Updated Germany’s civil defence strategy: Scaremongering or a logical step?

According to media reports in Germany about updated concept of civil defence some people call it scaremongering. But in general, how do you see the security situation in Europe, how necessary is it to (at least) talk to public about security challenges and about preparations how to meet those challenges? Read few comments.

Erik Reichborn-KjennerudResearch Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

First of all, many countries in Europe, especially the smaller ones have concepts for civil defence. The Nordic countries have concepts for what they call total defence. How civilians can help the military in times of crisis. So this is not something special, although I do not know too much about the history of this in Germany. The idea of stockpiling food and water for crisis seems to me to be overblown, although it should be mentioned that the just-in-time logistics that we all depend on is highly vulnerable to disruptions of all forms.

I think it is very important to have a public discussion about security challenges and especially in these times when ubiquitous surveillance seems to become more and more a feature of our modern societies. In general I would say that the greatest challenge to our democracies is that we let the fear control the future in the sense that we adopt security measures that undermine the very democracy that it is meant to protect.

It is difficult to talk about one security situation in Europe because it is clear that different countries face different challenges that are more or less severe. But I think that each country needs to have a public discussion of what kind of society they would like to have, the level of “risk” they are willing to endure, and how much security they need. There is no such thing as enough security and this is where the problem resides. One can always have more, but at some point that will infringe on the very liberties democracies are built upon. When one makes security an issue that are shrouded in secrecy it is simply impossible for the public to be involved. I believe that the different intelligence services, government apparatuses and the politicians should be more frank about the situation rather than implement measures based on secrets. This will only hamper the situation. Of course, this is not an easy task, but something that should be strived for.

Jocelyn MawdsleySenior Lecturer in European Politics, Newcastle University

The updated German civil defence concept is due to be discussed in cabinet tomorrow.  It’s an update rather than a new initiative and it is clear that the situation in 1995 (the previous update) was somewhat different to the present day. It’s not just about threats but also about technological changes – how do you best communicate with people about a rapidly changing situation for instance? What was best in 1995 probably isn’t today. The risks of highly disruptive cyber-attacks for instance are much greater now than in 1995, when we were less dependent on IT systems.

I do think given this background that you need to be very careful in how you present civil defence to the general public.  But the German government is right to update their preparations and this work clearly predates the recent terrorist attacks. If anything, I think it’s probably reassuring that they are thinking things through.

What’s probably more interesting in the long term is how the government plans to keep essential services going and transport routes open in the case of a major disruption. There’s an interesting report in der Spiegel for instance on how you could reactivate military service in a crisis situation. There’s always been a strict separation between civilian and military roles in Germany, and there are reports that these are blurred in this concept. If that is true, then I would imagine that will be controversial especially for those on the left.

David GalbreathProfessor of International Security, Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Bath

I would interpret this as less preparation for a traditional state on state attack and more on raising the levels of resilience across the country as Germany seeks to deal with a new public security and safety threat in the form of Islamic Extremism. For instance, you could imagine a neighbourhood on lockdown over a period of time and the need to restrict mobility. Having such levels of stores would be key to make sure that residents would not be left without key supplies during such times. I would further add that this could be seen as a way to shorten the logistical tail for more mobile operations in order to get conventional forces into the attack space faster.

Christian KaunertProfessor of International Politics, Director of the European Institute for Security and Justice, University of Dundee

In general, I think it is very useful to do some planning for civil defence issues, especially with the high probability of terror attacks. As we have seen over the last two years, European publics, especially in Belgium and to an extent in France have not been well prepared for a terror attack. This means, when an attack actually happens, there is a greater risk of a public overreaction in the aftermath of an attack. If the public is better prepared, it might be less costly in terms of human life, and, in return, it might also lead to a calmer reaction in the aftermath. So in that sense, it is a useful thing to do in Germany, but also in other European countries, precisely to avoid public overreactions.

Igor Merheim-Eyre, PhD Candidate in International Relations, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

Updating of the German civil defence strategy is timely, however, it is important that we do not read too much into this. Every country needs adequate contingency plans for various scenarios, whether those are natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, or man-made such as wars. In this sense, a civil defence strategy is important in ensuring a state’s continuation and even survival.

The German case is, however, somewhat symbolic. On one hand, there is the burden of German history in the 20th century. At the same time, that the civil defence strategy is being updated now for the first time since the end of the Cold War is telling both, about the state of current global security, and the neglect of the breadth of security issues facing us in today’s world. What is clear, the breadth of threats facing us today is more complex. During the Cold War, while other threats existed, they were dwarfed by the existential threat not only from a conventional, but also a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the the United States.

Therefore, forty years ago, it was much easier to identify the key threat; today, the situation is more challenging, ranging from lone-wolf terrorists, uncertainty over NATO-Russia confrontation, to large-scale flooding. To this end, identifying threats, knowing their potential impact, and mobilising key resources to deal with them remains an absolute key. For example, encouraging citizens to buy supplies of food may seem like scare-mongering but it is simply one way to ensure that in a post-disaster scenario basic supplies are available until a wider emergency response is mobilised.

However, it should be stressed that while a civilian defence strategy is important, it should be accompanied by a widespread information campaign. For example, at the height of the Cold War media campaigns were organised to educate people about the nuclear threat, how to prepare for it, and what to do in the wake of it. Again, while some may see this as scare-mongering, it is a basic requirement of every state to educate its population about how best to prepare. It does not meant that a disaster will occur tomorrow; but, if it does, people can be prepared and able to deal with the consequences. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in 17th century that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’; of course the world has moved on since then, but that does not mean it has become a Disney movie either. Whatever the threat, a state must be prepared for the possibility; by that I do not mean just the government, but every citizen that constitutes the state.

Bill Durodié, Profešsor, Head of Department and Chair of International Relations, University of Bath

Risk warnings that are general rather than specific are known to be ineffective. We do not live our lives preparing for a disaster or terror attack against anyone in any place at all times. Nor would we wish to. It is a tragedy when the authorities encourage us in this way. Their rhetoric of ‘resilience’ is then seen by us (and possible perpetrators) for what it is – shallow words.

Warning people, of course, as well as encouraging them to ‘be prepared’ also transfers responsibility to them, which may be the aim – we warned you so don’t blame us. But by focusing on what we are against as a society – as opposed to what we are for – it is also a mechanism for avoiding the debate we ought to have regarding our values and trajectory.

By all means have a few batteries and some bottles of water stored up at home – just in case. This may be deemed sensible. But recognise too that this is neither a way to live, nor a means to counter any of the challenges we are held to face.



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