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Germany

Female Bundeswehr soldiers abused and forced to pole-dance

A new report details the humiliation and harrassment at a southern German army base. New recruits had to strip down and go through cruel hazing rituals. Germany's defense minister has condemned the actions as repulsive.

The Staufer barracks in Pfullendorf, a small town in southern Germany, are a special operations training center for the Bundeswehr, Germany's army. But the gruesome events that have taken place there have absolutely nothing to do with regular soldier training.

A new report by the German defense ministry recounts the humiliating steps a female trainee had to go through as part of a sadistic "entrance exam." Nicole E. said she was forced by her superiors to pole-dance in the common room of the barracks. In addition to the pole, the likes of which are usually a staple in strip clubs and not Bundeswehr training centers, the lounge also had a bar stocked with hard liquor.

E. further reported that the training supervisors forced soldier trainees to completely undress in the lecture hall and then proceeded to pat down the women, touching their breasts and their genital area. The instructors took photos of every step, claiming they could be useful for "training purposes."

Need for a different leadership culture

The report, which the German parliament's defense committee discussed on Wednesday, details the most recent in a long list of atrocious behavior to come out of Pfullendorf. Back in January, internal investigations revealed that instructors for combat first responders had regularly forced their students to undress and filmed them.

Gisela Manderla, a representative for the governing CDU on the Bundestag defense committee, said it was important to acknowledge that the participating men were to blame for the mistreatment of the female soldiers and not the women themselves.

"The problem lies with the men, not the women," Manderla told DW.

Deutschland Gisela Manderla (Laurence Chaperon)

Manderla: Scandals like this one aren't representative for the Bundeswehr in general

Gabi Weber, representing the CDU's coalition partner SPD on the defense committee, said the same thing.

"It's the men who have to change," Weber told DW. "The Bundeswehr needs to put a lot more emphasis on education and coaching so that in the long run, a different leadership culture is established."

'No respect for human dignity'

Extreme hazing was also part of the regular routine at the Staufer base. Soldiers reportedly tied their comrades to chairs, forced them to remain in that position for hours and hosed them down with ice-cold water.

When members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, were informed about the events at the end of January, they were told that the perpetrators' actions were "inappropriate and showed no respect for human dignity, sexual self-determination and decency."

Five training supervisors were moved to different positions - some of them inside the Staufer base. Two supervisors were transferred to the Special Forces Command (KSK), Germany's secret elite military unit. The base's commanding officer, Colonel Thomas Heinrich Schmidt, was also transfered. He had been in charge of Staufer since 2013.

Defense minister condemns actions

Mali Bundeswehrsoldaten | Verteidigungsministerin Ursula von der Leyen (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld)

It remains to be seen whether the scandal has political consequences for Defense Minister von der Leyen

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has sharply condemned the actions of supervisors and common soldiers at the Staufer base.

"The actions in Pfullendorf are repulsive and abominable," von der Leyen said in January. She added that she would stop at nothing to solve the incidents at the barracks.

Agnieszka Brugger, defense expert for the Green Party in the Bundestag opposition, is criticizing von der Leyen for only being open about the scandal now. Nicole E., the female soldier who reported the events, did so in October 2016, but parliament was only informed in January 2017. And Brugger thinks the sole reason they were told then was that the story was about to hit the press.

"They [defense ministry officials] were saying that they wanted to wait to tell us until the investigations were further along," Brugger told DW. "But that's not how you treat the parliament."

Pro-actively checking in on soldiers instead of waiting for complaints

The Green party representative said she believed von der Leyen and other defense ministry officials when they condemned the crimes. But she is also dissatisfied with von der Leyen's priorities when it comes to the Bundeswehr.

"It is regrettable that internal leadership style [in the Bundeswehr] has only been a footnote for the minister so far," Brugger said.

Deutschland Bundestag die Grünen Agnieszka Brugger (S. Kaminski/Bündnis 90/Die Grünen Bundestagsfraktion)

Brugger: People who violate others' dignity like this should not be part of the Bundeswehr

Something that politicians of all parties agree on: things have to change now. The new report presented on Wednesday is calling for a "fundamental change in mentality" among all soldiers in Pfullendorf. And in the defense committee meeting, Social Democrat Gabi Weber suggested unannounced checks in Bundeswehr barracks to see supervisors and soldiers in action, instead of waiting until a complaint comes in.

Weber, Brugger and Manderla also called for stronger consequences for those who knew about the abhorrent behavior going on in Pfullendorf.

"You will probably never be able to fully stop hazing rituals among soldiers," CDU-rep Manderla said. "But people who violate someone's personal rights and privacy should be fired from the Bundeswehr immediately."