The Engagement in the Hindu Kush

Philip Oltermann · Fontane on Afghanistan

Those who should hear, they hear no more,
Destroyed is the army that went to war,
With thirteen thousand their trek began,
Only one came back from Afghanistan.

These lines weren’t written by Andrew Motion or Carol Ann Duffy but by the 19th-century German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. Between 1855 and 1859 he was the Prussian ministry’s foreign correspondent in London: he found himself increasingly frustrated by the local fondness for drinking and dancing (‘Music, as many have pointed out, is England’s Achilles heel’) and the class system (‘England and Germany relate to one another like form and content’).

One thing, though, aroused his pity rather than contempt. In 1857, he read about the humiliating defeat of William Elphinstone’s army during the First Anglo-Afghan War: as many as 16,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed in January 1842. The poem Fontane wrote in response, ‘The Tragedy of Afghanistan’, turns the military defeat into a story of Victorian imperial decline, though it’s also a specific warning against military engagement in Afghanistan. A full translation can be found here.

Fontane is extremely uncool these days, but the Afghanistan poem is doing the rounds again. Even the godmother of German punk, Nina Hagen, has been singing it at concerts. One explanation might be that pity, with all the distance that implies, best sums up the German public’s attitude to the conflict: Afghanistan is seen as an Anglo-American problem. Britain and America have criticised Berlin’s reluctance to commit more troops to the country – the ones that are out there have been ridiculed as lazy, drunken and overweight. One of the US embassy cables leaked last week revealed that Joe Biden thought Germany had ‘completely dropped the ball on police training’ in Afghanistan.

The German government and mainstream news outlets never talk about a ‘war’ in Afghanistan, but the ‘Einsatz am Hindukusch’, the engagement in the Hindu Kush. All the same, Germany has the third-largest presence in the country after the US and Britain. Earlier this year Horst Köhler resigned as president after he got himself into a tangle trying to explain what exactly German troops were still doing there. Forty-five German soldiers and three policemen have died in Afghanistan since 2001.


  • 8 December 2010 at 5:30pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I'm sorry for their families, but 48 dead Germans is neither here nor there. There are moral reasons why you don't invade countries like Afghanistan or Iraq.

  • 9 December 2010 at 11:36am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I'm not sure which 'mainstream news outlets' you read but I'd say that the media certainly do not hide behind the government rhetoric. The 'Einsatz' was the invention of Peter Strück, who was Defence Minister eight years ago and it served as a smoke screen for the Germans' surrender to US pressure. They were given the 'much safer' northern region, where it was implied that there were no Taliban activities, and the local people liked the Germans for some long forgotten largesse a dozen wars ago. The deaths of over a hundred civilians at Kundus was clearly labelled in the German press as a misfortune under the rubric of 'war is hell' The 'Tageszeitung'(all right, not necessarily mainstream) has consistently called the war a war, and the Frankfurter Rundschau reported on 2 December that 'the Germans do not know what is happening in Afghanistan' and even the Frankfurter Allgemeine had to report that 'German forces are viewed by the population as foreign occupation forces.'
    On Köhler's resignation: the more believable version is that he was angered by the failure of Merkel and Westerwelle to give him any backing.