Unfriendly Fire Defense Minister Offends Troops

After three scandal-free years in office, Ursula von der Leyen and the German military are at loggerheads over how to address right-wing extremism among soldiers.
The German defense minister is in hot water. Picture source: Reuters.

Ursula von der Leyen’s busy schedule for this week was long in the making. This Wednesday the defense minister was to travel to the US, where on Thursday she was to meet with James Mattis, her American counterpart, after a consultation with UN Secretary General António Guterres in New York. At least this was the plan until Tuesday, when a budding scandal forced Ms. von der Leyen to cancel her trip.

It all started with a particularly egregious case of extremism in the military. 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.

Ms. von der Leyen responded to the scandal by accusing the military, on national television, of institutional and cultural deficiencies: “The Bundeswehr has an attitude problem, and they have weaknesses in leadership at different levels,” she said.

Ms. von der Leyen's broadside against the military sparked such outrage among the troops that she had little choice but to call off her US trip and do political damage control in Germany. The scandal surrounding right-wing extremism in the armed forces has now mutated into a scandal surrounding the previously unimpeachable defense minister.

Nobody can understand how a minister can cast such judgment on her own troops. André Wüstner, Bundeswehr association

In Angela Merkel’s cabinet, Ms. von der Leyen has until now been viewed as a clear asset. The fact that her troops have been poorly equipped and weapons deliveries have been repeatedly delayed has done little to tarnish her image. After all,  it was Ms. von der Leyen who told the truth about the poor state of the army, her backers say, and has worked for years to rectify a situation she inherited from her predecessors.

Just a few short months before German elections, the minister’s reputation is now in danger. After scandal-free years in Germany’s most scandal-plagued ministry, defense experts are now suggesting that Ms. von der Leyen is the one with the “attitude problem.”

“If after three years as defense minister, Ms. von der Leyen sees a systemic problem in the Bundeswehr, she’s the one who should come up with a systemic solution,” said Hans-Peter Bartels, a parliamentary commissioner for the Bundeswehr with the center-left Social Democrats. “Many soldiers go above and beyond the call of duty in their service at home and abroad. Then they hear that the whole army has an attitude problem when it comes to right-wing extremism. This doesn’t do much to boost morale,” he told Handelsblatt.

Rainer Arnold, defense speaker for the Social Democratic parliamentary group, was even more scathing in his criticism of Ms. von der Leyen. “The minister must apologize to the soldiers. You can’t throw subordinates under the bus like that,” he said. Tobias Lindner of the Green Party believes that Ms. von der Leyen wants to be seen as the one moving the needle in the investigation. “With her broad criticisms, though, she’s overshot the target,” Mr. Lindner told Handelsblatt.

Seemingly the only person sticking by Ms. von der Leyen is Henning Otte, the defense spokesman for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Mr. Otte said Ms. von der Leyen has performed well as defense minister, “but there are a whole series of incidents that are local and don’t end up reaching the top of the chain of command. That needs to change.”

The head of the Bundeswehr association, André Wüstner, was shocked by the minister’s comments: “Nobody can understand how a minister can cast such judgment on her own troops,” Mr. Wüstner told the daily Augsburger Allgemeine. “How can you say this to a soldier who is serving his country with less-than-satisfactory equipment in Mali?”

Emails from shocked and angered soldiers have overloaded the Bundeswehr association’s servers since Sunday. Many soldiers are apparently still uncomfortable taking orders from Germany’s first female defense minister and her seemingly unsoldierly agenda, which includes family friendly work hours, the promotion of women and the acceptance of LGBT soldiers in the armed forces.

This agenda is geared toward making the Bundeswehr, which became a volunteer force just a few years ago, competitive with private industry in its efforts to fill its ranks. But a series of scandals threaten to tarnish the military’s new image. After two incidents involving sexual assault at an army barracks, the case of first lieutenant Franco A. has turned into a full-fledged military scandal.

As chief of the armed forces, I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of you serve our country nobly and impeccably, day in and day out. Ursula von der Leyen, Defense minister

The 28-year-old officer, who served in the French-German brigade in Illkirch, is in pre-trial custody after authorities discovered that the alleged right-wing extremist disguised himself as a Syrian refugee in order to plan an attack. In the meantime, Germany’s federal prosecutor general is investigating the affair.

Ms. von der Leyen has confirmed that the soldier, in his 2014 master’s thesis, had expressed “clearly stupid right-wing ideas.” His superiors knew this – and did nothing. In addition, the Bundeswehr is accused of allowing a group of right-wing extremist soldiers to coalesce at its barracks in Illkirch.

Mr. Arnold is accusing Ms. von der Leyen of not doing enough to address such problems among the troops. “These things are dealt with using the most byzantine approaches to disciplinary law. Political guidelines for unambiguously conveying that racism has no place in the Bundeswehr are clearly lacking,” he said.

Mr. Arnold and other higher ups in the military complex also canceled their trips to the United States. They had wanted to touch base with peers in President Trump's cabinet and with new members of Congress. The task of establishing closer relations with the Trump administration – one of Berlin's top foreign policy priorities at the moment – will have to wait.

Instead, the representatives spent Tuesday evening waiting for news from Ms. von der Leyen about the investigation. On Wednesday, the defense minister will travel with Volker Wieker, the Bundeswehr’s inspector general, to Illkirch, where Franco A. was stationed. On an earlier visit to the barracks, the inspectors of the army and the troops discovered swastikas doodled and scratched onto walls and assault weapons. It is possible that Franco A. pilfered ammunition from Bundeswehr stockpiles: “We’ve discovered inconsistencies,” said Mr. Wieker.

On Thursday, Ms. von der Leyen plans to assemble at her ministry 100 members of the military leadership to discuss the spate of flagrant misconduct. In a public letter, she appeared to walk back the blanket criticisms she had levied earlier. “As chief of the armed forces, I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of you serve our country nobly and impeccably, day in and day out,” she wrote to the soldiers. While the case is being resolved, she asked for patience and trust – for the sake of the investigation and, ostensibly, for herself.

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