German SecDef Newspeak faces resistance


The German ministry of Defence (BMVg, Bundesministerium der Verteidigung) has a clear line in its press releases and other statements about afghanistan:

An Afghan attack on German troops is a Anschlag (="assault", but it means more precisely an assassination attempt or terror attack in German).

A kill of a German soldier in Afghanistan is a Mord ("murder").

A dead German soldier in Afghanistan is an Opfer ("victim"), although I've heard a claim that the SecDef at least once used the correct word gefallen ("fell", meaning KIA).

Talibans and other armed opposition that was killed by Germans isn't properly emphasized, playing down the extent of the fighting and even successes.

They basically speak and write about it as if the Bundeswehr soldiers were policemen on patrol in Bavaria.
Astonishingly, our press has played along for years (well, most of it) and used this grossly misleading vocabulary.

It's of course utter nonsense to speak of "a victim" if a heavily armed soldier is being killed in an armoured vehicle. That's a KIA, a Gefallener.
There's a problem, though: Gefallene exist only in wars, not in police actions or peacekeeping.

The resistance to the misleading vocabulary is growing; members of parliament, journalists and bloggers are increasingly in opposition to this vocabulary.
The problem is for many not so much the denial that ISAF is a combat operation and that we're possibly unofficially at war or at least on a war-like mission.
Our constitution and our self-image as well as the popular majority aren't prepared for such a small war. The constitution's articles on defence were written for all-or-nothing total war - WW3. It's been self-evident for decades that a involvement in a war would be the Verteidigungsfall (case of defence) - red hordes invading us.
The post-1990 legal adjustments and public change of mind were about peacekeeping missions. They're in my opinion no sufficient preparation for a small war participation.

No, the primary motivation to object is often that these words deprive soldiers who fought back of the well-deserved appreciation. They're being pushed into a victim role instead of a hero role.
The latest attack on a convoy that killed one soldier was probably too much for the bullshit tolerance of many interested Germans, a tipping point may be reached.

We'll have federal elections this year again (for all members of Bundestag - that sets the stage for the next government coalition).

The effects of a breakdown of the old newspeak can have unpredictable consequences. The Afghan War could get public attention and ISAF could finally be seen as a mission that crept towards an undeclared war.
It could become a topic for the elections, although probably only the Greens, liberals and Left might adopt this as a major topic for their campaigns. The two center parties are in the present governing coalition and likely stuck with our ISAF participation.

The BMVg might also change course and present the war offensively and with facts instead of fairy tales and newspeak to the German public. Maybe even with a well-done, competent communication strategy.
I actually know the date when they'll do that: it's the day when Christmas and Easter are at once.

The publicly-financed TV and radio stations will likely adopt the true language about Afghanistan as the latest news institutions, as they're very much under influence of our today governing parties. Well, they have a few political magazines for supposedly investigative journalism who are independent enough (yet often not competent enough) to speak the truth.

It's also possible that the BMVg can stay on course - the resistance to their misleading statements is probably just a flash in the pan.


There's one small possible excuse for the BMVg's use of the word "Opfer": The dead of the World Wars were in great part civilians and it has become normal in German to speak of victims of WW2, for example - this includes soldiers. A military-only context requires the word Gefallene, though.

American readers should consider that the attitude towards AQ terrorism and Taliban is a very different one in Germany. They're bad guys, but most of us don't (seem to) take them serious as threat.
We don't get bombarded by weekly or even daily terror scare news, terrorism is simply not much of an issue for Germans. They're not eternal arch-enemies - especially the Taliban are often seen as a hostile periphery of AQ that would probably just stop annoying us occasionally if we left Afghanistan.


  1. I concur with your opinion that the use of the term "Opfer" instead of more correctly "Gefallene(r)" deprives the deceased soldiers of their well-deserved appreciation.

  2. Pull them out of Mazar-e-Sharif and bring them all home, give them a parade down Unter den Linden, and everybody can shout "Wir sind Helden".

    Call everybody a hero and your media's word crisis is over.

    It won't make any difference at all in northern Afghanistan, ISAF or OEF won't even notice the heroes are gone.

  3. You speak of the use of language as a response to the current political environment but it is, of course, also used to shape the political environment.

    The repeated reference to the actions as "terrorist incidents" and the German soldiers as "victims" obscures the situation in another way: it isolates the incident from its political context so that the enemy becomes faceless and soulless, the conflict exists without political purpose, and is therefore fundamentally irresolvable. The enemy is thus dehumanized and made into a terrain feature that no one can control.

    It's become a belief in the West that war is itself a living thing that occurs almost spontaneously and that it can be ended by simply stopping the fighting itself. This theory is not only found on the Left; the "conservative" counterpart is that the enemy fights simply because he is evil. Kill the evil and the war stops of its own accord.

    This viewpoint is a strategic dead end. War have root causes and conflicts. Failing to address these issues makes "victory" unattainable. Even if the situation is quieted down, the causes of the conflict remain and will spark another flareup. The German government and, in fact, all the NATO governments, have little control over the political strategy in Afghanistan. The Americans set up the Karzai government and everyone else was compelled to play along.

    With this in mind, is it so surprising that the German government is reluctant to take any kind of responsibility for what's going on there? The lapse into the propaganda language of "good" and "evil," "perpetrators" and "victims" because to speak of the war in more sophisticated terms would require them to enunciate a strategy and commit to an outcome.

    Yet sticking to such empty "Newspeak" is a kind of defeat in itself. Clearly the German government silently agrees with the German people that the strategy is unconvincing and their interests are not served by the conflict, yet they maintain a presence in Afghanistan because their alliance with the Americans DOES serve their interests. The whole enterprise is surrounded with bad faith and intellectual dishonesty and it is sad that allies of six decades cannot discuss the problem openly. All cracks are papered over and all sides retreat into vacuous euphemisms because no one can say what they are thinking.

  4. "The Americans set up the Karzai government and everyone else was compelled to play along."Why is that the intelligent (?) people who read this blog don't know about the Bonn Agreement from late 2001?

    You know, the one where the Afghans, under German guidance set up their government and started work on a national constitution.

    Afghans are not children, they don't need to be led around and shown what to do every step of the way.

  5. Not "the Afghans", but a list of hand-picked Afghans. Don't tell us that those were hand-picked by the Germans.


    It's ludicrous to claim that the U.S. didn't effectively set up a new Afghan government.

    A true Afghan establishment of central authority would have been bottom-up from the local authorities, not the work of a commission debating on another continent.

    Your mis-reading of history doesn't legitimate to question the intelligence of others.