity. As his successor Peter Struck (in office 2002 – 2005) put it: “Since 3 October 1990, the Bundeswehr has shown what can be achieved when Germans from the East and the West come together and put their energy into a shared task. In this way, it has been a model and pioneer of making Germany’s inner unity a reality since the beginning”.

Further reading

Schlaffer, Rudolf J. and Sandig, Marina, Die Bundeswehr 1955 – 2015. Sicherheitspolitik und Streitkräfte in der Demokratie. Analysen, Bilder und Übersichten [The Bundeswehr from 1955 – 2015. Security policy and armed forces in a democracy. Analyses, images and overviews]. Freiburg im Breisgau 2015, ISBN 978-3-7930-9836-2v

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