How an East German conscript became an all-German major
By UWE SIEMON-NETTO
(From the March 2010issue of The Atlantic Times)
One of the most remarkable accomplishments of Germany’s reunification 20 years ago was the bloodless dissolution of the East German military, the second largest in the Warsaw Pact. Its 25,000 draftees became part of the “Bundeswehr,” the federal armed forces. They received not only new uniforms but also the kind of dignified treatment they had not known before.
Recently, an uncommon military ceremony took place in a classroom of “Georgia Southern University” at Statesboro, Ga. In front of fellow faculty members and cadets of the school’s ROTC battalion stood Prof. Michael Reksulak in German army fatigues. He was flanked by his Taiwan-born wife Hsiao-Ting Su and a German Luftwaffe general who pinned the insignia of a major to the professor’s epaulettes, one silver pip with two oak leaves.
Brig. Gen. Gero L.K. Schachthöfer had flown to Georgia from Reston, Va., headquarters of the German Armed Forces Command in the United States and Canada; Schachthöfer controls some 1,500 troops stationed at 84 North American locations. Prof. Michael Reksulak teaches economics at Georgia Southern where he also serves on the ROTC’s advisory board.
What made this event so extraordinary was this detail: In 1990, Reksulak was drafted into the East German “National People’s Army” (NVA). While he was still a “grunt,” the two Germanys became one. Reksulak stayed on as a conscript, but in the light grey uniform of the Bundeswehr, the former West German and now all-German military.
His national service over, Reksulak remained in the Bundeswehr as a reservist while training as a journalist, attending universities at home and in England, earning his doctorate in the United States and working as an associate professor on tenure track at Georgia Southern. Given his promising academic career in America, why does Reksulak bother with pulling reserve duty in the German Army?
“Because I owe the Bundeswehr much gratitude,” he told The Atlantic Times in an interview.
His story is a sublime nugget in the larger narrative about the noiseless disappearance of the powerfully armed NVA that once numbered 170,000 active soldiers and 300,000 reservists all trained to hate the Western system. By the time Reksulak was called up, the Communist regime in East Berlin had already collapsed. The moribund “German Democratic Republic” held free parliamentary elections on March 18, 1990, Resuksulak’s 18th birthday.
This vote in which democratic parties won an overwhelming majority had one consequence of exquisite irony: A Lutheran pastor, Rev. Rainer Eppelmann, became defense minister. Eppelmann, an ex-prisoner of the now-defunct dictatorship, suddenly found himself in charge of a military whose commissioned and non-commissioned officers were almost all members of the Communist Party.
Reunification with West Germany was known to be imminent. Still, Michael Reksulak, a recent high school graduate, had to report to the Steiger-Kaserne, the dilapidated home of the NVA’s 24th Motorized Rifles Regiment in Erfurt, where he was made to share a 300-squarefoot dorm with nine other conscripts.
Reached by telephone in his office in Statesboro, he said that he had only hazy recollections of the NVA’s twilight weeks when most East German corporals and sergeants seemed to do their job of giving basic training to conscripts only half-heartedly. “Many of our superiors had already given up, only a few tried to enforce strict discipline,” he recalled. “One senior NCO spent most of his time locked in his room drinking getting drunk.”
On the evening of October 2, 1990, all soldiers were ordered to pick up their new Bundeswehr uniforms. Newly attired, they stood at attention in the Steiner-Kaserne’s yard on the following morning to greet their regiment’s new West German commander, Lt. Col. Armin Meyer-Detring, who was to become Reksulak’s mentor and personal friend.
“Meyer-Detring’s arrival was like a breeze of fresh air,” Reksulak continued. All of a sudden grunts were treated civilly. In West German military fashion, superiors greeted soldiers not just by their last names. Regardless of grade, the proper way to address anybody in the Bundeswehr is “Herr” (Mr.), followed by the soldier’s rank and surname. Pfc. Reksulak thus became “Herr Gefreiter Reksulak.”
The former NVA draftees were amazed that their new chiefs never remained seated when subordinates were standing before them. Unlike his NVA predecessor, Meyer-Detring kept his office door open; Reksulak and his fellow draftees could not remember ever seeing their former commander, except from a distance.
Meyer-Detring also took his meals with his soldiers, which was not customary in the Communist military. In Erfurt, Meyer-Detring discovered a special need for culinary solidarity. On his first day with the regiment, he had inspected the kitchen. “It was a pigsty,” he told The Atlantic Times in a telephone interview. “Paint kept peeling from its walls and dropping into the stockpot, but the cook continued stirring the soup unperturbed. By the food counter stood a stinking trashcan. Just outside the kitchen, garbage piled up. So I asked the municipal fire department to have its men stand by while I had the rubbish burned off. We watched hundreds of rats fleeing the flames.”
Reksulak picked up the thread: “Next the colonel commanded our platoon to scrub the kitchen floor. It was covered with a thick layer of grease. Cleaning up this place took us a very long time.” Meyer-Detring ordered the interior of the Steigerkaserne repainted, and allowed no more than four soldiers to sleep in one room.
As for his own place in the Steiger-Kaserne, the West German lieutenant-colonel was in for an unpleasant surprise. “In my office, I discovered tiny microphones with cables leading to some hidden recording device,” he said. “The Stasi (East Germany’s secret police) spied on every NVA unit.” This, it appears, continued for a while even after the country’s reunification.
Today, Reksulak, Meyer-Detring and their families consider each other close personal friends. But how did this friendship between an eastern German conscript and a West German officer begin? “What he liked about me was that I spoke my mind,” Reksulak said. Because of his candidness, be was made spokesman for the enlisted men in his unit.
“One day,” Reksulak continued, “the defense minister (of united Germany), Gerhard Stoltenberg, visited our regiment. At lunch, Lt. Col. Meyer-Detring placed me next to the minister who asked me if the soldiers had any complaints. One of the grievances I mentioned was this: ‘The Bundeswehr gave us nice new uniforms but made us continue to use our old NVA winter underwear.”
And what was wrong with East German long johns, Stoltenberg wanted to know? “They were very scratchy,” replied Reksulak.
Armin Meyer-Detring left Erfurt in 1991 to become the senior press officer of the Bundeswehr’s Third Corps in Koblenz in western Germany; he took Pfc. Reksulak with him as his assistant. When Reksulak returned to civilian life, he trained to be a journalist with a local Erfurt newspaper and went to university, but then returned to military duty when the Bundeswehr assumed a peacekeeping role in Bosnia.
As a corporal in the reserves, he became the de facto editor-in-chief of “Der Keiler” (The Wild Boar), a newspaper for the German contingent of SFOR, the “Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Before long, he was commissioned second lieutenant. Said Reksulak: “Time and again in my years in the Bundeswehr I met people who actually took an interest in me as a human being. This helped me get to where I am at this point.”
At the time of this writing, Michael Reksulak is taking a staff officers’ course in Germany. Meanwhile in Statesboro, students at Georgia Southern told “ratemyprofessor.com,” an Internet-based grading service for academics, that they considered him one of the greatest and toughest teachers they knew.
Which explains this young academic’s gratitude: Experiencing his country’s reunification as an all-German grunt has turned out to be an excellent thing for 37-year old Michael Reksulak