Advertising Germany’s military as a success story is hardly an easy task — even if one ignores its troubled history.
Abroad, it is often perceived as a lightweight army, restricted by stringent rules and a decades-old political consensus that post-World War II Germany should exert its influence by diplomacy rather than force. Two years ago, the lack of funding for the Bundeswehr made international headlines when the army was so underequipped that soldiers had to hide the dearth of real arms by substituting broomsticks for heavy machine guns during a NATO exercise.
At home, youths have been wary of joining the army of a country in which even today few people find words of praise for those who serve.
That’s all supposed to change now, however, with the help of a new reality show, produced by the German military and aimed at recent high school graduates. “Die Rekruten” (“The Recruits”) follows 12 young Bundeswehr soldiers for three months. The YouTube series has been surprisingly popular among Germans, with some episodes reaching up to 900,000 viewers.
Young recruits film themselves doing push-ups. Others talk about their tattoos. Most popular so far? A video titled “culture shock,” in which one of the soldiers, Julia, has to take the jewelry from her piercings upon arrival at the barracks.
It’s an unusual PR strategy, for unusual times.
German President Joachim Gauck called for the country to focus more on its own security this week. Those were unusual words for a German president: Most of his predecessors had advocated disarmament instead of more military spending.
Even before his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump has already forced Germany, and other European nations, to rethink their security measures. So far, Europe has mainly relied on the United States to defend it as part of NATO. Trump’s contradictory statements on that matter have raised worries that the United States might no longer be a reliable military ally.
“The Recruits” was produced at a time when Germans could still laugh about the prospects of a Trump presidency, assuming it would never become reality.
Despite its reality TV show origins, it would be too easy to dismiss the idea of the video series as a cheap advertising campaign. Some of the episodes allow recruits to reflect on somber issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and the risks associated with missions abroad, for instance.
But in many other ways, the video series reveals more about why Germany lacks young recruits, rather than how it seeks to change that.
None of the episodes focus on what would be the most central argument for joining the military in other countries: serving the nation. Since World War II, Germans have historically refrained from showing too much (or any) national pride. German flags can only rarely be seen in public — although this has changed a bit in recent years, especially during soccer championships.
Germans’ unwillingness to show too much national pride has affected the Bundeswehr more than any other organization. Soldiers have long complained about a lack of respect and support from politicians, as well as from the wider public.
“The Recruits” might be the biggest effort so far by the German military to change that.