Germany's top military official meets with military officials on Wednesday to discuss the allegations of abuse at training camps which are threatening to engulf the armed forces in a damaging scandal.
Peter Struck will charge military chiefs with investigating the claims
The investigation into the alleged abuse of young soldiers at Bundeswehr military training camps takes its first official step on Wednesday when German Defense Minister Peter Struck meets army chiefs to discuss the deepening scandal.
Struck, who announced a wide-ranging inquiry into the allegations of “hazing” at the weekend, will meet army, navy and air force chiefs to analyze evidence and formulate a plan for the full investigation.
The defense minister’s involvement follows a report from German military ombudsman Wilfried Penner on Monday in which he revealed that he was investigating allegations that recruits were ambushed during a night march near a base at Kempten in the lower Alps, blindfolded and locked in a damp basement.
The initial revelations of alleged abuse, which bore striking similarity to events reported in the US-run prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, forced the German armed forces' highest officer General Wolfgang Schneiderhan to order all branches of the military to look into the possibility of abuses at their training camps.
So far there have been complaints about abuses at four army bases around the country. More than 20 officers and non-commissioned officers at Cösfeld in the north of the country face a civil inquiry into claims they overstepped the mark. These accusations include the use of electro-shocks, beatings and cold-water drenchings on young recruits by officers dressed as Arab terrorists, as training for being taken hostage.
Recruits allegedly bound and beaten
Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry said it was investigating claims of another possible instance where conscripts were allegedly abused by their trainers. Prosecutors in the northern town of Verden have opened an inquiry against trainers who allegedly tied up a male and two female soldiers.
The allegations raise serious questions about the basic rules regarding the training of new recruits. According to Colonel Wolfgang Fett, a senior army media spokesman, all personnel being deployed abroad are required to take part in an exercise where they are ambushed and treated as hostages.
The soldiers are required to attend theory classes on how to react if taken hostage during a military operation. In the practical exercise afterwards, they are surprised, taken away with hands bound and blindfolded and forced to remain kneeling.
"The soldiers are supposed to learn ways to keep their courage up if they get taken prisoner or hostage. The idea is to quell fear and learn that you shouldn't try to play the hero, but nurture your hope and see that you survive," he told the German press agency dpa.
Theory only for conscripted troops
However, Fett said that recruits who were merely doing compulsory military training without going abroad, like those at the Kempten base, were only supposed to do the theory, not the practical exercise. He added that at no time should this include the use of electro-shocks or physical injury.
The scandal has added to the growing concern that standards have slipped in the German army. Recruits are regarded as "citizens in uniform," making the current allegations of mistreatment, and even torture, all the more shocking.
Civilian rights retained in military
The current spate of allegations could be a result of the idea of civilians in uniform and the transparency encouraged through the Bundeswehr’s continued adherence to civilian rights.
Military personnel do not give up their status as citizens when they don the uniform. They continue to be members of the community from which they entered the service, and recruits retain the right of free expression, although by law they have the obligation to exercise discipline and restraint in expressing their views publicly.
One of the innovations installed to uphold the rights of recruits was the establishment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Federal Armed Forces, the defense department’s ombudsman, who is appointed by the Bundestag. The ombudsman is responsible for overseeing the administration of the services while upholding the constitutional rights of individual service personnel.
All Bundeswehr personnel have the right of direct petition to the ombudsman; several thousand exercise this right each year. The ombudsman and staff can also be called upon by the Bundestag or the Bundestag Defense Committee to investigate specific problems.
British soldiers of 40 Commando, Royal Marines in Iraq.
In Britain, where an on-going investigation into the deaths of four recruits at the Deepcut military base uncovered over 100 claims of rape, racism and beatings in a scandal potentially more damaging than in Germany, a similar set-up is in existence.
Any allegations of abuse or mistreatment in the British forces are first considered at base and regiment level but can be referred to the Ministerial Correspondence Unit at the Ministry of Defense or directly to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (ombudsman) through a local member of parliament.