BERLIN - Angela Merkel just wouldn't let the cat out of the bag. In the first days after the arms sale scandal began, her front seat in the Bundestag was conspicuously empty. When she finally did show up she wore a sour look but said not a word. The decision made and any reasoning behind it were highly secret, legally so, according to the Constitution, and she meant to keep it that way.
On July 4th the magazine Der Spiegel defied this secrecy to print part of the story, enough to see what was up and far too much for Angela Merkel. For this cat was no cute little kitty but a big, strong, very ferocious "Leopard" tank, or rather 200 state-of-the-art 2A7+ tanks, 68 tons each, as powerful and efficient as you can get, especially for crushing street demonstrations. And they were being sold to that great standard-bearer of the "Arab spring" - Saudi Arabia!
It was not new for Germany to sell weapons to countries around the world, from Heckler-Koch pistols to super-heavy submarines - and tanks. In fact, it has moved into third place in weapons export, behind only the USA and Russia.
On paper, Germany had committed itself to sending no weapons to countries in conflict areas - but then gradually relaxed such restrictions. Yet this spring, Merkel and her Foreign Minister Westerwelle had waxed so beautifully eloquent in support of democratic developments in Tunisia and Egypt (but only after the people had ousted their dictators), then, perhaps almost too enthusiastically, in Libya and Syria. But somehow similar peoples' movements in Yemen and notably in Bahrain won far less praise in the media and eloquent speech making; perhaps they are not seen as so important or so rewarding. So why not sell to the Saudi sheiks?
But there was outrage in the Bundestag [The Lower House of Parliament in Germany]. Even a few brave souls from the ruling coalition parties expressed indignation and dared to use the word "hypocrisy". But Philipp Missfelder, up-and-coming young foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democrats, pinch hit for the silent Merkel in vigorously quashing any disobedience. A deal to support Saudi Arabia was "in Germany's interest," he explained and added portentously, there had been no objections from Germany's close allies. "Every step that we take in the region we take with the condition that it promotes the security and the right of Israel to exist."
His explanations and justifications were all unnecessary. Decisions like this one, which added an estimated 2.6 billion dollars to Germany's trade surplus, were matters decided in secret by the German Security Council, composed of top cabinet ministers and top military men.
All the same, the three opposition parties demanded and got a special Bundestag session. Each one, Social Democrats, Greens and The Left, submitted its own resolution demanding that permission for the deal be denied. There was heated debate. Klaus Ernst, The Left Party co-chair, said government approval of the deal illustrated its "real operating maxim: The deadliest tanks for the worst oppressors". The head of its caucus, Gregor Gysi, passionately denounced the deal. So did several Social Democrats and Greens, most forcefully the legendary Green deputy Hans-Christian Stroebele from a key Berlin borough, always outspoken against German expansionism, economic or military. But the protests of Social Democrats and most Greens, angry as they sometimes sounded, were painfully weakened by sneers from the ruling parties, reminding them that when they had run the government from 1998 to 2005 they too had approved substantial weapons sales to the Saudis.
When it came time to vote the ruling coalition, despite a few "renegades", used its majority to beat all three protesting motions. In the only unusual note, 12 Social Democrats and 60 Greens not only approved their own resolutions but the sharper one of The Left as well.
With that taken care of, they could all pack their bags and begin their summer vacations, though not before Christian Democrat specialist Missfelder once again made clear:
"We cannot act as though we can paint the world pink and everything will be O.K...We are a grown-up country and must define our policies through strategic interests."
Frau Merkel maintained her sour expression and kept her mouth shut till the end. Her silence was understandable.
Media reports left two aspects unmentioned. The tank manufacturers profiting most from the deal, Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann and Rheinmetall, have always been generous in political donations. Between 2002 and 2009 they gave the two Christian parties 298,000 euro, the Free Democrats 79,000 euro and even the Social Democrats 249,500 euro. The figures for 2010 and 2011, not yet available, will undoubtedly be at least as generous.
The other aspect is historical. Rheinmetall and Kraus-Maffei Wegmann have histories going back to the 19th century. They both armed Germany in World War One. Rheinmetall was one of 29 corporations to finance Hitler's successful attempt to gain total power. Both joined in destroying the Spanish Republic and blasting the little town of Guernica in 1937, a deed made famous by Picasso's painting. Their especially deadly bombs, their handguns, artillery and tanks killed anti-fascists and civilians from Narvik in Norway to Monte Cassino in Italy, from Jarama in Spain to the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union.
Their wealth and power were built in no small measure by the toil of forced laborers and prisoners of war from all Europe; the British army freed five thousand survivors in one single plant near Hamburg, where Krauss-Maffei is again testing new weapons.
The firms were barred from making weapons for a while after both world wars, but the bans soon ended. Krauss-Maffei-Wegmann is now the third largest manufacturer of tanks and military vehicles in the world.
Personnel and share-holding proportions have changed since then: Have the goals of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Rheinmetall or those who now own and run them also changed?
Helmut Kohl said in 1990: "Germany has ended an historic phase; in future it can openly assert its role as a world power, and extend it." The 2.5 billion dollar sale to Saudi Arabia may be seen as a great coup and another lucrative and significant omen
Photo: A German Leopard 2 A6 EX tank in a testing area of German producer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann in Munich. Sebastian Widmann/dapd/AP file photo