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Germany at War

The military loses soldiers, and braces for a fiercer fight in Afghanistan. Many Catholics consider abandoning their faith. Taxpayers prepare to shell out for neighboring countries. And the first symptoms of soccer-mania arrive.

Top News: Germany has been busy recently dealing with the traumas of war. The conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of seven German soldiers during the month of April.

This has come as a shock to the deeply pacifist German public. Not least because the country has, until now, largely been spared most of the difficult fighting in Afghanistan. Since Germany's military joined the NATO mission, it's been confined to Afghanistan's relatively peaceful northern region. But, with the Taliban having made progress all over the country, the Bundeswehr's mission is expected to continue getting more violent. This has been underscored by the changes to NATO strategy initiated by General Stanley McChrystal, who spoke with German Defense Ministry officials in Berlin on April 21, 2010.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under criticism for not being forthright about the nature of the mission. In truth, the entire German political establishment had tacitly conceded — for complex constitutional reasons, as well as out of pure political expedience — to avoid referring  to the Afghanistan campaign as a “war”: instead, it was an instance of “peacekeeping,” or “stabilization mission.” Merkel has usually preferred to talk about Afghanistan as little as possible.

On Thursday, April 22, 2010, Merkel addressed the German parliament on the subject of the conflict, signaling a change in approach. “We cannot ask our soldiers to be brave, if we lack the courage to acknowledge what we have decided,” she told lawmakers.

Germans have also been grappling with the abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. According to a recent survey conducted by a German polling institute, 23 percent of German Catholics are considering leaving the faith. The country seems to be as incensed by the Church's handling of the scandals as they are by the alleged abuses themselves. Just 16 percent of German Catholics said that they think the Church has been dealing with the crisis transparently. 

Pope Benedict has been the object of special criticism, because of an alleged transgression  in his previous role as Archbishop of Munich in the early 1980's, when he still went by the name Josef Ratzinger. His office was responsible for approving the continued pastoral work of an alleged pedophile priest who had been transferred to the area after committing abuses in a parish in Germany's Ruhr valley region; that priest went on to allegedly commit further abuses at the churches to which he was newly assigned.

The pope has refused to comment on his own role in the matter, while his subordinate at the time, Gerhad Gruber, accepted full responsibility for all the relevant decisions. This past week, however, Der Spiegel magazine reported that Gruber had been pressured by the Vatican into taking the brunt of criticism. The notion that there's been a cover-up has put the attention back squarely on the pope.

Money: The main business story has been Greece's teetering economy — and Germany's responsibility to keep it afloat. The idea of bailing out Athens is extremely unpopular among Germans, who take pride in tightening their belts in economic tough times and don't look kindly on those who don't show the same virtues. That's exactly why Chancellor Merkel made such an effort last month in E.U. negotiations to design a bailout that would protect German interests by drawing in the IMF, even at the expense of causing tension with old allies.

Nonetheless, Berlin will inevitably be making a major contribution. As the largest stakeholder in the European Central Bank, it's been estimated that Germany will be paying out around 8 billion euros.

Most think that Merkel is reconciled to the payment, but is more concerned right now with minimizing the political fallout. With a crucial regional election in North-Rhine Westphalia coming up on May 9, Merkel would seem to prefer to delay setting the terms of the bailout for a few more weeks. Her opponents have seized on her for vacillating at the expense of Europe's economic stability.

In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the opposition Social Democratic party's parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “The financial markets and the German public need clarity. But the government is copping out.”

Elsewhere: Soccer is serious business in Germany, doubly so when it comes to competing for the quadrennial World Cup. With this year's tournament in South Africa rapidly approaching, pressure is mounting in sports bars across the country — and German anxieties are rising to the surface at a faster clip.

Will the starting goalkeeper's broken rib heal in time for the first game, or should the team find a replacement? What to do with Kevin Kuranyi, perhaps this past year's most brilliant player in the Bundesliga (the German club league) — but someone who's been banished from the national team by the coach for leaving an exhibition match at half-time? Should the manager forgive and forget, or would that impugn his authority? And what about the German team's prospective sleeping quarters in South Africa – do they meet stringent security codes?

Having grown up in the United States, where soccer is not among the country's top sporting passions, I'm not much captivated by these debates. But I am looking forward to the tournament: joining fans at the bar to watch the qualifying games has proven exhilarating. I'm sure it will be more so when indulging in a bit of national pride while watching the American team give it their all.