This week, Germany’s Interior Ministry revealed an update of its civil defense plan, the first such revision since the end of the Cold War era. The 69-page document advises Germans to stockpile a 10-day supply of food and five-day supply of water to prepare for an unspecified event that could upset the über-orderly country. Many in Germany aren’t taking this advice seriously, which reminds us all of the precarious prosperity we enjoy.
The civil defense plan, which Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere presented to his cabinet Wednesday, recommends improving alarm systems, strengthening hospital capacity, and putting civilians to work directing traffic or providing the military with lodging, if a crisis arises. The report also hints at bringing back military conscription, which ended in 2011.
Why the sudden update? What kind of disaster is the government anticipating that would cause Germans to need to stockpile food? That’s not exactly clear.
According to the document, “an attack on German territory requiring conventional defence is unlikely,” but nevertheless Germany needs to be “sufficiently prepared in case of an existence-threatening development in the future that cannot be ruled out.” The document also indicates a need to be prepared for the possibility of a “hybrid” conflict, which could include cyber warfare. Maiziere said Germany must be ready for interrupted gas or oil supplies or food and water preserves being poisoned.
Obviously This Is about Terrorism
Deputy parliamentary leader of the Greens party Konstantin von Notz says it makes sense to update German’s civil defense plan, given that it hasn’t been updated since 1995. This is understandable, given that the international scene has changed a lot in the past 21 years. But he, too, doubts any attack on Germany would require this kind of stockpiling.
Of course the government doesn’t want to frighten the public by saying that the update of the civil defense plan is due to increasing threats to the country. But we can certainly read between the lines to see that this update is coming at a time when terrorism and international tensions are on the rise. Just recently, Germany’s defense minister said his country lies in the “crosshairs of terrorism.” It would be quite the coincidence if this updated plan just happened to co-occur with the rise of ISIS and the rash of attacks across Europe that recently added Germany to its list of casualties.
The civilian defense plan indicates the government sees real threats abroad, and doesn’t want its military or people caught unprepared. So it’s taking the appropriate steps and counseling Germans to take precautions.
But so far the German people aren’t taking it all that seriously. Since the news leaked earlier this week, social media and newspapers have lit up with jokes mocking the proposition. The term “Hamsterkaeufe” has become popular on social media, which has a double meaning of panic-buying, as well as hoarding like a hamster. Pictures of hamsters and jokes about stockpiling hamsters abound.
Are Citizens Really Prepared for an Emergency?
The plan is also stoking a debate about the necessity of such preparations, with some accusing the government of scaremongering. But Wolfgang Kast, a public health manager with the German Red Cross, worries this is an indication that the public isn’t really prepared for an emergency. An event that would require stockpiled food is so far off its radar that the mere suggestion seems silly and unnecessary.
This whole affair is a reminder of the incredible sense of security we all live with every day. For most of us who are under 40, that’s because life experience has taught us that catastrophes just don’t strike the Western world anymore. Other than the relatively small number of people affected by natural disasters each year, most people in the West haven’t experienced what it’s like not to have access to clean drinking water or food.
This has lulled us into an unrealistic idea of the world. Thinking that nothing could require us to stockpile food, house troops, or pitch in to direct traffic is akin to the idea that history ended with the Cold War, and with it all major international conflicts. In the 1990s, it was popular to argue that all the major disagreements and ideological conflicts had finally been put to rest, as though humanity itself had undergone a transformation with the fall of the Berlin Wall. All that remained was to work out some details about trade and the environment.
There was a similar mood in the period between World War I and World War II, when Europe thought it unthinkable ever to go to war again. So it sleep-walked right into the nightmare of the Second World War. So, too, were we stunned by the reality of Islamic terrorism in September 2001, despite years of escalating attacks by al-Qaeda against U.S. targets overseas.
Good Time to Take Stock of World Affairs
But it’s not just the proliferation of Islamic terrorism that threatens Germany’s, and our own, security. International tensions are on the rise, and old powers are rising again unchecked. Fighting is bubbling up again on the Ukrainian border between pro-Russian separatists (widely thought to be backed by Russian troops) and the Ukrainian armed forces. Strains with China are also on the rise, with China asserting itself in the South China Sea. Next month it plans to conduct naval exercises there—with Russia.
In the weeks after the attempted military coup in Turkey, President Recep Erdogan’s government has pivoted toward Russia (much like it did following WWI and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire) and away from the West. Iran has reasserted itself in the Middle East, showing its desire to be a regional power in places like Syria and Yemen. It, too, is allying with Russia, even letting Russian fighter jets to take off from Iran (until the media attention got too hot).
Is it really so far-fetched to think that something like a cyber attack by China that affects the electric grid could turn Germany upside-down for a short time?
None of this means the end is nigh, or that you need to be buying giant barrels of grain and digging your own well. But it does mean international realities cannot be ignored, and that our Western utopian peace may not last forever. To pretend otherwise would be to join the chorus of voices throughout history who saw the danger on the doorstep too late.
In Germany, the government is making a modest recommendation to mitigate the damage should something happen. This seems utterly reasonable—and utterly foolish to ignore.