Germans pull off a first: A female defense minister

By Dale R. Herspring

Dale R. Herspring
Contributing Writer
To most observers it looked like Thomas de Maziere, son of one of Germany’s most famous post-World War II generals, would remain the country’s defense minister. 

Most specialists on Germany would agree that he has done an excellent job since he took over the defense post.  In addition, he made it clear on numerous occasions that he wanted to remain right where he was, especially since the CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats) won an overwhelming victory in last November’s election: It won 20 more seats than it had in the past. 

However, there was a problem.  The CDU/CSU did not win an outright majority.  It was several seats short.  This meant that the only way Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party could govern was by forming a coalition with one of the other parties.

Merkel and her colleagues spent a month negotiating with other parties to determine with whom to join to create the new government.  For Merkel, this meant her third term as Germany’s Chancellor. 

After long and sometimes difficult negotiations, the CDU/CSU leadership decided to unite forces with the SPD (the Socialist Party).  Germany now has a left center coalition.  At a minimum, it looks like Germany will have a stable government for the next four years.

When it came to naming ministers (who oversee different parts of the government, e.g. Defense, Foreign Affairs, Education, etc. ) Merkel followed German tradition.  If the ministers wanted to remain in government, a number of them usually played musical chairs.  They would change positions, i.e. going from foreign affairs to education.

On December 15 Germany woke up to a shock.  De Maziere was to become Interior Minister (which deals with internal security issues).  In his place Merkel decided to appoint, Dr. Med. Ursula von der Leyen.  She has an interesting background.  Von der Leyen is a 55-year-old longtime member of the CDU who served in a number of positions.  She attended Stanford University Medical School, and the rest of her early years were devoted to practicing medicine while serving in various political posts in her home state; the very populous state of Lower Saxony. 

Soon she became a full-time politician, finding it more interesting than medicine.  She was elected to the Bundestag (the lower house), and with Merkel and the CDU the most powerful party in the Bundestag, Merkel appointed her Minister for Labor and Social Affairs.  Then in November came the shocking announcement of her appointment as defense minister. 

This meant two women in senior ranks of the armed forces.  The other is General Physician Erika Franke, the female chief of the Bundeswehr’s Medical Service.  However, Franke is only in charge of medical affairs.  That position pales in comparison with von den Leyden’s appointment.  She is in charge of the entire military, period.

This raised the question, could a woman seriously serve over a predominately male organization?  “Has she served in the military?”  Based on the number of articles published about her in the country’s major newspapers, her every action has received microscopic attention.  Could she stand up to the generals who often disagree with whomever is defense minister ?

The military wanted a minister who would listen to them and put military readiness first because the Bundeswehr is always short of money.  The generals and admirals were as surprised as everyone else with her appointment.  She can rest assured that the senior officers will come with a longer and longer list of the equipment and weapons they need.  Anyone familiar with the Bundeswehr knows that the shortages are serious.

There are also political questions.  Everyone knows that she is close to Merkel.  Would the generals be able to take advantage of that relationship?  The key question in the minds of the generals and admirals is simple, “What do we have here?”  “Will she fight for us ?”

Similarly, will this physician who spent a good part of her life either behind a stethoscope or worrying about health and social problems, try to tell us generals and admirals how to do our job? 

Nothing irritates a soldier more than a civilian who ignores or insults them, like Donald Rumsfeld in this country, dominates them and pays little or no attention to their advice, even when it comes to tactical issues.  They have no problem following civilian instructions/orders when it comes to the strategic or operational areas, but when it comes to technical issues, civilians often make the situation worse.

The media’s reaction to von den Leyden has been positive.  One newspaper ran the following headline: “The new defense minister knows how to fight.” 

Then, von der Leyen met with NATO representatives, both military and diplomatic, and appears to have made a good impression. 

Three days before Christmas she flew to Afghanistan to visit German troops.  One newspaper said the following of her visit, “The quick visit of the new defense minister to Afghanistan proved that she is tough and uncompromising.” 

Indeed, all of the German newspapers gave her a “thumbs up” for the visit, noting her ability to put in 14-hour days and not lose her composure.

At this point, it is hard to say how successful von den Leyden will be in “leading” the Bundeswehr.  However, as one newspaper noted, she “won’t have the normal 100 days to get used to her job” Bureaucratic pressures, especially those surrounding military reform, will challenge her leadership abilities.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a Member of the Council of Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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