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Is it Germany’s responsibility to send soldiers to war – or to keep them from it?

Should Germany be a country that sends its soldiers into the world? That question has erupted into the centre of German political debate this week – and nobody missed the significance of the timing, exactly a hundred years after a very different set of German leaders plunged the world into three decades of war.

It began on Friday, when Germany's president – a largely symbolic position, much like Canada's Governor-General – used a conference speech to call for a more hawkish Germany.

There are people, Joachim Gauck said, "who use Germany's guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world." Instead, he told the audience, "When the last resort – sending in the Bundeswehr [national military] – comes to be discussed, Germany should not say no on principle."

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Those words made front-page headlines, as did the ones that followed, from Germany's first female defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who suggested that Germany contribute troops to more international military campaigns. Germany drew criticism in some circles for its refusal to add its warplanes to the 2011 NATO mission to defend rebels in Libya, and its lengthy campaign in Afghanistan, which carried the caveat that German troops would not engage in active combat, also displeased some military figures in Britain, the United States and Canada.

"To sit and wait is not an option," Ms. von der Leyen told delegates. "If we have the means, if we have the capabilities, we have the responsibility to engage… we have the obligation and the responsibility to contribute towards current crises and conflicts."

This was certainly not the first time that German leaders have proposed a greater military role. But what happened next, in the political sphere, was particularly interesting.

This week's responses to those speeches have not fallen along predictable party lines at all.

Yes, there are some Germans who feel that their country, after the horrors of the two world wars, has a moral obligation never to go to war again – and their voices have been heard loudly this week.

"I'm disappointed our President can say this, as a believing Christian. We should let him see the images from 1945 again," Gerhard Schönlein wrote in one of many letters on this theme in Tuesday's Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. "Everyone seems so forget what we have done in Europe and Africa, not to mention the extermination camps. In 1945, we said: Never again war!"

But politically, some of the strongest opposition to the speeches came not from the left but from conservative allies of Mr. Gauck and Ms. Von der Leyen, both members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

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Germany "should not be talked into a new war," Peter Gauweiler, the deputy chairman of the Christian Social Union (the more conservative Bavarian branch of Ms. Merkel's party) told the newspaper Bild.

The last decade's military engagements, Mr. Gauweiler said, are "more likely to be to the detriment of the West," and the 12 years of "failure" in Afghanistan, he said, should warn Germans that it is foolish to march into war simply on principle.

On the other hand, supporting the President's hawkish view was Germany's influential Green Party.

"It's not about megalomania," Green Party chairman Cem Ozdemir said in a radio interview Monday. "It's that a country like the Federal Republic of Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world, also has a responsibility: a responsibility not only for themselves but also for democracy, for human rights in the world." And that responsibility, he said, includes military actions to protect human rights.

Perhaps that should not be surprising: After all, Germany's first military action after the Second World War, the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, was the project of a German Green Party foreign minister, Joschka Fischer.

Missing in action on all of this has been Ms. Merkel herself, who has often hesitated to commit either to military actions or to outright condemnation of them (the refusal to fight in Libya was ultimately her decision).

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On Friday, she seemed to skirt the debate by changing the subject: "This is not a matter of more or less military engagement, it's a question of using the political influence of a country like Germany," she told reporters. It is unlikely to be her last word on the subject.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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