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Rearmament in the 1950s

Compared with the speed and energy of German actions in other fields, by the late 1950s the performance of the Federal Government in implementing its defence obligations had been painfully slow and disappointing. Some of the reasons were obvious. The nation as a whole was quite content to rely for its defence on its allies who were so recently converted to the idea that German armed forces were positively desirable. It so happened that this attitude also served the immediate material interests of Germany since it enabled her to devote all her resources in manpower and finance to the strengthening of her economy and her foreign trade. However, in view of the unequal distribution of the financial burdens of defence among the NATO countries, Germany had agreed in principle to pay support costs to Britain for the British forces stationed in Germany.

Then there are the technical and ideological arguments or after-thoughts. It was frequently argued in Germany that in an age of atomic warfare the presence or absence of some German divisions can make very little difference. This idea was, of course, based on the assumption that similar arguments cannot, or will not, be used by Britain or the United States to abolish their own land forces. A second line of argument, and a sounder one, was that all armies were being reorganised as a result of the development of new weapons and new methods of warfare and that it would therefore be unwise for Germany to take any definite decisions on the organisation of her armed forces until it is clear what other nations have decided to do.

The Social Democrats were opposed to conscription, particularly while Germany remained divided. They viewed with apprehension the possible influence of German armed forces on the future conduct of domestic and foreign policy. They also hoped that, if they came to power after the General Election in the autumn of 1957, they might induce the Great Powers to agree to a gradual withdrawal of their forces from German territory - east and west - or, at any rate, to the establishment of a demilitarised zone. Some such agreement, they believed, was a condition of reunification. And reunification, in their view, would not be compatible with Germany's continued membership in NATO whose place would eventually be taken by a European security system. It is a view by no means confined to Social Democrats.

As elsewhere, young people in general did not display any conspicuous enthusiasm for military service at a time when civilian life offers them much better chances. Hence they were glad to hear the arguments of experts who showed that conscript armies were out of date and that only professional soldiers - or a large element of them - could make the armies of the future effective. There was also some measure of conscientious objection to service in the armed forces, based not merely on pacifist arguments, but also on the view that the frontiers and institutions of the Federal Republic are provisional, because Germany is still divided, and that there is therefore no clearly defined Fatherland to defend. The Vatican must have considered this particular kind of reservation important since the Pope's 1956 Christmas message included a special paragraph condemning this kind of reasoning. Some, or all, of these aversions might have been overcome by the establishment of a European Defence Community since the idea of European co-operation made, and still makes, a very real appeal to Germans. This was frustrated by the rejection of EDC in the French National Assembly.

The action, or inaction, of the Federal Government must be seen against this background. Since conscription is not popular and since new federal elections will soon be at hand, the Government sometimes gave the impression that the more energetically they worked for the establishment of the armed forces, the longer the actual call-up would have to be delayed. However, by April, 1957, the first 10,000 national service recruits had been called up, in addition to the 85,000 long-service volunteers who had previously been accepted. Thus the Federal Republic was expected to have five divisions under arms by the end of 1957 and seven divisions by April 1958.

Similar uncertainty prevailed about the equipment of the German forces. At one time, hopes were held out that a great deal of this equipment, particularly armor and fighters, would be ordered from Britain, but towards the end of 1956 it was decided that, if possible, the sources of supply should be beyond the range of Soviet bombers - a decision that gave North-American aircraft constructors a near monopoly. This decision, as was pointed out at the time, ignored the difficulties of such long-distance supplies when war was actually in progress. But whatever ultimate policy Germany might adopt in this matter, her armed forces - like her industry - would start with the advantage of having the most up-to-date equipment at their disposal. In this particular field good use seems to have been made of the long period of preparation for planning the "inner structure" of the new forces - and observers in other countries watched with interest, and some with profit, to see the practical application of these plans throughout the German armed forces.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:28 ZULU