What is a military mission

German defense policy

Thomas Wiegold

To person

Thomas Wiegold is a journalist and blogger (augengeradeaus.net) in Berlin and has reported on all German missions abroad since Somalia 1993 - initially as a correspondent for Associated Press and Focus magazine and later as a freelance journalist for Spiegel, Zeit Online and NDR, among others. He mainly writes about security and defense policy, the military and the armed forces.

The Basic Law places strict limits on the use of the military in Germany. In view of the terrorist threat, however, there is a constant discussion about whether and under what circumstances the Bundeswehr may be deployed internally.

This article first appeared in: From Politics and Contemporary History (APuZ 32-33 / 2017)
A soldier and a policewoman during the joint anti-terror exercise "GETEX" in Bavaria. In March 2017, cooperation between the armed forces and the police in the context of counter-terrorism was tested in several federal states. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

After every terror warning in other European countries, soldiers determine the image of the state's reaction in the media: in battle gear and with assault rifles, they stand in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, secure the Grand Place in Brussels or the Colosseum in Rome. In Germany, on the other hand, the Bundeswehr is not used to provide military security for major events, to guard facilities or to fight terrorism - even if the domestic political debate has been going on for years about whether and under what circumstances the Bundeswehr may be deployed domestically, more than before .

The Basic Law (GG) provides a legal framework for this, which differs from that in almost all other countries: "Except for defense, the armed forces may only be used as far as this Basic Law expressly allows it", the constitution determines in Article 87a, Paragraph 2 The reason for this lies in German history - and not only in the time of National Socialism. Even in Prussia and the German Empire, the military was repeatedly used to enforce state violence domestically - also and especially against political demonstrations. "Only soldiers can help against democrats," wrote the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. In 1849. [1] In the Weimar Republic, the SPD politician Gustav Noske, as Reichswehr Minister, allowed the troops to be used against local uprisings and to suppress the Spartacus uprising in 1919. The sentence that he quoted in his memoirs became famous: "Someone has to do the bloodhound." [2]

Now the Federal Republic is not the German Reich, and the relationship between the population and the armed forces has changed, as has the political situation. This is also the core argument of those who insist again and again that, in a democratic constitutional state, security in certain cases would have to be guaranteed domestically by the armed forces.

Break 9/11

The debate took off after the attacks with hijacked civil aircraft on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001. This type of terrorist attack must lead to a reassessment of the use of the military at home, they said.

In the airspace, this initially seemed not only indisputable, but downright imperative: the Bundeswehr alone has airplanes and missiles for air defense that can stop a hijacked airliner. However, the Aviation Security Act of 2005, which regulated this, was soon restricted by the Federal Constitutional Court: The shooting down of such a machine, which also contained bystanders and not just terrorists, was not compatible with the Basic Law. [3]

The air force alarm rioters, who climb up within minutes to check a suspicious aircraft, are therefore only allowed to push away a hijacked passenger plane, but are still not allowed to shoot it down. It remains to be seen, however, whether a Bundeswehr pilot is really liable to prosecution if, for example, by shooting down an aircraft, he prevents it from crashing over a fully occupied football stadium. Politicians have not found any conclusive answers either: Former Defense Minister Peter Struck (SPD) publicly considered giving the shooting order in such a case and then declaring his resignation. His successor Franz-Josef Jung (CDU) thought about using the defense case for this scenario - but this was never legally implemented.

Due to the differences between the Union and the SPD over the deployment of the Bundeswehr inside, the plan to pass a maritime security law under the Aviation Security Act also failed: Even at sea, for example in front of the Elbe estuary, only the Bundeswehr has the necessary capabilities with the resources of the Navy to stop a tanker hijacked as a terrorist weapon. A corresponding legal regulation had already been largely agreed between the two parties, but the compromise nevertheless failed at the last moment.

Frame of the possible

This does not mean, however, that the Bundeswehr - beyond a war or a military threat in the so-called defense case - should not be used domestically. The Basic Law provides for some regulations, which in turn have been made more precise by judgments of the Federal Constitutional Court and, in the opinion of the Union parties in particular, have also been expanded.

At the lowest level, state authorities have the right to request - technical - administrative assistance from the Bundeswehr. This applies to the well-known examples of soldiers who stack sandbags in a flood, or helicopters from the army and air force who fly rescue workers in during natural disasters or rescue people in distress. Such a requirement was legally controversial in 1962, when the then Hamburg Interior Senator Helmut Schmidt requested and used Bundeswehr helicopters during the severe storm surge in the Hanseatic city; in the meantime this is no longer a legal or practical problem.

Equally largely undisputed, but also more theoretical, is the use of soldiers in the so-called "internal emergency" - and then also with the use of "military means", in plain language: military weapons. Article 87a of the Basic Law, which limits the use of the armed forces, stipulates in paragraph 4: "To avert an impending danger to the existence or the free democratic basic order of the Federation or a Land, the Federal Government can, if the requirements of Article 91 paragraph 2 are met and the police forces and the Federal Border Guard are insufficient to deploy armed forces to support the police and the Federal Border Guard in protecting civilian objects and in combating organized and militarily armed insurgents. "[4]

The crucial question of the fight against terrorism

However, from the point of view of the politicians and officials responsible for internal security, the current threats are not "organized and militarily armed insurgents", nor are they an "imminent threat to the existence of the free democratic basic order" - but attacks by terrorists, targeted at one or more Places. Can the Bundeswehr be used to stop such attacks?

The core of these considerations is a sentence in Article 35 of the Basic Law: "To help in the event of a natural disaster or a particularly serious accident, a country can request police forces from other countries, forces and facilities from other administrations as well as the Federal Border Guard and the armed forces." The powers that the Bundeswehr receives in such a case have been discussed under different circumstances since a decision by the Federal Constitutional Court in July 2012. In one of its rare plenary decisions, i.e. a joint decision of both senates, the court announced a new interpretation, which, in the opinion of the Union in particular, opens up more opportunities for the Bundeswehr to be deployed domestically: in particularly serious accidents of "catastrophic" proportions The armed forces are also likely to use "specifically military means" domestically - and, in contrast to technical administrative assistance, also take on sovereign tasks. [5]

The grand coalition also counts terrorist attacks as such accidents. With this decision from Karlsruhe, what the Bundeswehr was previously denied domestically was permitted in individual cases: otherwise the soldiers had to leave even blocking a road to the police; armed property protection, for example in front of a nuclear power plant that was considered a possible terrorist target, was out of the question.

However, in such disaster situations, the existing or feared hazard must go far beyond an ordinary hazardous situation. The fear that the police might be overwhelmed is not enough. The Constitutional Court also ruled out the use of the Bundeswehr against violent demonstrators: In such cases, the decisive factor is whether the permit applicable in the event of an internal emergency can be used to combat insurgents who endanger the free and democratic basic order.

For a deployment of the Bundeswehr with sovereign powers and, if necessary, also with military weapons, a "large-scale terrorist situation" must in fact be so extensive that an unusual exceptional situation can be assumed. However, this is then defined by the federal government and the states. The decisive factor here is that the Bundeswehr cannot act independently in such cases - but always only on request and therefore also under the command of the respective federal state (or several countries) that requests the armed forces for support. So what exactly soldiers should do is not decided by a military commander, but by the civilian police chief or the state interior ministry.

When drawing up the "White Paper on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr", the basic security policy document of the Federal Government from 2016, the Union wanted to expand these provisions and make it easier for the armed forces to fight terrorism. However, that failed because of the coalition partner SPD. In the White Paper it was agreed as a compromise formulation: "Expressly permitted in Article 35, Paragraph 2, Clause 2 and Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law is the deployment of armed forces inside to help in the event of natural disasters and particularly serious accidents (disaster emergency) at the request of a state or by order of the federal government The existence of a particularly serious accident can also be considered in the case of large-scale terrorist situations. The Federal Constitutional Court confirmed that the armed forces to support the police forces in effectively fighting the accident can, under strict conditions, also perform sovereign tasks using powers of intervention and coercion . "[6]

What is allowed needs to be practiced

The possibilities of using the Bundeswehr in disasters, especially terrorist attacks, within Germany should therefore not be expanded. But what is already allowed should also be practiced - because on the part of the federal states and the police, but also on the part of the Bundeswehr, there is quite a lack of clarity as to what is possible and what is not. The communication and decision-making structures are also not well established.

A first such exercise called GETEX (Joint Counter-Terrorism Exercise) took place in February 2017. Several federal states governed by both the Union and the SPD tried out the interaction with the Bundeswehr in a scenario in which the police reached their limits due to simultaneous terrorist attacks in several cities. The exercise only took place in the situation centers and on the computer; apart from small tests on site, neither police nor soldiers were put on the march.

However, this exercise showed that the federal states' need for help from the Bundeswehr consisted primarily of conventional technical administrative assistance. According to Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, the Bundeswehr was asked 46 times for support - in 30 cases of legally undisputed help such as the transport of injured persons or the defusing of explosives; in 16 cases about the deployment of soldiers for sovereign tasks. The Bundeswehr had to reject a number of these applications: Baden-Württemberg had requested the use of the Bundeswehr Special Forces Command (KSK) to rescue hostages, even though a police special task force could take over. Bavaria's request to provide soldiers for property protection in front of consulates was also rejected for legal reasons. [7]


The use of armed soldiers domestically has become more likely since the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in 2012, and in view of the terrorist threat, politicians are also preparing to resort to this option. But in Germany, unlike in France and other European countries, we will not see soldiers in camouflage uniforms and with assault rifles patrolling the streets of the big cities in the foreseeable future, and no paratrooper company will be pulling up in front of the Reichstag building for security anytime soon. The public attitude to this, but above all the legal limits, remain different in this country than in our neighboring countries.

In addition, the deployment of the Federal Armed Forces at home is not limited by law and the Basic Law alone. The German armed forces have been further reduced in recent years. Since the large-scale deployment of soldiers during the flood on the Elbe in 2013, the troop has shrunk by 15,000 men and women. And the number of locations has also been significantly reduced. When Defense Minister von der Leyen put Bundeswehr soldiers on alert as a precaution during the rampage in Munich in 2016, some of them prepared for a long march: the soldiers would have traveled more than 200 kilometers from Stetten on the cold market in Baden-Württemberg.

Nevertheless, the debate about the deployment of the Federal Armed Forces internally will continue - and the outcome will not least depend on the outcome of the 2017 federal election. As early as January 2017, before the examination of the cooperation between the Bundeswehr and the police as part of the GETEX exercise, the Bavarian state government had considered a renewed attempt to amend the Basic Law: The use of armed forces in the interior should be expressly permitted to combat terrorism. Such plans are currently encountering resistance, not least from the coalition partner SPD. After GETEX, for example, the Social Democratic Senator for the Interior of Bremen, Ulrich Mäurer, expressly opposed an exercise in which soldiers should also try out practical operations under the applicable legal provisions: "It is not our job to unsettle the population." [8] After the election, a new edition of the grand coalition with a stronger union could shift the majority in favor of those in favor of expanding the possibilities for a Federal Armed Forces deployment in Germany. On the other hand, a coalition of the Union and the FDP as well as a government with the participation of the Greens and the Left would, according to their public statements, hardly tend to expand the powers of the armed forces at home.

However, the political debate will also depend on how the terrorist threat is perceived by the public. Despite the attack with a truck on Berlin's Breitscheidplatz in December 2016, Germany has so far been spared major terrorist attacks that were distributed at the same time. If such acts of terrorism, modeled on the attacks in Paris or Brussels, also take place in this country, this perception could fundamentally change - and also create the conditions for an expansion of the framework for Federal Armed Forces deployments in Germany.

This article first appeared in: From Politics and Contemporary History (APuZ 32-33 / 2017)