Looking at Germany's role in the Vietnam War 50 years later

The Paris Peace Accords 50 years ago began the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. DW looks at how Germany’s support for Vietnam during the war was divided by east and west.

The United States military began its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973

© HORST FAAS/AP/picture alliance
The United States military began its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973

North and South, East and West — the history of Germany’s relationship with Vietnam is perhaps best symbolized by the four cardinal points.

Starting in 1954, and during the Vietnam War, Vietnam was split into the Communist north and the US-supported south. In 1949, during the aftermath of World War II, Germany had been divided between the Capitalist west and the Communist east.

“Through geographical separation, brothers and sisters became class enemies, while strangers became allies,” writes Andreas Margara in his recently published book “Geteiltes Land, geteiltes Leid” (Divided Land, Divided Sorrow), which reviews the history of German-Vietnamese relations.

Both Germany and Vietnam were on the front lines of the Cold War. But in Vietnam, the Cold War tuned into an inferno. The US military dropped napalm and millions of tons of bombs on the country between 1955 to 1975.

Germany’s perception of the Vietnam War, and the suffering of the Vietnamese people, was also divided by east and west, with each side actively supporting their respective ideological partners, of course for different reasons and with different motives.

West Germany’s humanitarian engagement in Vietnam

“The [West German] federal government’s Indochina policy did not follow any independent foreign policy conception but leaned unreservedly on the policy of its US guarantor power,” Margara writes in his book.

However, this solidarity had its limits.

When US Defense Secretary McNamara declared in 1965 that “Berlin will be defended on the Mekong River” and US President Johnson called for German Bundeswehr soldiers to be sent to Vietnam, West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard felt compelled to act. However, rather than sending soldiers, Erhard promised humanitarian support. His face-saving slogan was: “Medicine instead of ammunition.”

Particularly well known was the hospital ship “Helgoland,” which was anchored off the coast near the South Vietnamese cities of Saigon and Danang for a total of six years and treated about 170,000 Vietnamese civilians.

The West German hospital ship Helgoland moored in Danang in 1970

© Sgt. R. Provencal, U.S. Marine Corps
The West German hospital ship Helgoland moored in Danang in 1970

But there were other lesser-known initiatives, such as the establishment of a medical school in the central Vietnamese city of Hue by Freiburg University, the Catholic mission hospital in Kon Tum, and the Malteser bases in An Hoa, Hoi An, and Danang, all in southern Vietnamese territory.

However, humanitarian aid sponsored by the German government was largely rejected by the student movement of 1968. The students compared the barbarity of the Vietnam War to the crimes of Nazi Germany.

In this way, the younger generation in the 1960s separated itself from the older generation, which included perpetrators and participants of the Nazi dictatorship.

According to Margara, the Vietnam War was a “catalyst” for the social upheavals in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1960s and for the country’s confrontation with its own history.

In 1968, German students led anti-war protests

© Philippe Gras/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance
In 1968, German students led anti-war protests

Communist East Germany’s ‘socialist brother’

For the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Vietnam War was an opportunity to improve its own foreign policy profile within the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc and to confront the “imperialist aggressor” (the United States).

The GDR, as the smaller of the two Germanys, compared itself to North Vietnam, which stood up in a David-versus-Goliath scenario against the all-powerful US aggressor.

The official GDR slogans for the war were: “Solidarity with Vietnam!” and “Solidarity helps victory!”

GDR propaganda posters reading 'Solidarity helps victory' seen at a museum in Saigon

© Christiane Oelrich/dpa/picture alliance
GDR propaganda posters reading ‘Solidarity helps victory’ seen at a museum in Saigon

As in the Federal Republic, state interests were mixed with the sincere willingness of the population to provide aid.

“Aid to Vietnam was both state doctrine and a heartfelt cause for the GDR’s people at the same time,” Margara writes.

The GDR’s involvement was very extensive and included financial reconstruction aid, medical and humanitarian aid, schooling as well as specialized training and studies for North Vietnamese cadres.

Major solidarity campaigns were also successful, such as the 1968 “Blood for Vietnam” campaign, in which 50,000 trade unionists alone donated blood.

In addition to humanitarian aid, there was support for Vietnamese propaganda. The interview series “Pilots in Pajamas” from 1967 became particularly well known. In the film, US bomber pilots in captivity were presented as compliant helpers of an imperialist war machine. Pajama was in the title because the pilots in captivity wore pajama-like clothing.

But the GDR also provided more tangible assistance, such as the training of North Vietnamese intelligence by the GDR’s State Security Service (Stasi). And in 1967, the GDR budget began including an annual item for military supplies to North Vietnam, according to Margara.

A GDR poster from 1975: 'We help the farmers of Vietnam'

© akg-images/picture alliance
A GDR poster from 1975: ‘We help the farmers of Vietnam’

Vietnamese come to Germany after the war

The Paris Agreement of 1973 sealed the US withdrawal from Vietnam, but not the end of the war, which lasted until 1975 and ended with the victory of the North over the South. But the history of German-Vietnamese relations by no means finished there.

In the GDR after the end of the Vietnam war, Vietnamese contract workers soon put the purported international Socialist solidarity of the “workers’ and farmers’ state” to the test.

The GDR hoped for an economic upswing from immigrant Vietnamese contract workers, while war-torn Vietnam would not need to create as many jobs by sending workers abroad.

But conflicts soon arose. The workers in the GDR often saw the Vietnamese as competitors.

In West Germany, it was mainly the refugees known as “boat people” who made headlines. Boat People referred to Vietnamese who fled Communist repression and poverty across the South China Sea after the end of the war.

Private initiatives such as the ship Cap Anamur rescued tens of thousands of the boat people, who then found a new home in the Federal Republic.

Vietnamese immigrants in Germany at event in 2018 remembering the founder of Cap Anamur, Rupert Neudeck

© Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance
Vietnamese immigrants in Germany at event in 2018 remembering the founder of Cap Anamur, Rupert Neudeck

“In Vietnam, the GDR still has a good reputation, from which the reunified Germany also benefits,” Margara told DW.

“On the other hand, the Vietnamese are also impressed by the economic power that is based primarily in western Germany.”

However, Vietnam’s current one-party government is less pleased that Vietnamese dissidents in reunified democratic Germany are allowed to freely criticize conditions in their homeland.

This article was translated from German.

Edited by: Alex Berry

While you’re here: Subscribe to the DW Asia newsletter, your weekly rundown of news, background and analysis from the DW Asia team. Delivered every Friday.

Author: Rodion Ebbighausen