Army of Unity


Thirty years of German unity also mean 30 years of the Army of Unity. What was originally more of a political slogan has meanwhile become a historical term and in retrospect a real success story. The Army of Unity represents the efficient and effective disbandment of the National People’s Army (NVA). Major Bundeswehr agencies were quickly moved to the new federal states, among them several milestone projects. They brought with them innovations and – to some regions – prosperity. In the Army of Unity, the old and the new federal states grew together much faster than in civil society, especially under the pressure of the foreign deployments that were soon to follow. The strong work ethic, comradeship, and mobility of Bundeswehr personnel also made the distinction between the western and eastern German backgrounds of Bundeswehr soldiers more and more irrelevant. Today, it is taken for granted that the Bundeswehr is present in the five eastern German states. Many Bundeswehr facilities are located in the new states, and the percentage of military personnel stationed there in relation to the population is similar to that in western Germany. No one could foresee this development in the autumn of 1990, and the swift merger of two completely different military cultures was not necessarily expected.

German Unity and the End of the East-West Conflict

With German unification, which was achieved after the peaceful revolution in East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR), the old bipolar world order drew to an end. On 3 October 1990, the former GDR acceded to the area of applicability of the Basic Law, and national unity was restored after four decades of division.

For years, not only two German states but also two German armies – completely different in nature and facing one another as adversaries – had existed on either side of the “Iron Curtain”. Until 1989, there had been virtually no contact between the Bundeswehr and the National People’s Army except for a few encounters when exercises were observed as part of confidence-building measures between the military blocs.

German Unity and the Bundeswehr Eastern Command

At midnight on 2 October 1990, the GDR, including its armed forces, ceased to exist. On 3 October 1990, Gerhard Stoltenberg, then Federal Minister of Defence, assumed full command authority over the former NVA from Rainer Eppelmann, Minister of Disarmament and Defence in the GDR. At that time, the NVA comprised almost 89,000 military personnel, including some 24,000 officers, 24,000 NCOs and 40,000 junior enlisted (of which more than 38,000 were conscripts) serving in approximately 1,500 units. Additionally, there were around 48,000 civilian employees. Initially, the temporary-career volunteers and regulars of the former NVA were given a special status in the Bundeswehr. Later on, they were able to apply for a two-year enlistment as temporary-career volunteers.

In unified Germany, the Bundeswehr reached a total strength of about 585,000 military and 215,000 civilian personnel. Due to international commitments, however, it had to be reduced to 370,000 military personnel by 31 December 1994. What is more, at the end of 1990, the German government agreed in the Vienna Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe to reduce the equipment of its armed forces. This entailed, for example, a reduction in the number of tanks by about 40% and the number of armoured infantry fighting vehicles by even 60%. It was against this background that the former NVA had to be disbanded as an institution.

Starting on 3 October 1990, military personnel from the new federal states wore the NATO olive-green uniforms of their former adversary. With German reunification, the new federal states were now part of the NATO Treaty area. According to the provisions of the Two Plus Four Treaty, the troops and headquarters of the armed forces in the new states remained under purely national command for the time being.

In the former GDR Ministry of Defence in Strausberg near Berlin, the Bundeswehr Eastern Command was established as a command and control facility for all units, headquarters and agencies stationed on the territory of the former GDR. Its commander, Lieutenant General Jörg Schönbohm, was responsible for coordinating the disbandment of the NVA and for integrating part of its military personnel into the Bundeswehr.

While the West German defence ministry in Bonn had made several fundamental decisions, the implementation of these decisions required a great deal of improvisation due to the enormous time pressure and many incalculable factors. On 3 October 1990, “all units, agencies, and facilities of the former armed forces in the acceded part of Germany were placed under the full command” of Schönbohm. For the first time in the history of the Bundeswehr, an officer assumed command over units and agencies of the Army, Air Force and Navy and, within a few months, laid the foundation for establishing the Bundeswehr in the former GDR by developing a temporary structure. This was based on a new stationing concept that would affect some 58,000 military personnel in the new federal states and Berlin and on the establishment of a defence administration for this region. The Bundeswehr was to be a “pace setter for German unification”.

Establishing the Bundeswehr in the East – A Number of Challenges

Rather than to merge two armies, the task of the Bundeswehr Eastern Command was to integrate NVA personnel and material into the Bundeswehr and to subsequently fully disband the NVA. At the same time, the Command had to establish a new command and control organisation in the eastern states, recruit and select suitable former NVA personnel, assume responsibility for large quantities of weapons and ammunition, and swiftly vacate premises. Additional tasks included removing the comprehensive installations along the former inner-German border and supporting the withdrawal of forces from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by 1994.

In the beginning, a key question was how to deal with former NVA soldiers. The Commander of the Bundeswehr Eastern Command treated them with respect and assured them, “We come not as victors to the vanquished but as Germans to Germans.” It had been decided, however, that neither officers of the former border troops nor political officers would be accepted into the Bundeswehr. Additionally, former personnel of intelligence units and the Ministry of State Security were denied service in the Bundeswehr. Most NVA officers, junior officer cadets and NCOs joined the Bundeswehr at lower ranks. Former NVA personnel who did not apply for admission to the Bundeswehr were retired by 31 December 1990. In January 1991, the number of former NVA temporary-career volunteers and regular soldiers still amounted to 29,433. In addition, there were more than 40,000 conscripts rendering military service in the new German states.

Captain Heiko N. from the Federal Ministry of Defence in Berlin was born in 1963 and was an NVA lieutenant and company commander in Delitzsch in 1990. He has fond memories of his new western German superiors at that time because “they didn’t act like victors, they weren’t arrogant at all and didn’t use the usual hollow ideological words”. Frank H. was a former NVA lieutenant in a signals battalion and is today a lieutenant colonel at the Army Officer School in Dresden. He remembers the influence and empathy of his first western German battalion commander, who was finely attuned to the situation of his new subordinates in Saxony, especially to their economic hardships at that time.

Nevertheless, hard decisions and measures had to be taken and implemented. Only a limited number of former NVA regulars were given an opportunity to serve in the Bundeswehr as officers or NCOs. All the individuals interviewed about this matter felt that, on duty, hardly any distinction was made between western Germans and eastern Germans because hard work was most important. On 2 October 1992, the first former NVA officers were made regular soldiers by the Federal Minister of Defence. In the end, a total of some 3,000 officers and 7,600 NCOs were integrated into the Bundeswehr as regular soldiers. By mid-1993, most procedures to integrate former NVA personnel into the Bundeswehr as temporary-career or regular soldiers were completed. There were then 351,709 personnel stationed in the old federal states (of which 142,969 were conscripts) and 46,873 personnel in the new federal states (of which 24,715 were conscripts). The number of former NVA soldiers in the Bundeswehr amounted to 12,241. Together with their new western German comrades, the former members of the NVA who remained in the Bundeswehr helped to establish the Bundeswehr in the new federal states. By the end of 1998, the number of former NVA personnel rendering active service in the Bundeswehr had fallen to 9,300. In 2014, the first former NVA officer was promoted to brigadier general.

To achieve “inner unity”, the “walls in people’s minds” had to be brought down on both sides. Most Bundeswehr officers arrived in the new states with drive and enthusiasm, but a number of mental barriers still had to be overcome. Udo B., a former lieutenant colonel in the NVA and later in the Bundeswehr, remembers the following: “On 4 October 1990, I stayed in my office nearly all day. At first, I did not want to be seen wearing the new uniform. Contrary to my usual habit, I changed into civilian clothes at the end of the day. In the building where I lived there were many former and recently retired soldiers. I did not want to see their response. You had to decide which side you were on. Of course, there were always winners and losers and people who had to make and implement tough but necessary decisions to give at least some people a chance.”

With blood, sweat and tears, soldiers from all parts of Germany together tried to overcome the numerous difficulties. The tried and tested Bundeswehr principle of leadership development and civic education, which is based on motivation and individual responsibility, was helpful, as was the traditional soldierly virtue of comradeship. Chief master sergeant Mario S. was born in 1967 and was a sergeant in the former NVA. He experienced this during his training to become a radio engineer in the Air Force. He found the much higher level of individual responsibility in the Bundeswehr to be liberating. Starting in January 1991, conscripts from the new federal states mostly completed their three-month basic training in western German units. They were then assigned to units closer to their homes. This not only posed a challenge for the leadership skills of superiors but also helped unite the young conscripts from both parts of Germany.

Starting in July 1992, conscripts were systematically drafted for service on the opposing side of the former inner-German border. One of them was Andreas H. from Frankfurt (Oder), who is meanwhile a master sergeant at the Ministry in Berlin. Because of permanent indoctrination in the GDR and coercive measures in all spheres of life, he had explicitly refused to serve in the NVA despite government pressure. The Bundeswehr, however, offered him a new understanding of military service, an opportunity to freely pursue a career, and financial security, which could not be taken for granted in the new German states given the high unemployment rate at that time. He became a paratrooper in Münsingen in Baden-Württemberg in January 1993. “From the very beginning, joint parachute training and hard work were more important than East-West differences.”

Commander Jan K. was born in 1973 in Hamburg and has been living and working in the new federal states since 2006. He found that “As soldiers, it was easy to find common ground with the comrades from the new federal states.” Jan K is in a relationship with a woman from Schwerin, is a soccer coach in the northeast third division, and has meanwhile come to feel at home in the new federal states. To him, it is “no longer relevant” whether someone comes from the old or the new states.

In addition to personnel, the material legacy of the NVA was another difficult issue. As was the case with former NVA personnel, there were no ready-made plans for dealing with NVA material in the event of German unification. Improvisation was thus necessary. Special, transitional, and makeshift solutions had to be found and rapid unbureaucratic decisions were required.

With the reunification of Germany, the Bundeswehr found itself in possession of enormous quantities of weapons, equipment and defence materiel. In the depots and barracks in eastern Germany, there were more than 1.3 million small arms, including 700,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 80 rocket launchers, and tens of thousands of vehicles. Only a small fraction of this equipment was temporarily used in the Bundeswehr. Weapons and equipment for which the Bundeswehr had no use were initially stored at central sites.

The process of recycling and disposing of main battle tanks, armoured infantry fighting vehicles, artillery weapons, combat aircraft, and other weapons and ammunition was completed in 1995. As reported by the German government, the disposal of NVA materiel resulted in revenues of some 345 million marks. On the other hand, disarmament programmes incurred costs of 1.7 billion marks.

At first, the Bundeswehr Eastern Command was in charge of some 2,300 installations, including 800 restricted military areas, and nine major training areas of the former NVA and border troops which covered some 277,000 hectares. In the months following reunification, it was necessary to continue developing a stationing concept that was in line with new defence tasks.

Facilities and accommodations had to be improved, especially kitchens and sanitary facilities. Facilities that were no longer needed were made available for civilian use. Former border defences had to be removed and mines along the border had to be cleared. By 1994, another 21 installations, including four major training areas of the former Western Group of Forces (the group of Soviet forces in East Germany) had been taken over by the Bundeswehr. Special problems were often posed by environmental damage at some sites. This called for a comprehensive ecological improvement programme.

The Bundeswehr also contributed to establishing equal living conditions throughout Germany. For example, about one billion marks were invested annually in infrastructure facilities of the new federal states. In the 1990s, this included new buildings added to the Army Officer School in Dresden, the Naval Engineering School in Parow, the Bundeswehr Hospitals in Berlin and Leipzig, the Combat Training Centre at the Altmark Major Training Area, and the Airfield in Laage near Rostock.

The defence administration in the new federal states was established at the same time as the armed forces and assumed various infrastructure tasks. The Office of Defence Administration, Military District VII, was established in Strausberg and was responsible for the five new states, including Berlin. Many civilian employees of the former NVA found work here.

Successful Integration of the Bundeswehr in the New Federal States

Since the end of 1990, the Army of Unity has emerged against all odds. As far as command and control structures were concerned, tasks of the Bundeswehr Eastern Command were transferred from April 1991 onwards to the Corps and Territorial Command East of the Army, to the Command of the 5th Air Division, and to the Naval Command. On 1 July 1991, the Federal Minister of Defence deactivated the Bundeswehr Eastern Command. On this occasion, Minister Stoltenberg concluded that it had not only accomplished its military task in an exemplary manner, but it had also made a “significant contribution to bringing unified Germany closer together”. In 1992, Werner E. Ablaß, State Secretary in the Ministry of Disarmament and Defence of the GDR from April to October 1990 and then head of the Federal Ministry of Defence branch office in Strausberg, wrote in his memoirs: “The integration of the NVA into the Bundeswehr, we initially assumed it would not be accomplished so soon, so rapidly as was eventually the case. Within a few months things had happened which we thought would take years.”

On 3 February 1995, the IV Corps, which grew out of the former Corps and Territorial Command East, was assigned to NATO. At the same time, other Bundeswehr units in the new federal states were assigned to the Western alliance. At that time, almost 60,000 Army, Air Force and Navy personnel were serving in the new federal states. Because of the mobility required of soldiers and the intention of assigning long-serving temporary-career volunteers from all over Germany to positions irrespective of their homes, it soon became almost irrelevant where a soldier had come from.

In the eyes of many Germans, the Army of Unity passed its first major test in 1997 during the disaster relief response to the 100-year flood in the Oderbruch region. It received wide recognition for its efforts. Other flood relief operations, especially at the Elbe River in Dresden, were to follow.

Major Bundeswehr agencies were moved to eastern Germany in an effort to emphasise the importance of the new federal states. In line with the principle of establishing equal living conditions throughout Germany, major command authorities and agencies were either moved to or established in the new federal states. In addition to the second official seat of the Federal Ministry of Defence in Berlin, these mainly include the following:

Table 3: Bundeswehr agencies in the new federal states

German Air Force Headquarters
German Army Headquarters
German Navy Headquarters
Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command
Bundeswehr Territorial Tasks Command
Bundeswehr Office for Defence Planning
Office of the Protestant Church for the Bundeswehr
Catholic Military Episcopal Office
Military Rabbinate
Disciplinary Judge Advocate General for the Bundeswehr at the Federal Administrative Court
(Army) Training Command
Army Officer School
Army Non-Commissioned Officer School
Headquarters, 41 Armoured Infantry Brigade
Headquarters, 37 Armoured Infantry Brigade

Since 2001, the Bundeswehr Joint Forces Operations Command near Potsdam has exercised command and control over all Bundeswehr operations abroad. Since the reorganisation of the Bundeswehr in 2012, two military headquarters – the German Army Headquarters (Strausberg) and the German Navy Headquarters (Rostock) – have moved to eastern Germany. The German Air Force Headquarters (Berlin-Gatow) is located in former West Berlin and thus also in eastern Germany. Dresden is home not only to the Army Officer School but also to the Bundeswehr Museum of Military History, which reopened in 2011 after a major transformation. The main building had undergone several years of renovation. Construction work on the former arsenal building of Albertstadt was overseen by the architectural office of Daniel Libeskind and cost some 63 million euros. A thirty-metre-high and eighty-metre-long futuristic wedge cuts through the building’s facade and symbolises the break in German military history. The Bundeswehr Museum of Military History has become one of the most important historical museums in Europe. In addition to its permanent exhibition, the museum shows major special exhibitions that are accompanied by substantial publications.

The Bundeswehr stationing concept of 2011 was based on the principles of functionality, cost-effectiveness, attractiveness and presence throughout Germany. It provided for a total of 264 Bundeswehr locations in Germany. Thirty-one sites throughout Germany were abandoned for efficiency reasons. The burden of downsizing the Bundeswehr was shared by all the German states after consultation with their governments in 2011. The 2011 Stationing Decision provided for some 37,300 positions at 62 sites in the new federal states, including Berlin. Current plans provide for an increase of some 7,100 positions to approximately 44,400 positions (not including the Ministry in Berlin).

Ideally, all Bundeswehr garrisons should have their own small training area nearby. Major training measures and firing with live ammunition generally only take place at one of 13 major training areas specially designed for this purpose. Five major training areas are located in the eastern states.

The Army Combat Training Centre at Altmark Major Training Area is a special site north of Magdeburg in Saxony-Anhalt. Live ammunition is not used here. Instead, high-performance computers combined with tactical engagement and effects simulators and laser technology are used to simulate complex combat scenarios and to analyse the performance of training units. The construction of a training city called Schnöggersburg which features all elements of an urban environment is a unique European project. Construction started in 2012 and will be completed by 2021. The total expenditure will be some 610 million euros.

Military personnel of the Bundeswehr and allied partners can prepare for potential operations under excellent training conditions. After all, Bundeswehr missions abroad played a central part in the process of reunification. Since 1992/93, when the first members of the Army of Unity participated in operations in Cambodia and Somalia, all Bundeswehr units and agencies have been equally affected regardless of their location in unified Germany. After the end of the East-West confrontation, conflict prevention and crisis management in multinational operations have become an important part of the extended Bundeswehr task spectrum. Since the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in 1994 and the operations in the Balkans (since 1995), in Afghanistan (since 2002) and in Mali (since 2013), the Bundeswehr has developed from an Army of Unity to a force on operations. For Chief Master Sergeant Mario S., who is now serving in Berlin, operations abroad had a “catalytic function” in the reunification process. Joint service abroad, at times under harsh combat conditions involving injury and death, has forged an even stronger bond between Bundeswehr servicemen and women and has helped them develop together. Lieutenant Colonel Frank H. from the Army Officer School in Dresden saw the Army of Unity as particularly strong “every time that we overcame a challenge together, particularly on operations abroad”. The same also applies to standby commitments and the presence of troops in Eastern Central Europe since 2014.

Conclusions for 2020

Germany has benefited more than most other countries from the end of the East-West conflict. Two opposing front-line countries became a united Germany. From the very beginning, the Bundeswehr has made a significant contribution to overcoming Germany’s division. The NVA is not part of Bundeswehr traditions and is no longer relevant to the everyday reality of Bundeswehr soldiers. Captain Heiko N., himself a former NVA soldier, concludes that “Abolishing the NVA meant abolishing an arbitrary system that was replaced by enforceable principles of law and performance”.

As of April 2020, 1,350 former NVA soldiers are still active temporary-career or regular Bundeswehr soldiers. At present, 627 of them are stationed in the west and 724 in the east. Among them are two generals, 16 hold a rank equivalent to colonel and 540 a rank equivalent to lieutenant colonel. Among NCOs, 175 of these soldiers hold the rank of sergeant major or equivalent and have reached the top rank of their careers.

In the new federal states, the Bundeswehr currently manages a total of 215 facilities with almost 4,800 buildings and an effective floor space of some 3.7 million square meters. That means the real estate of the Bundeswehr in the new states accounts for about 43% and the effective floor space for about 18% of the overall domestic market.

At present, some 36,000 out of 183,000 Bundeswehr soldiers are stationed in the new federal states, or about 19.6%. When it comes to civilian personnel, this figure is around 13,000 out of a total of 81,000 employees, or about 16%. For comparison, the new federal states account for some 19.5% of the German population. Over the last thirty years, the Bundeswehr has been well received and integrated.

The fact that the Bundeswehr personnel management system does record the federal state in which an individual is born is indicative of the state of German unity in the Bundeswehr. It has long been irrelevant whether a person is from the old or the new federal states. When asked, many people from this time invariably consider the history of the Army of Unity to be a success. The prevailing opinion is that the “wall in people’s minds” was brought down in the Bundeswehr much sooner than in civil Society.

'Annual Report of the Federal Government on the Status of German Unity 2020', Chapter 6.

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