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– EuroArmy...For Peace or
In the era of Donald Trump, Germans
debate a military buildup
by Anthony Faiola
SESTOKAI, Lithuania — A vermilion-colored locomotive slowed to a halt,
its freight cars obscured in the blinding snow. A German captain ordered
his troops to unload the train’s cargo. “Jawohl!” — “Yes, sir!” — a
soldier said, before directing out the first of 20 tanks bearing the
Iron Cross of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s army.
Evocative of old war films, the scene is nevertheless a sign of new
times. Seven and a half decades after the Nazis invaded this Baltic
nation, the Germans are back in Lithuania — this time as one of the
As the Trump administration ratchets up the pressure on allied nations
to shoulder more of their own defense, no country is more in the
crosshairs than Germany. If it meets the goals Washington is pushing
for, Germany — the region’s economic powerhouse — would be on the fast
track to again become Western Europe’s biggest military power.
Any renaissance of German might has long been resisted first and
foremost by the Germans — a nation that largely rejected militarism in
the aftermath of the Nazi horror. Yet a rethinking of German power is
quickly emerging as one of the most significant twists of President
Trump’s transatlantic policy.
Since the November election in the United States, the Germans — caught
between Trump’s America and Vladimir Putin’s Russia — are feeling less
and less secure. Coupled with Trump’s push to have allies step up, the
Germans are debating a military buildup in a manner rarely witnessed
since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Perhaps nowhere is the prospect of a new future playing out more than
here in Lithuania — where nearly 500 German troops, including a Bavarian
combat battalion, arrived in recent weeks for an open-ended deployment
near the Russian frontier. The NATO deployment marks what analysts
describe as Germany’s most ambitious military operation near the Russian
border since the end of the Cold War. It arrived with a formidable show
of German force — including 20 Marder armored infantry fighting
vehicles, six Leopard battle tanks and 12 Fuchs and Boxer armored
“Maybe, with respect to the United States, you need to be careful what
you wish for,” said Lt. Col. Torsten Stephan, military spokesman for the
German troops in Lithuania. “Mr. Trump says that NATO may be obsolete,
and that we need to be more independent. Well, maybe we will.”
The German-led deployment — also involving a smaller number of troops
from Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway — is designed to send a
muscular message from Europe to Putin: Back off.
Yet on a continent facing the prospect of a new Cold War, the deployment
is also offering a window into the risks of renewed German strength — as
well as the Russian strategy for repelling it by dwelling on Germany’s
dark past. In the 21st-century world of hybrid warfare, the first
proverbial salvos have been fired.
Recently, coordinated emails were sent to Lithuanian police, media and
top politicians, falsely claiming that the new German troops had
gang-raped a local 15-year-old girl. The Lithuanian government quickly
disproved the allegations — but not before a few local outlets and
social-media users had spread the false accounts. Officials are
investigating whether the Russians were behind it.
“But if you ask me personally, I think that yes, that’s the biggest
probability,” said Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis.
Pro-Russian websites, meanwhile, are preying on old stereotypes, harking
back to Adolf Hitler and portraying the NATO deployment in Lithuania as
a “second invasion” by Germany.
[The rise of Trump has led to an unexpected twist in Germany’s election:
A resurgent left]
As Germany grows bolder, outdated imagery is roaring back to life
through Russian propaganda. Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry
announced the building of a reproduction of the old German Reichstag at
a military theme park near Moscow, offering young Russians a chance to
reenact the 1945 storming of the structure during the fall of Berlin.
Yet in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic now living in the shadow of
Russia’s maw, the Nazi legacy is seen as ancient history. To many here,
modern Germany is a bastion of democratic principles and one of the
globe’s strongest advocates of human rights, free determination and
measured diplomacy. And facing a Russian threat in times of uncertain
NATO allegiances, the Lithuanians are clamoring for a more powerful
Germany by its side.
“I think U.S. leadership should be maintained, but also, we need
leadership in Europe,” Karoblis said. Noting that Britain is in the
process of breaking away from the European Union, he called Germany the
most likely new guarantor of regional stability.
“Why not Germany? Why not?” he said.
More dangerous missions
For many Germans, however, there are many reasons — including
overspending and fears of sparking a new arms race. According to a poll
commissioned by Stern magazine and published this year, 55 percent of
Germans are against increasing defense spending in the coming years,
while 42 percent are in favor.
The German military has staged several military exercises in Poland and
other parts of Eastern Europe, and its pilots form part of the air
police deterring Russian planes buzzing the E.U.’s eastern borders. It
has also begun to take on more dangerous missions — deploying troops to
the Balkans, Afghanistan and, last year, to Mali. The military also has
taken on a logistical support role in the allied fight against the
But the Germans are slated to do much more. In 2014, German officials
agreed with other NATO nations to spend at least 2 percent of its gross
domestic product on defense within 10 years — up from about 1.2 percent
in 2016. Until recently, however, many German officials privately
acknowledged that such a goal — which would see Germany leapfrog Britain
and France in military spending — was politically untenable.
Since Trump’s victory, however, German politicians, pundits and the
media have agonized over the issue, with more and louder voices calling
for a stronger military. Last month, the Defense Ministry announced
plans to increase Germany’s standing military to nearly 200,000 troops
by 2024, up from a historical low of 166,500 in June. After 26 years of
cuts, defense spending is going up by 8 percent this year.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for cool heads, but also for
increased military spending. Her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen,
has been more forceful, saying recently that Germany cannot “duck away”
from its military responsibility. Although considered a distant
possibility, some outlier voices are mentioning the once-inconceivable:
the advent of a German nuclear bomb.
“If Trump sticks to his line, America will leave Europe’s defense to the
Europeans to an extent that it hasn’t known since 1945,” Berthold
Kohler, publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote in a recent
opinion piece. That could mean “higher defense spending, the revival of
the draft, the drawing of red lines and the utterly unthinkable for
German brains — the question of one’s own nuclear defense capability.”
[Merkel, Trump agree on at least 1 thing: Germans should spend more on
Germany, along with its regional allies, has begun exploring an increase
of military activity through joint European operations — and experts see
that, and NATO, as the most likely funnels for German military power.
Germany’s deployment in Lithuania, for instance, is part of a broader
allied deterrent in Eastern Europe, with the Americans, Canadians and
British leading other contingents in Poland, Latvia and Estonia.
In some of Germany’s neighbors — particularly Poland — there remain
pockets of opposition to renewed German military might, positions based
at least in part on war memories. But old prejudices are dying fast.
Take, for instance, tiny Lithuania — a nation the Nazis overran in 1941,
kicking out the occupying Soviets. The Third Reich held on there through
1945, exterminating more than 200,000 Jews. After World War II,
Lithuania reverted to Soviet domination before winning independence at
the end of the Cold War. Over the past decade, Lithuania hitched its
star to the West — joining the E.U. and NATO in 2004, much to the
chagrin of the Russians.
Now, Lithuanians’ fear of the bear on their doorstep is surging. Since
the de facto invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Russian
politicians have begun speaking ominously about a key warm-water port
that they say was wrongly “gifted” to Lithuania after the collapse of
the Soviet Union. Hackers thought to be linked to the Russians have
targeted government servers and national television channels.
In the city of Jonava, about six miles from the barrack housing the new
NATO troops, the Nazis killed more than 2,000 Jews in the 1940s. Yet in
the oral histories, the German occupation is portrayed in a far better
light than the Soviet era that followed.
Nadiezda Grickovaite, 86, the town’s only living resident with vivid
memories of the World War II era, said she recalled her mother taking
her into the woods “so we didn’t see the shooting of the Jews.” But she
said the Soviets were comparatively worse — a history she has passed
down in speeches and talks at local schools.
“I don’t feel any bad feelings against the Germans because of the past,”
she said. “This was history. We can’t blame them now.”
The new German troops, meanwhile, have received special sensitivity
training about the Nazi legacy in Lithuania and to insist on gentle
interactions with locals. Jonava’s acting mayor, Eugenijus Sabutis, said
the only incident since the troops arrived in late January was an
altercation between an American GI and local men over the attentions of
“I don’t feel part of that history — the history of Germans who were
here before,” said Sebastian, a 27-year-old German private stationed in
Lithuania who only gave his first name per the German army’s rules for
the interview. “What I know is that we are in a kind of new Cold War,
and now we are here to help.”
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.