I used to take the train every morning from my village, Lebring St. Margarethen, to the state capital of Styria, Graz, to attend high school in the late 1990s. Every weekday, for three years, a mustachioed major of the Austrian Army, wearing a green beret and carrying a dark brown leather briefcase, would board the train in neighboring Wildon.
One winter morning in 1997, I found myself in the same cabin with the major, a middle-age lawyer and two secretaries in their fifties sporting bleached perm haircuts. At some point, the four adults began chatting about the Austrian Army and debated whether Austria should maintain armed forces.
The major, uncomfortably put on the spot as the only military representative present, described in vivid detail, how the Austrian military during the so-called Slovenian Independence War in June–July of 1991, moved thousands of troops to the Austro-Slovenian border to prevent the fighting between Slovenian militia and the regular Yugoslav Army from spilling into Austria. (There had been multiple border violations and heavy fighting near a number of border crossings). The major at the time was part of the staff at corps headquarters in Graz , which was tasked with coordinating the military operation.
He proudly stated that the swift action of the Austrian military prevented an expansion of the conflict into Austrian territory. While the lawyer vacillated during the ensuing discussion, the two ladies, not impressed with the major’s elucidations, cut him short and one curtly stated: “Let me tell you something major, the Army should just be disbanded! End of story!” (“I sog ihnen jetzt wos Herr Major: Des Heer ghert obgschofft! Fertig!”). The major shook his head with a gentle smile and stopped speaking. The conversation was over.
I have revisited this discussion over the past couple of years when pondering European defense and security issues. It always brings me back to a simple question: short of a contagious war in a neighboring country, what can justify the existence of a military? As a matter of fact, the conversation I overheard in 1997 succinctly encapsulates a major problem experienced not only by Austria, but also Germany and much of Europe: The lack of a good rationale for retaining armed forces let alone a strong military.
While Austria and Germany have markedly different defense policies, they share a common military history, are geographically located in the heart of Europe, and both countries’ politicians face domestic constituencies with relatively similar opinions on defense issues.
In the wake of the U.S. push to have European members of NATO spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense and to take more responsibility for European security, the question of why Austria (which is not a member of NATO and not even spending 1 percent of GDP on defense) and Germany need to increase military spending. Also, why are their national interests often overlooked—or at least poorly communicated—not only by policymakers but also the militaries in both countries.
The rehashed Cold War justification that without a strong military you may end up with a Russian (Soviet) tank in your backyard does not seem to cut it anymore. A recently released poll by German public television says that while only 14 percent see the United States as a reliable partner, over twice as many (36 percent) think that Russia is a dependable political partner. Austria and Germany, for multiple reasons, maintain friendlier ties with Russia—Europe’s only major nation-state threat. This includes the common legacy of the Eastern Front during World War II, the liberation from Nazism, which the two countries attribute to the sacrifices of the Soviets rather than the Western allies, and an only slowly fading sense of collective guilt, suppressed during Cold War years, for what Austrians and Germans did during the war in Russia.
Austrians and Germans simply do not fear the Russian bogeyman. Vegetius’ old Latin adage, Si vis pacem, para bellum —if you want peace, prepare for war—the core assumption of modern deterrence strategy, is a hard sell in Austria and Germany when it comes to Russia. Of course, this does not mean that Germans or Austrians want to jettison the military in its entirety. According to a 2017 poll, 91 percent of Germans want the German Army to deter attacks on Germany and 49 percent want more soldiers, 47 percent support an increase in defense spending, and 72 percent support Bundeswehr missions in support of NATO allies.
On the other hand, when asked concretely in 2015 whether Germany should defend a NATO ally against an attack by Russia, 58 percent of Germans were opposed to any military action. While no similar data is available for Austria, it is considered to be one of the most Russian-friendly countries in Europe. A 2014 poll suggested that 58 percent of Austrians would welcome a visit by Russian president Vladimir Putin ( he eventually visited in June 2014) during the height of the crisis in Ukraine, with only 28 percent blaming the Russian government for the conflict in the East and 44 percent assigning both Ukraine and Russia equal guilt. About 8 percent of Germans blamed the Ukrainian government.