The Establishment of the Bundeswehr

The Bundeswehr was founded just ten years after the end of World War II and Germany’s surrender. However, a new confrontation had already begun. The Cold War helped give rise to the Bundeswehr. The heightened confrontation between the Western world and the Soviet Union paved the way for the establishment of the Bundeswehr in 1955/1956.

Soldaten in ihrer Stube (Schwarz-Weiß-Aufnahme)
Bundeswehr/Munker

Surrender and a new beginning

Panzer vom Typ M-47 fahren auf dem Kasernengelände von Andernach (Schwarz-Weiß-Aufnahme)

When it was founded, the Bundeswehr was equipped with materiel from the US , including M-47 tanks.

Bundeswehr/Munker

Following the surrender of the German Wehrmacht on 7 and 8 May 1945, the victorious powers assumed political control over all of Germany: the United States, the United Kingdom and France in the western occupation zones, and the Soviet Union in the eastern occupation zone. The Wehrmacht and anything else of a military nature or that could be used for military purposes were dissolved. An almost complete demilitarisation was followed by a political decentralisation: by 1947, 16 federal states had been created, but still no central authority for Germany as a whole.

Denazification and war crimes tribunals

As part of the democratisation process, the NSDAP (the Nazi Party) and all associated organisations were banned. All Germans had to face denazification – for many of them, this meant no more than filling out a simple questionnaire. In the end, relatively few NSDAP functionaries, government officials and high-ranking military officers were brought to justice by special war crimes tribunals. The purpose of deindustrialisation was to eliminate Germany’s arms industry and heavy industry. Confiscated goods were transferred to the countries occupied by Germany during World War II, especially France and the Soviet Union, as reparations.

The victorious powers’ plans

Ein Rosinenbomber vom Typ DC-3 am Himmel

A DC 3 “raisin bomber” at the 2019 Bundeswehr Open Day in Jagel. Aircraft of this type helped support the Berlin Airlift in 1948/1949.

Bundeswehr/Sönke Dwenger

Starting in 1946/1947, a conflict between the Western powers and the Soviet Union escalated over how to deal with Germany as a nation state. The two sides had very different concepts of politics, security and democracy.

The fundamental difference in ideologies was also reflected in the economic systems: capitalist market regulation was pitted against a socialist planned economy. In May 1948, the Soviet Union therefore took the currency reform in the West German occupation zones as an opportunity to cut off the land routes from West Berlin, which was controlled by the Western powers, to West Germany. The Western Allies delivered supplies to West Berlin via an airlift until May 1949, when the Soviet Union finally gave up the blockade.

Becoming the Federal Republic of Germany

In 1948, the Western powers responded to the increasingly tense confrontation between the East and the West by instructing the West German federal states to deliberate on a democratic constitution. The Parliamentary Council of representatives of the state parliaments, which was founded for this purpose, adopted the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany on 9 May 1949. The Western Allies approved the Basic Law, which then entered into force on 23 May 1949. West Germany was born.

After the elections on 14 August 1949, the first German Bundestag was constituted on 7 September 1949 in Bonn. The Federal Convention, consisting of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of delegates from the federal states, elected Theodor Heuss as the first Federal President on 12 September 1949 and Konrad Adenauer as the first Federal Chancellor on 15 September 1949. Nevertheless, the Federal Republic of Germany still did not have full sovereignty. The occupation statute regulated the division of “powers and responsibilities between the future German government and the Allied Control Authority”; the Western Allies still had considerable rights.

Adenauer und Blank schreiten die Front der angetretenen Soldaten ab (Schwarz-Weiß-Aufnahme)

Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (centre) and Federal Minister of Defence Theodor Blank (left) inspect the formation during a visit to the newly formed Bundeswehr in Andernach.

Bundeswehr/Munker

The necessity of West German armed forces

As a partially sovereign state, the Federal Republic of Germany initially had no armed forces of its own. With the establishment of the Federal Border Guard in 1951, a paramilitary federal police force was created, primarily to protect the inner-German border.

In fact, however, some politicians in both the United States and West Germany were already determined from 1947/1948 onward to include the new Federal Republic of Germany in the defence of Western Europe.

A few days before his election as Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer issued a memorandum in which he pointed out the necessity of West German armed forces to John McCloy, the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany. The beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 accelerated this process. The communist North’s attack on the South, which was under Western influence, clearly demonstrated that the communist world was willing to use war as a means of expanding its sphere of influence.

From Himmerod Abbey to the “Blank Office”

In early October 1950, in response to the Korean War and at Federal Chancellor Adenauer’s behest, former officers of the Wehrmacht met at Himmerod Abbey in the Eifel region to discuss the formation of West German armed forces. The Western Allies allowed this meeting to take place. The memorandum from this conference records plans for twelve army divisions, strong fighter aviation and a total strength of 500,000 servicemen as “operands” for a West German contribution to the defence of Western Europe as a “secret federal matter”. The intention was to create “something fundamentally new without any basis in the old Wehrmacht structures”.

The “Blank Office”

Following the conference, Adenauer appointed Theodor Blank, a member of the Bundestag from the CDUChristian Democratic Party  party, as the “Chancellor’s Commissioner for Questions with Regard to the Strengthening of Allied Troops”. Due to this unwieldy official title, his agency soon came to be known as the “Blank Office”. It became the nucleus of the later Federal Ministry of Defence.

Plans for a European Defence Community

Blank und Heusinger stehen nebeneinander (Schwarz-Weiß-Aufnahme)

Theodor Blank (on the right) was the Bundeswehr’s first Federal Minister of Defence. He is shown here with General Adolf Heusinger, Chief of Defence.

Bundeswehr/Baumann

A few days after the conference at Himmerod Abbey, French Prime Minister René Pleven introduced the plan for European armed forces. In the four years that followed, these proposed forces, the European Defence Community (EDC), were the focus of many conferences and rounds of negotiations. In the European Defence Community, the Western European countries’ national armed forces were to be subordinate to a common supreme command and a European minister of defence. Only the battalion and regiment levels would be organised in wholly national structures.

When the Convention on Relations between the Three Powers and the Federal Republic of Germany was signed in May 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany became the (future) ally of its western neighbours. The explicit aim of the treaty was the inclusion of Germany in the European Defence Community (EDC), which had not yet been established. In the summer of 1954, the EDC ultimately failed due to opposition from the French parliament. France itself was not willing to assign its forces to a European high command.

The path to NATO

NATO, founded in 1949, proved to be much more permanent. When the EDC failed, NATO immediately invited the Federal Republic of Germany to accession negotiations. In October 1954, a German delegation took part in the Nine-Power Conference in London. Aside from admitting the Federal Republic of Germany into NATO, this conference primarily focussed on a revised version of the Convention on Relations between the Three Powers and the Federal Republic of Germany, which had become necessary due to the failure of the EDC.

The Federal Ministry of Defence

With the establishment of the Western European Union and the resulting declaration to renounce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO on 5 May 1955 as the 15th member state. On 7 June 1955, the “Blank Office” was renamed “Federal Ministry of Defence”. Theodor Blank became the first West German Federal Minister of Defence.

Ein Soldat sitzt vor einem geöffneten Buch und schreibt etwas auf einen Zettel

A young officer candidate studying the Legal Status of Military Personnel Act at the Army Officer School in Dresden. It is the basis for all military personnel’s service in the Bundeswehr.

Bundeswehr/Carsten Vennemann

12 November 1955: the Bundeswehr is born

Although an agency had been established and German delegates had attended various EDC conferences, there were no German military personnel until 12 November 1955. On this day, the 200th birthday of the Prussian army reformer Lieutenant General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, the first 101 enlisted volunteers received their letters of appointment for voluntary service in the armed forces. The establishment of the Bundeswehr was officially completed. A resourceful employee was responsible for the fact that this ceremony, held in the Ermekeil Barracks in Bonn, the headquarters of the Blank Office, took place. He had realised how well the 200th birthday of the Prussian army reformer and founder of universal conscription suited the establishment of the Bundeswehr as the armed forces in a democracy.

The Legal Status of Military Personnel Act and the citizen in uniform

Since 1952, the German Bundestag had overseen the establishment of the West German armed forces. The parliamentarians discussed all laws relating to the new armed forces in the “committee for deliberation on the EDC treaty and the associated arrangements” (Ausschuss zur Mitberatung des EVG-Vertrags und der damit zusammenhängenden Abmachungen) and, as of 1953, in the “committee on European security issues” (Ausschuss für Fragen der europäischen Sicherheit). The “Act Relating to the Legal Status of Military Personnel” or “Legal Status of Military Personnel Act” ensured that the “citizen in uniform” was legally anchored in the German democracy. Since then, military personnel have had the same rights as any other citizen – with only a few restrictions for military reasons.

Reference:

Rink, Martin, Die Bundeswehr 1950/55 – 1989 (= Militärgeschichte kompakt. 6 [The Bundeswehr 1950/1955, compact military history, volume 6]). DeGruyter Oldenbourg, Munich 2015, ISBN 978-3-11-044096-6.