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Extremists in the German military

According to Germany's military counterintelligence service, there were several hundred suspected cases of right-wing extremism among the ranks of the German military. Is the military being infiltrated by extremists?

Rekruten sind am Dienstag (01.03.2011) in der Hunsrück-Kaserne in Kastellaun angetreten. Nach dem beschlossenen Aus der Wehrpflicht beginnen an diesem Dienstag die ersten Freiwilligen ihren Bundeswehrdienst. Foto: Thomas Frey dpa/llrs Thema Rechtsextremismus bei der Bundeswehr

Springerstiefel Bundeswher Soldaten Rekruten

The German intelligence agencies are having a tough time: Different branches are accused of having been well aware of US spying program Prism, another section has to defend itself against claims it failed in tracking down the neo-Nazi NSU terrorists while yet another division linked to the military is accused of having tried to recruit one of the NSU members as an informant – at least that's what German media claim. The German military denies it but the question remains: how many extremists are there in the German Bundeswehr?

Military attractive for extremists

German soldiers

Handling guns is attractive to those with neo-Nazi a mindset

In an interview with German public radio, Ulrich Birkenheier, head of the Military counter-intelligence Service MAD, went on the offensive. Some 400 cases of extremism have been investigated by the MAD in 2012, 300 of which with a right-wing and 50 with an Islamist background.

"The focus is in the right-wing area, because we've noticed that the military is very attractive for young men between 18 and 25," says Birkenheier. "Handling weapons is very interesting to some." Left-wing extremists though are hardly found in the ranks.

Ulrich Kirsch, head of the German Soldiers Union, confirms that assessment. "Yes, I have had bad experiences. I have been personally threatened," he said in a radio interview. He didn't want to mention details, "otherwise I'd just wake up those who would possibly do such a thing again."

According to Rainer Arnold, the Social Democrats' defense policy spokesman, the military indeed has a certain attraction for young righ-wing minds. And every one of them joining would be one too many: " We want the citizen in uniform who can understand our democracy and defend it," Arnold said. "That's why it is important and right that the MAD is tracing down these men."
 

No increase in numbers

The high number of right-wing extremist cases in the military in 2012 is remarkable, especially given that in the past five years, an average of only 40 extremists was uncoverered each year. According to spokesman Ludger Terbrüggen, there is no data available to compare the development to the past ten years, as any data has to be deleted after five years.

But in a statement, the Bundeswehr said a distinction had to be made between uncovered extremists and cases that were being investigated: "The occurence of extremism has not increased significantly."

German military jacket

The military is a "mirror of society"

It was also not possible to linke the cases to certain social environments, Terbrüggen told Deutsche Welle: "The soldiers identified as right-wing come from all levels of society."

Connecting the military's different data sets leads to astounding results: with some 400 suspected cases and 40 uncovered extremists, each extremist would have had to commit 10 offenses. The Bundeswehr simply stated that several cases proved to be unfounded, while in other situations there were repeat offenders.

A mirror of society

The MAD can only investigate a person once they are a member of the miltiary – a situtation that Birkenheier would like to see changed so MAD can already check those applying to join the Bundeswehr.

Social Democrat Arnold warns of double structures though, insisting that there was no need for the MAD's rights to be extended in that respect. Investigating civilians should remain the domestic intelligence agency's job.

Any military force of a democratic state is always a "mirror of society," explains Stefan Hansen, head of the Institute for Security Policy in Kiel. They recruit regular citizens and therefore have the same issues and problems as the society in which they exist.  According to a recent study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, in 2012 roughly 9 percent of the population had a right-wing mindset. The military was checking any applicants in a thorough procedure, Hansen told DW. During the application process, applicants must answer specific qestions aimed at uncovering right-wing views. After that, soldiers are checked on two fronts: by the MAD inside the military and by the domestic intelligence office in the civilian world.

Should soldiers be employed in security sensitive fields, there would be yet another check for extremist tendencies, explains Hansen. He says that there is currently no indication that the German military is being infiltrated by right-wing extremists.

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