Michael Fürst’s grandparents perished in the concentration camps, but Michael always wore his German-Jew badge with pride. He was one of many young men in the 1960s who believed the military to be the next logical step after school. Born in Hungary in 1979, Fürst was raised as a German Jew, navigating the duality of his national and religious identity. The agreement between Jewish communities and the German Ministry of Defence suggested a new historical distance, one where past horrors don’t paralyze the present conversation.

His decision to join the Bundeswehr in 1966 met with international criticism. He was, after all, potentially the first Jew to sign up for the German armed forces post World War Two. Despite being exempt due to his family’s persecution under the Nazis, Michael chose service. He now laughs at the names he was once called: “the schmuck from Hanover”, “a stupid boy”. Yet he persisted and even after leaving the army, he worked hard to mend the relations between Jews and the Bundeswehr.

The past, however, inevitably trickles into the present. Anti-Semitism, unfortunately, has not been entirely eradicated from the German military. While it doesn’t echo within the barracks as it once did, digital traces prove its unfortunate endurance. Michael faced one such incident from his own commanding officer, which pushed him to request a change in groups.

Despite being an integral part of the Bundeswehr in the ’60s, Jewish soldiers only gained the same access to religious pastoral care as their Christian counterparts in the past two years. This change occurred after an agreement between Germany’s Central Council of Jews and the Ministry of Defence was enacted in 2019, marking a constructive move towards religious inclusion. This agreement led to Jewish chaplaincy within the Bundeswehr ensuring both religious and spiritual needs of the Jewish serving personnel were met.

However, some question the necessity of numerous military rabbis for the relatively small number of Jewish soldiers in the Bundeswehr. Yet, it is vital to acknowledge the historical significance of this development. Not only does it mark a step for Jewish soldiers but it also symbolically reflects Germany’s reconciliation with its abhorrent history.

Zsolt Balla, appointed as the head of the chaplaincy, believes the same. Finding his identity as a Jew in the armed forces signifies a cultural shift in German society, questioning a history marred by the horrors of the Holocaust. He reflects on their values, believing they intersect significantly with the ethics of the Bundeswehr.

It is not a solitary battle. Young Germans like Johannes, a 24-year-old technician, echo these sentiments, reinforcing the compatibility of Jewish teachings with the values of the Bundeswehr. Significantly, newer generations in the military defend their career choices against detractors.

However, tensions between identity and vocation continue, evident in Anne’s story. Her decision to join the German military at 15 resulted in incessant questioning from both classmates and teachers. The struggle lives on as Anne emphasizes the shared values between Judaism and the principles of the Bundeswehr, stating her willingness to defend them as a soldier.

Navigating the waters of a dual identity is a complex journey. For Jewish soldiers in the German military, it’s about traversing historical trauma and building bridges between the past and the present. It’s a path infused with courage, resilience, and an unyielding commitment to reconciliation and progress.