Mr Volker Rühe was a member of the German Bundestag for 29 years; he has now retired from active politics. He served as German Defence Minister from 1992 to 1998 during the first and second government of the reunified Germany.
The Public Affairs Office had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Mr Rühe.
We asked him about his biggest hopes and fears when he and his Danish and Polish counterparts were pushing forward the idea of creating Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC NE). Our guest told us that he was very fond of early opening NATO for new members. To make this happen, he and his Polish and Danish colleagues initially established a trilateral cooperation. During that time (the early 90s), NATO still looked for alternatives to permanent memberships for new countries.
“If you are not exporting stability and re-cultivating Europe, you might end up with instability – and you just need to imagine what the present situation in Europe would be if Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and the Baltic States were not members of NATO. I can only imagine how unstable the geostrategic situation would have been. I know that the three of us did the strategically right thing in the 90s,” he said.
The early 90s were an exciting time for the newly reunified Germany. There were many expectations regarding Germany’s role in taking over responsibility as a member of NATO. We asked Mr Rühe about his strategy as a Minister of Defence that aimed at putting Germany in a more central role within NATO and the NATO enlargement process.
Our guest told us that this could have only been done in small steps – journalists back then called it “salami tactics”. Germany started with the mission in Cambodia in May 1992. No one dared to do this, but support from the Social Democratic Party meant that the mission was given a green light. The next important step was Somalia; “a little bit uncoordinated under a UN command but we saved thousands of lives,” said Mr Rühe. The next mission was Bosnia, where German policymakers had great reservations because of the German history. “My attitude was that, if we could save lives there, we had to get involved precisely because of our German history,” underlined Mr Rühe. So, step by step, Germany was taking responsibility in a new active security policy.
Mr Rühe continued that “the main task of armed forces is that one’s own country is not pushed around by others, as former Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker once said. This can be seen in the present rediscovery of national and collective defence. If nations do not have armed forces and someone says they have to go to Afghanistan, they would never establish armed forces. And that is why there are armed forces: So your country is not pushed around. Nowadays, defence of the Alliance means defence of your country. From the German perspective, it used to be the other way around in former times when defending Western Germany meant defending the Alliance.”
Our guest also looked back at the Corps history – from 1999, the founding of MNC NE, up to now – and said what, from his perspective, is the biggest development of the Corps.
He told us that if Denmark, Poland and Germany had not advanced their trilateral cooperation in the 90s, Multinational Corps Northeast would not be able to face today’s tasks as the Custodian of the Baltic region. He pointed out that this is a new and very important task, and the structures for this had been laid at a very early stage. Mr Rühe underlined, “I have not been here since 1998 when I signed the contracts with the then Ministers of Defence of Poland and Denmark, Janusz Onyszkiewicz and Hans Hækkerup. This Corps is of particular importance to NATO. It gives important insights and is a tool to deal with threats in the region – the development this Corps has gone through is very impressive.”
We also asked Mr Rühe to give us his insights on the German reunification and the Polish role in it.
He pointed out that the German reunification would have never existed as a purely national project, but the changes in Poland and then also in Moscow created a historical framework in which a European reunification came about. “The German reunification is actually only a sub-chapter of it. It always looked like the main chapter because the fall of the Berlin Wall was so spectacular, but if it had not been for the changes here in Poland, the people in the former German Democratic Republic would not have taken to the streets,” he said.
“That is why the Germans must never forget that this reunification only took place through the embedding of Germany into the European framework. As a national project this would always have failed and we owe special gratitude to the Poles,” he continued.
Finally, we asked Mr Rühe what he, as one of the “three parents”, envisages and wishes for the future of Multinational Corps Northeast.
“I wish Multinational Corps Northeast that it will continue to flourish in its new tasks. I also wish the member states of the Corps with all their different historical backgrounds – some of which were in the Warsaw Pact and some not – to grow together even stronger and create even more personal trust, while also being respected and showing respect for their historical differences. Overall, we are on a very good way and I am quite sure that historians, when they looked at the history of the 20th century with its two World Wars, would have never predicted what happened here in Szczecin – that German and Polish and Danish soldiers, and many more today, are working together like this. It is basically an incredible miracle and, in this sense, also a great obligation for this Corps,” concluded Mr Rühe.