German Military How to Tackle Extremism in the Bundeswehr

As Ursula von der Leyen is starting her clean-up operation of the military amid several cases of suspected right-wing extremism, the Bundeswehr is bracing for further scandals.
The German defense minister is in hot water.

No, the Germany's generals and admirals are no longer angry at their minister. At least this is what they let be known after a meeting of the Bundeswehr’s top 100 representatives with defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, Thursday afternoon in Berlin.

“It’s a matter of justified concern that all the self-cleansing mechanisms are not having the effect in the way we all wish,” chief of staff Volker Wieker said prior to the meeting. It now needed to be clarified to what extent “a misunderstood esprit de corps” had led to the concealing of serious misconduct among the troops.

According to participants, the top 100 military officials didn’t criticize the fact the minister had accused the whole army of having “an attitude problem” and “weak leadership” in an interview Ms. von der Leyen gave to public broadcaster ZDF. Some say they even partially accepted her overall criticism that the Bundeswehr possibly has a more profound problem of not being able to breathe life into the concept of Innere Führung, or internal guidance, which is understood as the notion a soldier should be guided by constitutional principles rather than merely following orders.

“The bottom hasn’t been reached yet,” Ms. von der Leyen said on Wednesday, following her trip to the French town of Illkirch near Strasbourg, where a Franco-German joint battalion is garrisoned, indicating that other incidents could come to light.

The concept of Innere Führung stipulates that the Bundeswehr cannot be a state within a state. Soldiers are considered citizens in uniform and Germany’s constitution applies to them as it does to all citizens. Therefore, harassment, violent initiation rituals or sexual humiliation in the barracks are not among things to be tolerated under the term “esprit de corps.” “A stop must be put to this questionable interpretation,” was the general agreement of the discussion in the defense ministry – and that considerable efforts on all levels are necessary to achieve this goal.

Even if military intelligence is currently only working on 280 cases – out of 168,000 soldiers – the defense ministry thinks it is likely more incidents of right-wing extremism are going to be reported.

Despite her attempts to address the problems among the troops, Ms. von der Leyen continues to be under political pressure

Ms. von der Leyen wants to review the disciplinary code and increase transparency as far as possible without changing any laws. Additionally, top military brass is to no longer one-sidedly concentrate on missions from Afghanistan to Mali, but instead once again focus more on the Bundeswehr’s basic services.

The suspected right-wing extremist currently being investigated had not yet been deployed in the field. Franco A., an officer, stands accused of planning a right-wing terrorist attack. He allegedly planned to disguise himself as a Syrian asylum seeker and launch an attack using munitions stolen from his barracks.

Investigators have now discovered a list of names of possible targets, including former German President Joachim Gauck and Justice Minister Heiko Maas. They also suspect he was going to work with an accomplice. According to reports, investigators found 1,000 rounds of ammunition, parts of grenades and grenade detonators, most of which were stolen from the army. The Bundeswehr apparently has evidence that Franco A. could have stolen some of it during shooting exercises.

Meanwhile, it is being investigated why the military intelligence service (MAD) was not informed of Franco A.’s right-wing extremist master’s thesis in 2014. Sources within the ministry say Ms. von der Leyen ordered an administrative inquiry be initiated against the chief of the Armed Forces Office and its military disciplinary lawyer. The two staff members had not reported Franco A. to the MAD in early 2014 and dissuaded his immediate superior officer, who had turned to them because of the thesis paper, from taking disciplinary action against the lieutenant.

Despite her attempts to address the problems among the troops, Ms. von der Leyen continues to be under political pressure. The opposition Green and Left parties are demanding a special hearing in the parliamentary committee on defense in the coming week.

“We expect the minister to provide the members of parliament with a prompt, comprehensive, and in person report on the progress of the investigations and necessary consequences,” demanded Christine Buchholz, defense policy speaker for the socialist Left party. The case, she adds, confirms a systematic problem with right-wing radicalism in the Bundeswehr.


Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]