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Germany's New Economy Minister Takes Aim At Arms Exports

Sep 23, 2014
Originally published on September 23, 2014 12:20 pm

Germany is the world's third-largest arms exporter and Sigmar Gabriel, the country's minister for economic affairs, is determined to move his country farther down that list.

Gabriel argues that exporting billions of dollars in arms annually, much of it to countries with questionable human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, is at odds with the pacifist identity Germany established after World War II.

In late July, he told German public television broadcaster ZDF, "There are basic rules in Germany for exporting arms, and they've been ignored in the last years. Now we are going to observe them again."

He and his supporters complain that far too often German arms sales are to non-NATO or non-EU countries. That's led the minister to hold up hundreds of weapons exports since he took office in December 2013, while also pressuring German arms manufacturers to merge with other European firms.

But many other members of the ruling government coalition, along with Germany's defense industry and its unions, are seething. They say Gabriel is risking the German defense industry's 80,000 jobs as well as the country's reputation as a leader in high-quality engineering.

"It's of utmost importance ... that we keep our ability to provide our armed forces — the Bundeswehr — with significant German materiel," says German parliament member Roderich Kiesewetter, who is a retired colonel and member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union political party.

"And second, it is important that we are able to cooperate with our international partners and friends," he adds.

Kiesewetter says one of the reasons Germany ranks behind only the United States and Russia in exporting arms is because of its transparent, overly inclusive reporting process.

For example, an armored vehicle that can be used for police or military purposes is counted as part of the arms trade numbers even if it's being sold for police use, "which means if you do not calculate all the dual-services goods and devices, then we are about No. 10 or 9," not third, Kiesewetter says.

The parliamentarian adds that if Germany stops producing weapons, other countries will step in and pick up the slack.

That's what many people in the southern German town of Oberndorf fear as well.

The town in the Neckar Valley, with a population of about 13,000, has manufactured weapons for two centuries. There are monuments here to commemorate the 5,000 forced laborers the Nazis brought here from other countries during World War II to manufacture rifles.

Klaus Kirschner, like many Oberndorf natives, worked at one of the local weapons plants when he was younger. The retired lawmaker, who was a member of the economic minister's political party, says people oppose Gabriel's plans because they worry the jobs their families have worked for generations will go to other countries.

"What I hear repeatedly is that people are worried about their jobs," Kirschner says. "If we don't deliver these weapons, another country will."

Another problem is that there aren't many places for people to find work locally, especially people with technical skills.

"For 200 years, Oberndorf has been a magnet for highly qualified technicians," says Ulrich Pfaff, a 76-year-old retired Lutheran church official. "My great-grandfather moved here because there were jobs for mechanics like him."

Today, some 600 people work at the Heckler & Koch plant in Oberndorf. The company is a global firearms leader, making a submachine gun that the German media brag was carried by some members of the U.S. Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden.

Peace activist and author Juergen Graesslin says Germans should reflect on a darker fact — that Heckler & Koch guns are often in the hands of unfriendly armies and terrorists.

"We have the German Bundeswehr in Afghanistan and they have Heckler & Koch G36 rifles, and they fight against the Taliban, which has [Heckler & Koch] G3 rifles," he says. "This is normal on the battlefields of the world."

The company, which declined to be interviewed by NPR, is being investigated by the state prosecutor in nearby Stuttgart over the legality of a weapons deal it made with Mexico.

Graesslin says he goes to the Oberndorf plant several times a year to talk to workers about the 2 million people he says their guns have killed worldwide. On a recent afternoon, a trucker waiting at the main gate agrees to take some flyers from Graesslin.

He asks the trucker what he thinks about Heckler & Koch guns being shipped to Kurdish fighters in their fight against Islamic State militants. But the two men are interrupted by the plant's security guards, who warn Graesslin that he's trespassing and that the police have been called.

A guard and plant executive come out and escort the activist to the end of their property.

Even though he rarely wins converts, Graesslin doesn't think he's wasting his time, given that time and again, polls show most Germans are against their country's booming arms trade. He says Heckler & Koch needs to be reminded of that fact.

But he is not optimistic about Gabriel's plans, and predicts the economy minister will cave to political pressure.

"I fear that Sigmar Gabriel will not stand a long time against weapons industry," he says. "My fear is that it gets worse than before."

Kirschner says Gabriel wouldn't be the first German politician to fail to curb the arms trade. What Kirschner thinks should come first is a national debate.

"I could take this a step further and ask: Where are the ethicists?" he says. "Where are the churches? Where are our intellectuals, who should be starting this discussion?"

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's travel next to one of the world's great exporters. It's a country where some people do not always feel so proud of just what they're exporting. Germany is one of the top three exporters of weapons. It earns billions annually from arms sales. The country's new economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, finds that disgraceful and he's determined to change it. His plans are dividing the country. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson visited a southern German town that's a center of the arms business.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Sigmar Gabriel recently told German ZDF public television the reason he wants to curb German weapons exports is simple.

SIGMAR GABRIEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says there are basic rules in Germany for exporting arms and they've been ignored in the last years. Now we are going to observe them again. The exception Germany has in its laws about selling to non-NATO or non-EU countries has become the rule, Gabriel adds. That's led him to hold up hundreds of weapons exports since becoming the Minister of Economic Affairs here last December. He's also pressuring German arms manufacturers to merge with other European firms. Many politicians, the industry and unions are seething. They say he's risking 80,000 German jobs and their country's reputation as an engineering leader. German lawmaker Roderich Kiesewetter is a retired colonel and member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's political party.

RODERICH KIESEWETTER: It's of utmost importance that we keep our ability to provide our armed forces significance - the Bundeswehr - with significant German material. And second, it is important that we are able to cooperate with our international partners and friends.

NELSON: Kiesewetter adds that if Germany stops producing weapons, other countries will step in and pick up the slack. That's what many in the town of Oberndorf figure as well. This southern German hamlet has made weapons for two centuries. There are monuments here to commemorate 5,000 forced laborers who the Nazis brought here during World War II to manufacture rifles. Klaus Kirschner is one of many residents who worked at one of the local weapons plants at some point during their lives.

KLAUS KIRSCHNER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Kirschner, a retired lawmaker from the economic minister's political party, says people oppose Gabriel's plans because they worry the jobs they're families have worked for generations will go to other countries. He adds there are few other places to find work locally, especially for people with technical skills. Today, some 600 people work at the Heckler & Koch plant on the outskirts of Oberndorf. The company is a global firearms leader, making a submachine gun carried by some on the Navy SEALs team that killed Osama bin Laden. Activist and author Jurgen Graesslin says Germans should reflect on a darker fact - Heckler & Koch guns are often in the hands of unfriendly armies and terrorists. The company, which declined to be interviewed by NPR, is being investigated by the Stuttgart prosecutor over the legality of a weapons deal it made with Mexico. Graesslin says he goes to the plant several times a year to talk to workers about the 2 million people he says their guns have killed worldwide.

JURGEN GRAESSLIN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Most of the time, including on this day, the people he approaches wave him off. Finally, a trucker waiting at the main gate agrees to take some fliers from Graesslin.

GRAESSLIN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He asked the trucker what he thinks about Heckler & Koch guns being shipped to Kurdish fighters? Their exchange is interrupted by the plant security team. One official warns Graesslin over a loudspeaker that he's trespassing and that the police have been called. A guard and plant executive later escort the activist off the property. Even though he rarely wins converts, Graesslin doesn't think he's wasting time, given that polls show most Germans are against their country's booming arms trade. He says Heckler & Koch should be reminded of that fact. But Graesslin is not optimistic about the economy minister's plans and predicts he'll cave to political pressure.

GRAESSLIN: I fear that Sigmar Gabriel will not stand long-term against weapons industry. I feel - my fear is that it gets worse than before.

NELSON: Kirschner, the retired lawmaker, says the minister wouldn't be the first German politician to fail to curb the arms trade.

KIRSCHNER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says what Germany needs is a nationwide debate about its weapons exports, one involving the country's top thinkers, ethicists and churches. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.