What is the Luftwaffe?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2019
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The word “Luftwaffe” in German translates literally as “air weapon,” and it is a generic term used to describe an air force. Many people associate the Luftwaffe specifically with the Wehrmacht-era air force, which dominated the skies of the Second World War. Today, the Luftwaffe is part of the Bundeswehr, Germany's modern defense force.

Germany first started exploring the possibilities of military aircraft before the First World War, when the Imperial German Army Air Service was established. Germany as well as Europe quickly realized the potential for military aircraft, developing fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes. At the close of the First World War, Germany's air force was disbanded by treaty, remaining dormant until 1935, when the air force was resurrected in the form of the Luftwaffe.

The Wehrmacht-era Luftwaffe was a formidable aerial opponent. Germany sunk a great deal of money into developing an air force and supporting infrastructure, focusing on the creation of fast, powerful, easy maneuvered fighter planes like the Messerschmitt 109 and bombers such as the Stuka dive bomber. Luftwaffe pilots were highly trained and very skilled, giving Germany a distinct advantage when war broke out.


The Luftwaffe was disbanded again in 1946 after the defeat of Germany and the Axis powers, and the aviation infrastructure which had supported it was allowed to fall into decay. In 1955, West Germany was invited to join NATO, and the need for an military force became obvious, leading the nation to establish the modern Bundeswehr. Many former Luftwaffe pilots were pressed into service for training and reorganize the nation's air force, and the modern Luftwaffe contains a number of talented pilots and support crews using innovative military technology for tasks as varied as humanitarian missions and air shows.

When East and West Germany were reunited, the respective air forces of both nations were joined. For a brief period, the Luftwaffe contained a bewildering mix of equipment, much of it Soviet issue, thanks to the fact that the East German air force had been supplied by Russia, but eventually the Russian equipment was phased out and a unified air force was created.

The first combat mission for the modern Luftwaffe occurred in 1999, when Luftwaffe pilots supported the NATO-led invasion of Kosovo. Many newspapers made much of the fact that Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe pilots were participating together in a military action, given that the two had been mortal enemies during the Second World War.

The role of the Luftwaffe in Germany today is controversial. By treaty agreement, Germany is not allowed to engage in wars of aggression, and many Germans with pacifistic leanings would like to see the Luftwaffe disbanded or severely curtailed. However, other Germans argue that Germany has a right to defend itself and to support military operations led by its allies, making a fully modern and efficient Luftwaffe necessary.


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The German air force during Word War II.

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