Posted by Torben
When I go running through the Rehberge, a large and understatedly beautiful park near my apartment, I often pass swiftly marching soldiers wearing camouflage uniforms and lugging military packs. It is evident they've been trained to be courteous: they generally say hello as I pass, which is decidedly not the Berlin thing to do. I assume they come from the military barracks that border the park, the largest in Berlin and home to the guard battalion that performs military honors for state guests. The base is named for the resistance fighter Julius Leber. It used to be named for Hermann Göring.
The origins of the facility date back to the late 19th century, when the Luftschifferbataillon, the “airshipmen battalion,” considered to be the first regular air force unit in the world, was established and based here. Following Germany's defeat in World War I, the unit was disbanded – the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from having an air force. Instead the barracks were used by the police. In 1936, however, Göring, whom Hitler had appointed as air minister in 1933 and who took charge of the Luftwaffe after it was established in contravention of the Versailles treaty in 1935, began construction of a sprawling new barracks complex on the site.
After World War II the facility became the headquarters of the French occupying forces in Berlin and was expanded to form the Quartier Napoléon that included a Catholic church, a house of culture, a movie theater, and a swimming pool. In 1948 the French military, with the help of American specialists and locals, constructed an airfield just across the road from the barracks. (The site they chose had been used to test airships before World War I and rockets in the 1930s. The scientists involved in the latter endeavor include Rudolf Nebel and Wernher von Braun.) A first runway was built in just 90 days. Time was of the essence. The Soviets had blockaded West Berlin and the only way to get food and supplies into the city was by air. On November 5th a Douglas C-54 Skymaster carrying eight tons of cheese became the first plane to land at what would become Tegel Airport.
With reunification Germany regained its sovereignty and Berlin, previously under Allied administration, became a part of the Federal Republic of Germany (technically, West Berlin had not been a part of West Germany). The French military left Berlin and the German military, the Bundeswehr, took over the Quartier Napoléon. In early 1995, on the 50th anniversary of Julius Leber's death, it was renamed.
Why name a military base after Julius Leber? To be sure he had been a decorated soldier in World War I. But his military career was cut short in 1920 when, as a lieutenant, he sided with the democratic Weimar Republic against right-wing insurgents during the so-called Kapp Putsch. This was considered an unforgivable act by the largely pro-putsch officers' corps. Leber became a journalist and later a Social Democratic member of the Reichstag. Shortly after Hitler assumed power Leber and two fellow activists were involved in an altercation with a group of Nazi SA men in which one of Leber's companions killed a storm trooper in self defense. Leber was arrested, imprisoned for 20 months, then sent to Esterwegen and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. In 1937 Leber was released and became involved in the resistance against the Nazi regime. A shed in the Berlin district of Schöneberg from which he sold coal was a conspiratorial meeting place. Leber's contacts extended far beyond his social democratic milieu. He was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler led by Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (to whom he grew quite close) and was designated as Germany's minister of the interior if the plot succeeded. In an effort to form as broad a coalition against the regime as possible, Leber reached out to members of the communist resistance, but was betrayed by a Gestapo mole. He was arrested shortly before Stauffenberg's failed assassination attempt of July 20th 1944, made the subject of a sham trial, and executed on January 5th 1945.
Leber, it is clear, is very much worthy of remembrance, but not because he was a famous war hero or a successful general. Instead we honor Leber because he gave his life fighting against an evil regime. Specifically, Leber supported the coup attempt of an army colonel who tried to kill the so-called Führer to whom he, Stauffenberg, had personally sworn an oath of allegiance. From 1934 onwards, German soldiers would “...swear to God this holy oath that I shall render unconditional obedience to the Leader of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath." Stauffenberg broke that oath, as of course he should have: it is strange for us today to observe how Stauffenberg and others wrestled with the morality of breaking an oath made to such an obviously monstrous figure. But the question for a military organization like the Bundeswehr is: should it base its sense of tradition on someone who broke his military oath, who did not follow orders, who attempted a coup? Is that dangerous for discipline and for the smooth functioning of a military?
Germany's answer is clear: the military resistance to Hitler is absolutely integral to the Bundeswehr's identity and has been since its establishment in the mid-1950s. It is no accident that the Berlin branch of the German defense ministry (the main headquarters remains in Bonn) is housed in the Bendlerblock where Stauffenberg had his office. It has become a ritual for German soldiers to pledge their oath to serve the Federal Republic in public on every July 20th, the anniversary of Stauffenberg's failed coup attempt. Often the pledge is held in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, where Stauffenberg, along with three of his co-conspirators, was executed in the early hours of July 21st 1944.
That the military resistance to the Nazi regime is so prominently remembered by the Bundeswehr is by no means uncontroversial. Stauffenberg held the prejudices of many Germans of his time. He made odious antisemitic and anti-Slavic comments. He at first welcomed Hitler's coming to power. Other members of the military resistance were complicit in fighting a criminal war in the Soviet Union. Most (including Stauffenberg) were deeply opposed to democracy – in part because they thought that it was democracy that had enabled Hitler's rise.
But then, who else is there to lend the Bundeswehr some sense of tradition? The Prussian officers who fought against Napoleon, perhaps – and we have barracks named for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and Blücher, the heroes of the early 19th century. But that was long ago. And it is important to recognize that the acknowledgement of the military resistance to Hitler marked progress in the early years of the Federal Republic. These men who had been abhorred as traitors to their country were now being held up as models by the young West German democracy. The question is, seventy years on, do we still need them?
Germany is a more mature democracy than it was in 1955. And we have a more sophisticated understanding of the protagonists of the military resistance. We are acutely aware of the chasm that lies between their vision for Germany and the democratic, open society that most of us aspire to today. We can admire the bravery of those who gave their lives to rid Germany of Hitler while also acknowledging their flaws and accepting that they cannot serve as unqualified role models.
The military historian Sönke Neitzel has written that he does not think there will be barracks named for Stauffenberg in another twenty years. But barracks named for Julius Leber? He was a lieutenant who stood up to the putschists against democracy within his own ranks; a journalist and social democratic member of parliament who supported democracy against the many who sought to bring it down; a man sent to a concentration camp for his efforts and executed for trying to rid the world of the Nazi regime. The Bundeswehr could do a lot worse.
And perhaps the notion that tradition is integral to the cohesion and functioning of a military is a little overstated anyway. Certainly many, many American soldiers coming out of Fort Bragg served with distinction in World War II and helped topple the Nazi German regime – a feat the German resistance was not nearly strong enough to accomplish. And the soldiers from Fort Bragg don't seem to have been slowed down by the fact that their base was named for someone who, by most accounts, was a “bumbler.” More importantly, until very recently it doesn't seem to have been of great concern that Confederate General Braxton Bragg fought against the very military that built and operates the fort named for him. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark A. Milley, said of the Confederate officers for whom military installations in the South are named (there are ten in total): “It was an act of treason, at the time, against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution. Those officers turned their back on their oath.”
But that was only last month. For a long time the fact that Fort Bragg was named for a slaveholder who fought against the Union was considered unproblematic. For a long time the German Bundeswehr saw Colonel Stauffenberg as a role model who could help lead Germany into a democratic future.
To be clear, the United States and Germany have distinct histories – and Germany's history is distinctly awful. It is in no way my intention to make any – necessarily false – equivalencies. My point has to to with the role of military tradition: one reason it took so long for Germany to get rid of the draft (it was only abandoned in 2012) was a deeply held worry that, without draftees, the army would no longer be a reflection German society as a whole. A healthy military – the argument goes – should share the values of the community it serves. And if that holds true, then perhaps the sense of tradition of the military is inseparable from the sense of tradition of the country. The impetus for the top ranks of the US military to take a “hard look” at renaming bases named for Confederate officers has less to do with those officers' turning their back on their oath, but the nature of the regime they turned their back on their oath for. It was the Black Lives Matter protests that prompted a reassessment of the various ways in which representatives of the slaveholding Confederacy are honored today, not only by the military but everywhere.
I don't mind that debate about Germany's democratic values has prompted the Bundeswehr to consider taking Stauffenberg, who still has his place, down a peg or two. Concerns about whether the Bundeswehr has grown aloof from German society have not gone away. There have been several troubling scandals involving right-wing extremism within its ranks in recent years. I feel that the friendly greetings of the uniformed marchers in the park are meant to assuage those concerns. Of course not all extremist soldiers will have become extremists after joining the army. For the moment German society as a whole – and not just the Bundeswehr – consider Julius-Leber-Kaserne to be a good name for a military installation. I for one hope it stays that way.