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Germany has finally decided to send advanced battle tanks to Ukraine (and to allow other countries whose militaries use the weapon to do te same). So ends a period of reluctance that was widely (and in my view, correctly) attributed in large measure to Berlin’s reluctance to suggest that historic German hyper-militarism is on the way back. Even so, I find two related aspects of Germany’s decision puzzling, to say the least.

At the outset, though, let me be perfectly clear: I’ve long advocated major German (and, for that matter) Japanese rearmanent. Believe me, I understand why the Germans (and Japanese) have long resisted such measures, and why Washington has tacitly supported the resulting defense free-riding.

After all, even nearly eight decades after these countries ignited World War II and committed such unspeakable atrocities before and during the conflict, who would support risking a repeat lightly? (At the same time, permitting Germany and Japan to remain military pygmies meant that American leaders would remain the national security and geopolitical kingpins of Western Europe and East Asia long after both countries had regained the economic power that ordinarily would have led to much more influence along these lines and likely greater diplomatic independence from Washington. Why? Because…well…countries with dramatically different historical experiences and geographic locations naturally often view the world differently.)

But because economic strength inevitably produces the ability and therefore the will to assert uniquely national interests, I always believed that this U.S. approach was simply delaying not only the inevitable, but the kind of orderly transition to the point at which these countries (in tandem with their neighbors, in the case of Germany but not so much Japan) would handle their own defense – and greatly reduce the nuclear war risk America was running because of its deterrence and coupling strategy.

And in a purely military sense, I always worried about the prospect of the United States plunging into a major war in Europe or Asia without allies it could count on one hundred percent – either because they stayed so weak or because they didn’t endorse American policy fully.  

Nor did I ever see any significant evidence that America’s determination to conduct these countries’ national securiy strategies for them (which I called “smothering”) generated any benefits for the U.S. economy. If anything, prioritizing alliance relationships typically convinced Washington to allow such allies to continue the protectionist policies that harmed domestic U.S. industry and its workers. (See this 1991 article for a wide-ranging discussion of both alliance-related security and economic issues.)

So again, I strongly support both the German, Japanese, and other allies’ stated intentions to get serious about their own security. But I have two related questions about Germany.

First, if Germany is so worried about even perception that it’s reverting back to its terrible old ways, why since the end of has it chosen the Iron Cross as the symbol of its military? Granted, it’s not the same Iron Cross the Nazis used. But it’s really close. Moreover, this version was used by the 19th century Prussians, who were pioneers in developing modern militaries and whose leaders in those days had no compunctions about throwing its weight around first to unify Germany and then ensure that it could rival and even surpass the rest of Europe in terms of continental and global clout. (Not that these neighbors were angels themselves.)

And yet, in 1956, when the German army was reconstituted, West Germany’s president designated as its official emblem. Like no other choices were available then, or have been since? (For a brief history of Iron Cross, see here.) 

Second, why would a long-neutered Germany call any of its tanks a “Leopard”? How could such nomenclature fail to evoke the Nazi era in particular? After all, Hitler’s most famous tanks were the Panther (Panzer) and a late variation (the Tiger). Of course, weapons names should convey might and ferocity. But the world isn’t exactly shrt of other animal predators. And animal predator names aren’t the only words that can do the job.

Obviously, I’m not expecting any revival of worrisome German revanchism. But I still view these two military branding decisions as head-scratchers, and because even the weirdest choices rarely come completely out of the blue, I’ll continue to find them mystifying until I see a sensible explanation.