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Berlin reacts to fresh allegations on extremism in military

June 13, 2020

A German magazine has published claims by a whistleblower that right-wing extremism is tolerated within the country's elite fighting command. One instructor allegedly made no secret of his support for neo-Nazi ideals.

KSK soldier with rifle
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

German politicians have welcomed revelations from a whistleblower of an alleged culture of tolerance towards right-wing extremism in Germany's elite fighting military command, Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK).

A letter, detailing the claims and addressed to Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, was published in German news magazine Der Spiegel on Friday.

The whistleblower described a culture where right-wing extremism within the 1,000-personal strong command was "known about internally," but, for multiple reasons, was collectively either "ignored or completely tolerated."

Read more: Germany: More right-wing extremist soldiers uncovered than previously reported

Nationalistic beliefs unhidden

The captain, who has served in the KSK since 2018, provided many examples of where right-wing extremist behavior was allegedly allowed. These include one of his instructors making no secret of his "aggressively national conservative attitude."

His command center also used the code "Y-88" as a "call sign" by which the soldiers identify themselves in radio communications. The numbers 88 are the white-supremacist numerical code for the Nazi salute. The recruits had noticed the clear reference to Hitler, but no one had said anything for fear of being punished, said the whistleblower.

He also compared the strict leadership of prospective KSK fighters in training and expected rigorous obedience to the Waffen-SS – the military branch of the Nazi party.

Read more: Why are German neo-Nazis training in Russia?

Two KSM fighters swimming with their weapons
KSK operatives are frequently requested for joint anti-terror operations, particularly in the Middle EastImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

Wall of silence 'broken'

Reacting to the revelations, Kramp-Karrenbauer told the German press agency late on Friday: "The wall of silence has been broken."

"We have worked for a long time to reach this point," the minister said, adding she had a "zero-tolerance policy" towards all forms of extremism.

Meanwhile, Eva Högl, Parliamentary Commissioner for the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) told public broadcaster rbb that the majority of German soldiers she had met were "highly motivated, committed soldiers" who stand firmly on the side of the country's Basic Law. 

But she admitted there were "more than a few isolated cases" and that some "structures and networks within the Bundeswehr are extremely right-wing." 

Read more: Europe's right-wing extremists try recruiting from police, army

Military act amended

The fresh revelations follow last week's Cabinet decision to amend the country's Military Act, making it easier to fire soldiers disciplined for extremism or other serious misconduct. The changes were made in response to a lengthy spate of largely far-right incidents involving military personnel.

The letter was already the subject of a meeting of the elite military unit's working group, which Kramp-Karrenbauer said she had convened. "Now it's time to work on the necessary consequences," she added.

Pressure has been growing in recent years for the German Bundeswehr to do more to tackle right-wing extremism in its ranks.

The Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), which is responsible for investigating extremism in Germany's military, in 2019 admitted it had underreported the numbers of soldiers it had removed from service because of right-wing extremist beliefs.

Kate Martyr Editor and video producer at DW's Asia Desk and News Digital