German Navy Tradition of Alliance and Geography

June 12, 2020 (Google Translation) – When it was founded in 1956, the navy, like the entire Bundeswehr, faced the challenge of a fresh start. It took a lot of time and dedication to push a progressive constructionist against a conservative basic trend. Part of this process was the commitment to the 1848 tradition of the Imperial Fleet.

Historical color drawing of the interior of a church, in the middle a rostrum
German democracy was born here in 1848, as was the first all-German navy: in the National Assembly in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt. Wikimedia Commons 

The Navy of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Bundesmarine, was founded more than ten years after the Second World War, but its naval past had an impact. On January 16, 1956, the new marines in Wilhelmshaven received their certificates of appointment and sea captain Karl-Adolf Zenker, the provisional head of the Navy, made a speech.


Zenker placed the Federal Navy in a traditional line of the 1848 Reichsfleet and alongside NATO- but he also devoted himself to Karl Dönitz and Erich Raeder, the former Grand Admirals and Commanders-in-Chief of the Navy: those convicted as “war criminals” in 1946 for “subsequently created law” and for “political reasons” in Nuremberg, like the Navy, had “no blemishes”. They are “representative” for the new soldiers who “served in good faith at that time an irresponsible political leadership.”

Black and white photo: three naval officers in dark uniform and a man in dark street suit.
Men of the first hour: Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge, First Inspector of the Federal Navy, Defense Minister Theodor Blank, Ruges Deputy Rear Admiral Gerhard Wagner and on the far left: Captain at sea Karl-Adolf Zenker. Bundeswehr / Baumann

Zenker’s words made waves in public and in politics. Many eyes looked doubtfully at the new naval forces, especially since one of their founding documents, promised by Himmer or Denkschrift, “to create something fundamentally new” with the Bundeswehr. The new fleet should be “part of the Atlantic Navy”, but not grow in the spirit of the Navy.

In conceptual terms, the Federal Navy stood as a parliamentary fleet of the Bundestag and as NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization-Partners have always been firmly on democratic ground. But their corresponding self-image had to be enforced first, because many of their first officers and soldiers were served and socialized by the navy. On the one hand, their admission was a risk due to their intellectual background, on the other hand, their expertise was a requirement to build an operational navy. Zenker and many other founding fathers of the Federal Navy had previously belonged to the senior leadership of the Navy under Dönitz, Hitler’s successor as National Socialist head of state.

After Zenker’s speech, the Social Democratic Party of Germany Faction of the Bundestag therefore raised a great question and doubted whether “the spirit of a powerful democracy […] can come to life in the future naval forces if their relatives are held up to their relatives by their superiors as patterns that become spokesmen for the totalitarian state of inhumanity have made?”

The processing of National Socialism hardly took place in the early German Navy. The Navy was often given more credit than being distanced from it. In 1957, for example, a memorial stone for sea captain Wolfgang Lüth was erected at the Mürwik Naval School, with much commitment from the rear admiral Karl Hinrich Peter.

In 1945 Lüth was the last commanding officer of the naval officer school with the seat of the Dönitz government until he was accidentally shot there by a German guard in the last days of the war. The then 31-year-old was one of the most successful submarine commanders of the World War and was a member of the National Socialism- war heroes have been stylized.

But Peter is also a representative of the early German Navy, who stands for a progressive constructionist. He demonstratively advocated the new tradition of the Reich fleet in 1848, the first all-German and democratic navy.

Membership in democratic NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Alliance of the Federal Navy strongly reminds of the founding idea of ​​the Imperial Fleet. Prince Adalbert of Prussia had drawn up a memorandum on behalf of the National Assembly of the Paulskirche in Frankfurt. He noted that a German navy “would be far too weak to protect our trade without an alliance with another major maritime power.”

On June 14, 1848, the members of the Paulskirchen parliament, the first freely elected German parliament, decided to build a fleet. Over 100 years later, the memorial succeeded in connecting with the Bundestag’s navy. Both navies stand for democracy and defense in the alliance under the German black, red and gold flag. It also unites the common ground of parliamentary sovereignty.

Karl Peter illustrated these parallels by way of example: He illustrated the West German population and his soldiers on the bridging of the revolution of 1848. In autumn 1960, under the eyes of the public, he undertook a training trip to Frankfurt am Main with his minesweeper boats as his corvette captain.

Arriving at the travel destination of the Paulskirche, the place where the Imperial Fleet was founded, Peter made a pioneering speech: “Today, the same colors – again with the eagle in the coat of arms – are waving over the ships of our young Federal Navy. They also fly over our 3rd mine search squadron, which tries to fulfill its duty within the framework of the defense community of free peoples. We are not standing in history-free space, but are building on the best traditions of the past. ”

Peter did not present the Federal Navy as a mere successor to the Navy, but as a West German representative in NATO Alliance with a democratic tradition. His initiative helped both soldiers and society to view the Federal Navy as a traditionally democratic fleet. The new naval tradition of the imperial fleet helped them to deal with the past, reflect on the present and shape the future, because traditions are more than history – they convey values.

To this day, the tradition of 1848 consolidates the democratic understanding of self and values ​​of the German Navy: democracy instead of dictatorship, alliance before sole rule and defense instead of attack.

The early representatives and founding fathers of the Federal Navy, such as Peter and Zenker, are examples that combined contradictions in their biographies. They symbolize the discourse of the Federal Navy in the early years. Their relationship to democratic self-image and inner leadership seems ambivalent, but they establish new traditions and the doubted “spirit of a powerful democracy” grew.

In 1961, despite his speech, which he probably did not write alone, Zenker was appointed second inspector of the Navy. With the commemoration of the German resistance against National Socialism, he promoted another new tradition of the German Navy and the German Armed Forces: The Eckernförder Marinehafen was named after corvette captain Alfred Kranzfelder, one of the resistance fighters of July 20, 1944. The Bundesmarine underwent a mental change, but not abruptly, but gradually, which continued until the 1980s.

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