Germans have a complicated relationship with their military. And while many Germans have gotten used to the idea of an army deployed abroad for peace and training missions, several scandals in recent months have rocked the faith the country has in its troops, raising questions over the widespread intolerance in its units.
A Thursday "Deutschlandtrend" survey by public broadcaster ARD, widely regarded as the country's most authoritative poll and conducted among 1,000 adults, found that trust in the armed forces dropped from 59 percent in July 2016 to 49 percent roughly a year later.
Germany's Bundeswehr, a volunteer army since 2011 currently counting some 178,000 active soldiers, has suffered a series of accusations over discrimination and large-scale right wing extremism in its ranks.
Counter-intelligence is looking into 275 cases of suspected right-wing extremists in its ranks, according to a letter from the ministry to parliament. Cases include a soldier was heard saying “Heil Hitler” and another who was allowed to keep his weapon after being disciplined for performing the Nazi salute. Both are acts forbidden under German law.
So far, three soldiers have been arrested in relation to the suspected Nazi incidents and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has vowed to introduce substantial reforms. But the majority of Germans are unhappy with the minister, the Deutschlandtrend survey showed. Only 38 percent believe Ms. von der Leyen is doing a good job, down 16 percent from the last survey in April. The majority of the people surveyed, 58 percent, are not or not at all satisfied with her work.
Ms. von der Leyen had come under fire for accusing the army's highest ranks of "weak leadership" when the extremism claims originally surfaced. She has since apologized for her initial anger, but on Wednesday told reporters that "we must proceed with all firmness on these specific cases, not just right-wing extremism, but also the cases of sexualized violence."
The investigation into right-wing extremism comes just two weeks after the German military said it was making structural reforms, following a shocking sexual abuse scandal revealed in January. Soldiers allegedly suffered from violent and sadistic hazing rituals at a special operations training center in southern Germany.
In the ARD poll, 84 percent of the surveyed said they appreciated the minister's frankness of openly addressing the Bundeswehr's shortcomings, but two thirds also believe that the troops lack leadership and control.
To tackle the problems, a politician of Ms. von der Leyen's conservative party is now proposing the reintroduction of general conscription for all male citizens. Scrapping the drafting measures some six years ago has led to the fact that the Bundeswehr no longer represents a cross-section of German society, Patrick Sensburg has told papers of the Funke Media Group. "In fact, the citizen in uniform would be a reliable early-warning system to recognize extremism from both left and right," he said.
Mr. Sensburg himself is active reserve officer in the rank of a senior lieutenant and is one of Germany's most outspoken politicians in favor of reintroducing general conscription.
Tina Bellon is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]