A Former Commander of GDR Army warns of a military escalation in Europa in the face of the crisis in Ukraine. A conversation with Horst Stechbarth, a former colonel general of NVA, the armed forces of GDR that were dissolved 25 years ago. From 1972 until 1989 he was deputy minister of defence and commander of the army. He celebrated his 90th birthday on April 13.
Interview: Peter Wolter
Translation: Eye Reflection
Victory over German fascism 70 years ago blessed Europe with many decades of peace. Now this peace is menaced. Shortly before his death author Günter Grass warned in face of the conflict in Ukraine that a third World war could be approaching. What do you say about that?
To answer that I need to go a bit farther back. After 1989, how was the russian leadership treated? They were promised that NATO wouldn´t expand further east, that countries that were members of the Warsaw contracts wouldn´t be integrated into NATO. And what happened? NATO moved step for step towards the Russian border. Then the rocket shield was added. They believed they could handle their Russian partner however they wanted. That would have happened, had Boris Jeltsin stayed as president. But finally Wladimir Putin took control, speedily paid back Jeltsins debts and said. Now we make our own politics.
That didn´t fit into the strategy of US-imperialism. Straight from the beginning Putin was treated with distance. And then Ukraine had been selected as some kind of state in between long before already, as a candidate for integration into NATO. And when the situation in Ukrain escalated last year, the matter of Crimea got added to it. In the 1950s this peninsula had been handed over to Ukraine as a present by Nikita Chrushtshow, then heading party and state of the USSR. If Putin hadn´t answered the call for independence by the Crimean population, NATO fleet would use the naval bases today that Russia had rented from Ukraine. The countries southern flank would have been weakened further. Putin couldn´t act in any different manner, otherwise he wouldn´t have stayed president any longer. The (Russian) population would never have forgiven.
And now Eastern Ukraine is the matter, there also live Russians. On the other side you find the Ukrainian fascists, those Bandera-people in the first line. They are Russian-haters. I can understand that Putin doesn´t leave his brothers alone, who are now under fire.
And which strategy does the West follow in this regard?
US-imperialism believed it could remove Putin, cut Russia into pieces and get closer to it´s aim to grab Russia´s natural ressources. Putin foiled these plans, therefore all the concentrated hatred aimed at him. They succeded to bring many of Russia´s neighbouring states on NATO positions. They just missed the southern flank and Crimea. And that´s where Putin put a spoke in their wheel.
The situation is critical. NATO is formed out of 28 states, if just one of them gets involved into a conflict with Russia, the contract obliges all of them to assist. And out of a sudden we get a third world war. The only way to prevent it is if the people rise and say: Russia had to mourn more than enough victims in WWII, do you really want to start a war again? Therefore military specialists like me spoke out in the appeal of the NVA generals. We warn of war!
(… – there is a paragraph where he talks about the wives of the NVA-soldiers…)
In case the apocalyptic fears of Günter Grass turned real: what would be left of Europe´s middle?
The nuclear accident of Tshernobyl was a warning, it showed the potenital risk through nuclear contamination.
Europe would bear most of the consequences of a war, and if nuclear arms got used, our continent wouldn´t exist any longer as economic or even inhabitable zone. This is an unimaginably horrible scenario, and I wonder why the public istn´t much more sensitised about it.
You were commander of the Army as colonel general, there won´t be anybody more qualified to judge the military capabilities of GDR. Are there any specific differences between NVA and other armies?
Our soldiers had better military training. One example: when I was responsible for the department of training in the ministry of defence, I had the possibility to influence programs and regulations for combat training. When we should copy regulations of the soviet army, I asked our intelligence for the equivalent NATO-regulations. And if there was written f.e.: After receiving the target coordiniates the tank should fire the first round after ten seconds, I wrote into our version: after nine seconds.
Originally I had never wanted to take up arms again – but after Bundeswehr got integrated into NATO, this changed for me: we had to be better then NATO armies to prevent a war. And we mainly succeeded in it.
Through the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that was finalised in Helsinki 1975 (KSCE, OSCE´s „ancestor“), both sides got obliged as a measure to create trust to register all major exercises and accept observers from the other side. Once, when I presented my planning for an exercise to the minister, he urged: „Guy, don´t show everything!“ But I said to myself: No, you need to show everything, so that they know it´s best not to tangle with us.
Was the NVA capable of something the Bundeswehr was not?
When Bundeswehr took over NVA, their officers were really astonished, because 80 percent of our tanks carried ammunition – all the rest were training vehicles that could be made combat-ready in short period. In case of a war we would have left the barracks in half an hour and driven to the space of concentration. We would have been able to fight a war straight away. That shocked the officers of Bundeswehr seriously, when they took over our inventory.
How tense the situation got from time to time, you can see in the fact that NATO had created a belt of nuclear mines at the GDR border. At that time the military academy in Moscow still taught: Bring the tanks and break through! They would have pushed into the depth of space through the nuclear zone.
By the way, the sovjet troops stationed in GDR were ready in the same way. All battle vehicles carried ammunition. Even the polish troops could be compared with ours. The other armies of the Warsaw contract were a bit different.
GDR supported many liberation movements all over the world. Were NVA-soldiers ever deployed?
We had a lot of contacts to armed forces outside of our alliance, with the Cuban ones f.e., or those of Vietnam. Also to Egypt, Irak, Syria, Angola. We trained some of their officers, that´s what the „military school Otto Winzer“ in Prora was founded for. We built a training center in Vietnam, I have visited it myself. And we sent specialists to Irak to built a center for decontamination of chemical arms. But besides that nobody was deployed abroad.