NATO, the Wall and the THW

During the meeting of NATO heads of state and government held on 25 May 2017, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel unveiled two segments of the Berlin Wall, a gift from Germany to NATO for its new headquarters. The two Wall segments symbolise the triumph of freedom over oppression and an end to the division of Germany and Europe.  The NATO Allies always opposed the Berlin Wall with their enduring commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights.

Image1 Enlarge image The Wall on the move, as seen from civil protection helicopter Christoph 4 (© Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Relief Assistance) One important detail in the arrangements for displaying the two Wall segments was that they were transported from Berlin to Brussels by personnel from the Federal Agency for Technical Relief, or THW, who also positioned them precisely in the place prepared for them. But what has the THW got to do with NATO?

NATO – a politico-military organisation with a civilian component

When the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955, it signed up to the concept of total defence – which means military defence and civil protection complement one another to ensure that countries’ territories and independence are defended and their people are protected. The newly founded THW became an integral part of Germany’s civil protection system. This not only involves carrying out makeshift infrastructure repairs to safeguard essential services; since violent conflict also regularly results in damage to homes and businesses, rescue and recovery operations are fundamental to civil protection. As may be readily surmised, safely shifting debris is therefore an essential skill.

Rescue and recovery – fundamental to civil protection

Being well-preserved, the two segments of the Berlin Wall may only be debris in a fairly metaphorical sense, the debris of history – but at an impressive weight of more than 2.7 tonnes each, with a height of around 3.6 metres, these two pieces of “Border Wall 75” do come close to the kind of debris that a rescue and recovery operation would have to deal with. What is more, lampposts and trees in the NATO grounds made their intended position less than easy to get to, and the soft terrain of newly laid lawn presented an added difficulty.

Image2 Enlarge image Very professional volunteers: the THW at work in front of the new NATO headquarters (© THW) Those special rescue and recovery skills were therefore called for when it came to setting up the two segments of the Berlin Wall in front of the new NATO headquarters. The NATO organisers were relieved to know that German civil protection personnel from the THW would be taking care of the job. The THW enjoys an excellent reputation for being reliable, effective and efficient – in short, professional. The plan was to make sure that the organisers would not have any fresh challenges to face in the run-up to the meeting of heads of state and government. And that is just what the THW did: they came and delivered exactly as ordered. Besides cementing their own reputation, they also did a lot to raise the visibility of civil protection at NATO.

Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty: civil protection and a commitment to enhance resilience This is welcome, as many people see NATO as a purely military alliance. Some are aware of the political component, but few know that protecting the civilian population was integral to the Alliance’s work from the very beginning. This is hardly surprising, as Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty does not readily reveal its actual significance. That is why the NATO heads of state and government decided to reiterate its principles in a Commitment to enhance resilience issued at the Warsaw Summit in 2016. Thanks to the THW’s work in Brussels, a lot of people now have a good idea of what that declaration of political intent means in very practical terms.