Libya and Germany

In Britain, there’s currently a certain amount of self-criticism over the UK’s


with Libya over the past decade — how our demands were about terrorism and biological weapons, how our desires were for weapons and oil deals, and how anything involving human rights or democracy within Libya was left out of the picture.

In Germany, there’s been nothing of the sort. When the German press has blamed anybody outside Libya, they’ve blamed the US — which is somewhat unfair, given that in this instance America has cleaner hands than any European government. There’s been occasional criticism of Britain, France, Italy and the EU, but almost none of Germany itself.

This is odd, given that Germany has by my reckoning been one of the main forces supporting trade, business and even military links with Gaddafi, and has been no more obviously concerned with the ethics of it than any other country.

I spent part of last night going through German newspaper archives, picking out past reports on German relations with Libya — be they around oil or engineering (common) or human rights (very, very rare). Here’s just one instance from the pile of notes.

Let’s go back to 2004. The EU arms embargon on Libya had just been lifted, thanks to lobbying by Germany, France, Italy and the UK. Denmark and Sweden had mentioned human rights, but the general feeling was that, by abandoning its biological weapons program and renouncing international terrorism, Libya had conceded on all the truly important issues.

Just days later, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder landed in Tripoli with an entourage of 25 businessmen. In passing he praised what he called the ‘political change’ in Libya. But his main reason for visiting was the promotion of German business. Openly so, and with the support of much of the German political spectrum, from his own center-left SPD, through the pro-business FPD to the conservative CDU. So he shook hands, made introductions, closed deals. He was photographed in an elaborate tent, and at an oil well, looking equally out-of place in both locations.

What didn’t emerge until four years later was that, alongside oil and engineering negotiations, Schroeder was fixing up a deal whereby elite German commandos would train the Libyan security services.

This caused controversy when it emerged in 2008. Not as military support for a dictator — the €43m of German jamming equipment bought by Libya in the last 2 years has raised few eyebrows — but because it was being provided by German security personnel, and thus involved sharing state military know-how with a potential enemy.

In fact, the Byzantine structure of the deal shows everybody knew they were bending the rules to breaking point. The German officers would receive €15,000 each, paid by a private security firm which in turn got a €1.6m cheque from Libya. They would take time off from their elite anti-terrorist unit. Their superiors thought they were vacationing in Tunisia, though the German embassy in Libya knew their real purpose. The officers set up shop in a barracks in Tripoli, where for 6 months they taught their Libyan counterparts how to storm buildings, board ships and operate out of helicopters.

Training can’t be identified in the same way as you might see ‘Made in Germany’ on a used shell. But it’s no less real; we can be sure that a hundred or so of the Gaddafi loyalists struggling to keep control of Tripoli have been trained by the German security forces.

[this is a modified cross-post from Ethnography of Light, a group-blog run by a few friends in Berlin. If you feel like browsing through there, do click through on the links. Much of the best stuff — like this collection of poetry — is hidden behind not-very-prominent links to Google Docs]

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