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German Leopards for Saudi Arabia

Merkel just wouldn’t let the cat out of the bag.  In the first days after the arms sale scandal began, her front seat in the Bundestag was conspicuously empty.  When she finally did show up she wore a sour look but said not a word.  The decision made and any reasoning behind it were highly secret, legally so, according to the Constitution, and she meant to keep it that way.

On July 4th the magazine Der Spiegel defied this secrecy to print part of the story.  Enough to see what was up — and far too much for Angela Merkel.  For this cat was no cute little kitty but a big, strong, very ferocious “Leopard” tank, or rather 200 state-of-the-art 2A7+ tanks, 68 tons each, powerful and efficient as you can get, especially for crushing street demonstrations.  And they were being sold to that great standard-bearer of the “Arab spring” — Saudi Arabia!

It was not new for Germany to sell weapons to countries around the world, from Heckler-Koch pistols to super-heavy submarines — and tanks.  In fact, it has moved into third place in weapons export, behind only the USA and Russia.

On paper, Germany had committed itself to sending no weapons to countries in conflict areas — and then gradually relaxed such restrictions.  Yet only recently, this spring, Merkel and her Foreign Minister Westerwelle had waxed so beautifully eloquent in support of democratic developments — in Tunisia and Egypt (but only after the people had ousted their dictators), then, perhaps almost too enthusiastically, in Libya and Syria.  But somehow similar peoples’ movements in Yemen and notably in Bahrain win far less praise in the media and eloquent speechmaking; perhaps they are not seen as so important — or so rewarding.  So why not sell to the Saudi sheiks — despite their actions against the people of both countries?

And yet there was outrage in the Bundestag.  Even a few brave souls from the ruling coalition parties expressed indignation and dared to use the word “hypocrisy.”  But Philipp Missfelder, up-and-coming young foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democrats, pinch hit for the silent Merkel in vigorously quashing any disobedience.  A deal to support Saudi Arabia was “in Germany’s interest,” he explained and added portentously: there had been no objections from Germany’s close allies.  “Every step that we take in the region we take with the condition that it promotes the security and the right to exist of Israel.”

His explanations and justifications were all unnecessary.  Decisions like this one, which added an estimated 2.6 billion dollars to Germany’s trade surplus, were matters decided in secret by the German Security Council, composed of top cabinet ministers and top military men.

All the same, the three opposition parties demanded and got a special Bundestag session.  Each one, Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left, submitted its own resolution demanding that permission for the deal be denied.  There was heated debate.  Klaus Ernst, Left Party co-chair, said government approval of the deal illustrated its “real operating maxim: the deadliest tanks for the worst oppressors.”  The head of its caucus, Gregor Gysi, passionately denounced the deal.  So did several Social Democrats and Greens, most forcefully the almost legendary Green deputy Hans-Christian Stroebele from a key Berlin borough, always outspoken against German expansionism, economic or military.  But the protests of Social Democrats and most Greens, angry as they sometimes sounded, were painfully weakened by sneers from the ruling parties, reminding them that when they had run the government from 1998 to 2005 they too had approved substantial weapons sales to the Saudis.

When it came time to vote the ruling coalition, despite a few “renegades,” used its majority to beat all three protesting motions.  In the only somewhat unusual note, 12 Social Democrats and 60 Greens not only approved their own resolutions but the sharper one of the Left as well.

With that taken care of, they could all pack their bags and begin their summer vacations, though not before Christian Democrat specialist Missfelder once again made clear: “We cannot act as though we can paint the world pink and everything will be O.K . . . .  We are a grown-up country and must define our policies through strategic interests.”

Frau Merkel maintained her sour expression and kept her mouth shut till the end.  Her silence was understandable.

Media reports left two aspects unmentioned.  The tank manufacturers profiting most from the deal, Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann and Rheinmetall, have always been generous in political donations.  Between 2002 and 2009 they gave the two Christian parties €298,000, the Free Democrats €79,000, and even the Social Democrats €249,500.  The figures for 2010 and 2011, not yet available, will undoubtedly be at least as generous.

The other aspect is historical.  Rheinmetall and Kraus-Maffei Wegmann have histories going back to the 19th century.  They both armed Germany in World War One.  Rheinmetall was one of 29 corporations to finance Hitler’s successful attempt to gain total power.  Both joined in destroying the Spanish Republic and blasting the little town of Guernica in 1937, a deed made famous by Picasso’s painting.  Their especially deadly bombs, their handguns, artillery, and tanks killed anti-fascists and civilians from Narvik in Norway to Monte Cassino in Italy, from Jarama in Spain to the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union.  Their wealth and power were built in no small measure by the murderous toil of forced laborers and prisoners of war from all Europe; the British army freed five thousand survivors in one single plant near Hamburg, where Krauss-Maffei is again testing new weapons.  The firms were barred from making weapons for a while after both world wars, but the bans soon ended.  Krauss-Maffei Wegmann is now the third largest manufacturer of tanks and military vehicles in the world.

Personnel and share-holding proportions have changed since the bad old days.  Have the goals of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Rheinmetall, or those who now own and run them also changed?

Helmut Kohl said in 1990: “Germany has ended an historic phase; in future it can openly assert its role as a world power, and extend it.”  The 2.5 billion dollar sale to Saudi Arabia may perhaps be seen as a great coup — and another lucrative and perhaps significant omen.


Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).




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