Long before the founding of the German national state, later Chancellor Bismarck declared that the "German question" must be "solved on the battlefield". Three wars (against Denmark, Austria and France) finally made the proclamation of the German Reich possible in 1871. Within the community of the Empire the ruling structures of Prussian feudalism, whose highest principle of order consisted in military obedience, were dominant. The tone customary in the Berlin exercise yard prevailed throughout the rest of the country. The bureaucracy and the military supervised the labour of the subjects, who were expected, in rising industrial enterprises, to exhibit the subordination of a soldier. Military virtues ("discipline and order") were formative for everyday life and culture.
When competition between the major industrial states accelerated and the new colonial division of the world led to war during the second half of the 19th century, the German Empire demanded equal say. The Berlin alliance of the middle class and the feudal aristocracy took it for granted that its claim (to "a place in the sun") must also be implemented by military means. The demand for a share in the booty became a uniquely German claim accompanied by the idea of "German greatness", which lead to plans for world dominance. Already before the turn of the century forced rearmament was begun. The German general staff developed the notorious blitzkrieg-strategy: Germany must wage offensive war to push through its expansionist goals. The element of surprise, the high development of armaments technology in some areas and a well-developed railroad network, as well as the discipline resulting from the Prussian training of the soldiery and a ruthless policy towards civilians - all these factors were to be taken advantage of in order to conquer the decisive forces of the opposition in rapid extermination campaigns, before the actual inferiority of both the German military and economic potential could have effect. These plans were implemented during World War I.
After the collapse of the German Empire the military forces of the World War were integrated into the Weimar Republic. Generals and the officer corps were for the large part retained, although they were now to serve a demilitarized state without the capacity for war. This contradiction was never to be solved. Instead of building up a democratic army, the members of the Berlin general staff pushed through plans of revenge. As early as the 1920s secret rearmament programms were developed. In order to avoid international control, the German military sought cooperation with the Red Army and carried out illegal manoeuvers on the territory of the USSR. The transformation of the rump army demanded by the Versailles Treaty into an offensive force began. The beginning of Adolf Hitlers chancellorship brought a trial use of this regained potential. Although the still weak military forces could have been repulsed, the war victors retreated upon German occupation of the Rhineland. Paramilitary German incursions into border areas of Czechoslovakia were unopposed as well. The rearmament policy pursued from 1933 on led within three years to a lead in armaments that the European competition could scarcely recoup. In 1936 the political leadership of the Wehrmacht decided that the capacity to wage war must be attained within a short period: in 1937 air attacks were carried out against the Spanish Republic and a terror attack in the form of the bombardment of civilians was begun.
The advance of German forces into Austria placed the Berlin military in an advantageous starting position for the hoped-for battles, which they expanded by means of attacks on Poland, Denmark, Norway and France to a Europe-wide war and, after the surprise attack on the Soviet Union, to a world war. The blitzkrieg-strategy of the German generals led to a war of extermination which did not stop at the economic plundering of the conquered states. The opposing civilian population was to be permanently enslaved and occupied territories laid waste if they did not offer exploitable resources useful for the German rulers. In order to secure transport routes the Germanisation of eastern Europe was initiated ("the acquisition of living space"). After the first great defeats (the battle of Stalingrad), the German occupation forces unscrupulously overpowered any form of opposition. In eastern and south-eastern Europe countless crimes were perpetrated by the Wehrmacht and the SS. In Italy and France tens of thousands of civilians were killed in German massacres. In the grip of the national socialist ideology and a fanatical total distortion of reality, the Wehrmacht protected the German racist war and drove Jews, Sinti and Roma, prisoners of war and civilians into the hands of the SS, where they were murdered by the millions.
The capitulation of the Wehrmacht on 8 May 1945 seemed to have put an end to Prussian militarism and to the plans for world domination of the German elites. But the break-up of the anti-Hitler coalition placed the scattered generals in an advantageous position. They were in the possession both of knowledge and of dutiful personnel that could be helpful to both the USA and the USSR. While the eastern systemic opposition was not able to gain sufficient support within the German military for a total reorientation, important representatives of the officers corps and Hitlers generals put themselves at the disposal of the western powers. They took advantage of the political situation and were ready to rebuild the German army, for which they demanded "equal treatment" .
They demanded that the production of armaments (including atomic weapons) must take place under German direction and the future possession of weapons subjected to German sovereignty, as an early memorandum declares. In 1949 Konrad Adenauer stated that "war between America and Russia is unavoidable - and then we must be involved on the right side." This rearmament, kept secret from the war-weary German populace (the "Blank Office"), led in 1956 to the creation of the Bundeswehr. In the GDR, the National Peoples Army was set up. Both partial armies were integrated into the treaty systems of the two opposing sides. The Bundeswehr was to become one of the best-supplied armies of Europe within the next decades. Several attempts to acquire atomic weapons failed. Until 1989, the scope of action oft the West German forces was critically limited by their integration into NATO and by constitutional barriers to aggression. After the annexation of the GDR and the dissolution of the National Peoples Army only the Bundeswehr (the West-German army) survived and became the military arm of the expanded German state.
Upon the end of negotiations for a peace treaty (the "2 +4 treaty") German troops moved forward to the western boundary of Poland (1990). The Germany military was still prohibited from the manufacture, possession or use of biological, chemical or atomic weapons, and the size of the Bundeswehr was limited (to a maximum of 345 000 persons). These restrictions did not, however, prevent military leaders from formulating far-reaching visions. With the issue of the "political guidelines for defence" in 1992, the Bundeswehr left its earlier role as a "defensive force" and laid claim to the role of the world-wide representative of a reunified, economically expanding Germany. According to the "guidelines", military means are a necessity in order to expand the "room for political action and the vigour with which German interests can be brought to bear internationally".
In the framework of bilateral military agreements, the Bundeswehr began the training of eastern European officer candidates and the stationing of operative units in neighbouring states dependent on German military technology (Poland, the Baltic republics). In this effort the German military made use of the structures of the National Peoples Army of the GDR which they had taken over. In south-eastern Europe the first combat actions of the Bundeswehr on foreign territory took place, culminating in the air bombardment of civilian targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1999). The successful completion of this use of military force without appreciable opposition encouraged Berlin to further steps. The Bundeswehr was provided with a more hierarchical command structure, unified in the "combat leadership command". The new German general staff now controls an intervention-force with continually modernised high-tech weaponry and special units (KSK). It is subject to secrecy. The wars in Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Afghanistan (including the engagement of the German navy off the coast of Africa in 2002) were test runs for the inner state of the Bundeswehr under conditions of battle. The German forces have risen to the point of rivalling the leading armies of Europe.