In recent years, profound changes in the European security environment have sparked vigorous debate in Germany on how best to respond, calling into question the status quo of the country’s post–World War II pacifist “culture of restraint.” Since the Munich Security Conference in 2014, many officials have been advocating for a more active German foreign policy supported by a boost in military capabilities . The long-awaited White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, released in July 2016 by the Federal Ministry of Defense, officially affirms the paradigm shift.
The paper outlines a more ambitious vision for Germany’s defense role and defines threats, enemies, and strategic interests with unprecedented clarity. Yet, many analysts have predicted a growing tension leading up to the 2017 elections between the political elite’s strategic objectives and overall German public opinion which remains skeptical of military engagement abroad. This tension often seems oversimplified, though. Specifically, inter-generational differences in foreign policy attitudes are not taken into account by German politicians, media, and social scientists as much as one might expect, especially when compared to the United States. This essay explores German millennials’ possible reactions to the new security policy and suggests further research be done to better understand this population segment.
Compared to past generations, Germany’s 14.68 million millennials (ranging in age from 20 to 35) are facing a greater variety of global crises, come from more diverse backgrounds, and seem less trusting of government and politicians. As younger Germans climb the career ladder into leadership roles, the government will need to better understand how millennials’ opinions on military and security issues differ from their elders’. To what extent does the proposed new security policy have potential to garner support among the younger generation? How will the political elite need to approach young adults differently in discussing what could be a costlier and probably messier role in the world? What are the consequences for future generations if today’s young people do not buy into the decisions taken by policymakers? In debating Germany’s responsibility in a globalized world, politicians should take a differentiated approach in assuring the public that they understand its concerns and views.
Two generations removed from World War II, millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the first to come of age in a unified Germany. Their worldviews have been shaped not only by their smartphones and social media, but also by geopolitical crises during their early adult years, as Germany was thrust into a broader leadership role through the Greek debt crisis, initiatives to fight climate change, Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and the flood of refugees. These disparate phenomena make this cohort different from their parents, whose mindset was influenced largely by a singular unifying threat, the Cold War. In that vein, one might expect that the “balance of power” narrative to counter the resurfacing threat of Russia may simply not resonate with younger Germans. However, as of spring 2015, 65 percent of older Germans 50 and above were opposed to the use of military force against Russia, while only 50 percent of younger Germans 18 to 29 were opposed. Could younger Germans be less burdened by the collective guilt that shaped the postwar generation? Or is it that younger people, regardless of generation, have yet to be jaded by past entanglements?
A Körber-Stiftung poll in 2014 found that Germans’ interest in foreign affairs increases with age, but younger people are more likely to support stronger German involvement in foreign affairs. And in contrast to the United States, where Generation Y surpassed the graying Baby Boomers as the largest generation in 2016, in Germany the 50+ crowd still accounts for the majority of the population (52 percent as of 2014). Thus, when reading poll results showing Germans favor less engagement in foreign policy, it is crucial to interpret the data in a more segmented way—certainly by the nature of the engagement (military or otherwise), as Winfried Nachtwei points out—but also by age group.
Compared to older generations, Germany’s young adults are more ethnically and linguistically diverse and more likely to have spent time abroad. This might suggest that younger Germans are slowly adopting a more global identity, which on one hand could make them less supportive of military participation in conflicts, preferring instead other types of diplomatic involvement. On the other hand, their multiculturalism could make them more sympathetic to human rights causes and make it easier for the Defense Ministry to garner support for the increased use of force abroad to address humanitarian conflicts. As seen during Germany’s intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, moral pressures have the power to sway policy decisions despite contradicting Germany’s defense-only inclinations.
Younger Germans also seem to be more distrustful of government and other established institutions, and there is a lack of young people in Germany’s established political parties, which may explain why they are drawn to less “conventional” forms of civic engagement such as environmental or human rights organizations. What’s more, since conscription ended in 2011, the Bundeswehr has struggled to recruit and retain its soldiers. If the Bundeswehr wants to grow its numbers and capabilities after a quarter-century of shrinking, part of the challenge will be clearly communicating to millennials the value and responsibility of Germany’s increased military presence in the world (and not just giving the Bundeswehr a facelift). The dialogue must come with the assurance that Germany remains committed to multilateralism and will continue to prioritize political conflict resolution over militarism.
Germany, as an economic and political leader with the largest absolute numbers of young people and overall population among EU member countries, cannot afford to present a conflicted agenda. While German officials certainly face both psychological and financial hurdles in implementing the strategy of the White Paper, doing more to understand young adults’ foreign policy views—and relating them to Germany’s strategic interests—may go a long way toward shaping a new security paradigm for the next generation.
 See related AICGS articles on 2014 Munich Security Conference:
- Gale Mattox, “The Opening Shots in a German Security Debate?,” 30 June 2014.
- Werner Sonne, “The ‘Culture of Restraint’ Is No More,” 3 February 2014.