Traditions like the goose step vanishing with East Germany's separate army

September 25, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- In front of the memorial to the victims of fascism and militarism, East German honor guards have stopped goose-stepping to and fro. Now they just march.

This change is the most visible sign that the East German National People's Army is transforming itself as it prepares for its place in a unified German army. The composition and budget of this future army, due to be formed in October, is still controversial, but it is planned to be without the NPA's sometimes questionable traditions.

Besides recently ending the goose-step marches, the NPA has abolished its old oath. Soldiers no longer pledge to "defend socialism at the side of the Soviet Union" but instead simply to defend East Germany and keep the peace.

Another sign of the new times was obvious July 20, when for the first time the army commemorated the German generals who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. The soldiers were reminded that absolute obedience to one's commanding officer isn't always in a nation's best interest.

NPA officers and recruits reflected this new spirit during conversations at barracks in the East German city of Brandenburg, about 30 miles west of Berlin.

"We were raised to believe that being a socialist officer was a special profession. But now it's like other jobs. We go to work in the morning and go home in the afternoon," Lt. Rainer Kramer said.

There are 61,000 officers like Lieutenant Kramer in an army that now numbers only 98,000, making it an extremely top-heavy organization. With West Germany wanting only 50,000 NPA soldiers in the new army and unwilling to take only officers, the majority will have to quit, be retired early or simply be fired.

Those who are selected to join the new army, which is to number 370,000 men under an agreement reached between Moscow and Bonn, will be screened for political reliability.

"A team of West German army officials has been working with the NPA officers to oversee the transition from being NPA soldiers to being members of Territorial Command East," West German Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg said at a recent news conference. "They have to fulfill the role of citizens in uniform and be willing to serve an army in a democracy."

"The plans to fire half the army by the end of the year, however, could lead to social unrest," said Col. Walter Recknagel, head of East Germany's Potsdam Military District.

Mr. Stoltenberg is coming under fire not only for his plans for the composition of the future German army, but also for his vision of how it should be armed.

The West German military budget is $32.2 billion, near a record high, and includes an unprecedented $2.6 billion for military research. Among the projects are the Jaeger 90 fighter -- Germany's biggest military project since World War II -- and a new anti-tank helicopter-and-missile system.

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