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German Mercenaries

October 24, 2009

The revelations that private security firm Blackwater was hired by the CIA to track down and kill top-level members of al-Qaida has prised open the lid on the shady business of 21st century soldiers of fortune.

A soldier of fortune holds his gun, his face covered with a scarf and sunglasses
Mercenaries are no rarity in 21st century war zonesImage: AP

When it comes to conflicts, Germany does not fly its flag on a whim. The evils of war are still so deeply embedded in the fabric of society that for many that three letter word reads as if it were one of four.

Against that backdrop, it is an unwelcome thought among Germans that some of their fellow countrymen are willing to go to war in the name of money rather than in the name of their nation. Indeed the existence of German mercenaries is a claim that many civilians would be quick to refute, insisting instead that private military companies are the preserve of the Americans.

But, Franz Hutsch, ex-officer, war reporter and author of a new book on the growing numbers of German mercenaries says such thinking is downright wrong. Granted, it is US companies such as Blackwater - which changed its name to Xe in light of the CIA disclosure - that frequently make headline news, but they do not only recruit from among their own, and they are not one of a kind.

"There are several private military companies beginning to establish themselves in Germany," Hutsch told Deutsche Welle, adding that even without them, willing Germans have ample opportunity to become part of the private military apparatus at work in conflict regions.

Private soldiers in operation
Blackwater does not only recruit AmericansImage: AP

"In spring 2009, both Blackwater and DynCorp ran what you could describe as casting shows in southern Germany in order to recruit German soldiers of fortune," Hutsch explained. Their image and details of their capabilities are then kept on file so they can be deployed on a mission by mission basis.

Good training required

One private military outfit in Germany, Praetoria, requires its applicants to have spent at least six years in a NATO or western army or in a police force and to have been engaged in active service in a crisis zone abroad.

In other words, in order to work for Praetoria, applicants need to have been trained by reputable armed forces. And therein, as far as Franz Hutsch is concerned, lies a big problem.

"I object to the fact that the know-how soldiers have acquired from the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) might later be used against the Bundeswehr or against NATO," he said, citing the possibility of future wars in which German mercenaries are paid to shoot their former comrades.

But the spokesman for the Bundeswehr Association, Wilfried Stolze, dismisses the suggestion out of hand.

German soldiers in a tank in the desert
Experience abroad is a hot commodity among recruitersImage: picture alliance / dpa

"Unimaginable science fiction," he told Deutsche Welle. "We know there are mercenaries in other countries, but it is not something we are familiar with in Germany."

Preatoria spokesman Marc Tuernau, however, said his outfit receives applications from Germans looking to get on to their files "on a fairly regular basis."

Not a new phenomenon

Hutsch, who spent months in the company of mercenaries in the course of researching his book, says German mercenaries have been part of the military landscape since the Bosnian war. It is only now, however, that the secrecy in which they have long been shrouded, is beginning to fray around the edges.

That, from the author's point of view, is a good thing. He says the very principle of soldiers of fortune is cockeyed. "They arrive in a warzone and are supposed to put an end to the hostilities, but they love war because they live from it, so they don't want it to stop."

And that living can amount to quite something. US congress findings from last year revealed that western European mercenaries can expect to earn as much as $1,357 (954 euros) each day.

So what exactly do they have to do for their money? Praetoria says the task list of their recruits is long and varied, ranging from personal and building protection to administrative and reconstruction work.

But can those engaged in reconstruction - albeit through a private military firm - be referred to as mercenaries? Hutsch says it amounts to semantics. Citing a study by Ulrich Petersohn for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, he said the German government has outsourced many tasks which would once have been done by soldiers to what it calls 'contractors'.

A gun over the shoulder of a soldier who is not visible
How many guns are put into contractors' hands?Image: AP

"Afghan militiamen armed with Kalashnikovs guard camps of German soldiers," he said, adding that logistics crews take care of vehicle repairs and cooking in a bid to free up the inadequate number of German troops to patrol and fight.

A step in the wrong direction?

When asked to comment on the nature and extent of work done by 'contractors', the Minsitry of Defense in Berlin said it does not collect or keep on file any information regarding the engagement of private security enterprises.

Yet Wilfried Stolze says the Bundeswehr has certainly been known to hire local people to take on non-combative work, paid for "out of the Ministry of Defense budget." He stressed that it was a good thing, as it enabled indigenous populations to earn some money.

Franz Hutsch, however, says it is anything but a good thing. He describes it as a step toward "close cooperation" with mercenaries and a step which could lead to situations 10 to 15 years from now in which smaller conflicts are fought out entirely by soldiers of fortune.

Soldiers carry the coffin of a comrade. The coffin bears the German flag.
The body of a German soldier arrives back on home groundImage: AP

"Mercenaries are always used to keep a war out of the public eye," the writer said. "A soldier in Afghanistan comes home with a flag on his coffin whereas a mercenary who dies, doesn't even get a mention."

Whatever the nametag reads, there is no denying that private capabilities are a part of contemporary combat. And that, stresses Hutsch, has to be regulated.

"We need tighter control over private military companies," he said, "and greater parliamentary supervision over defense spending in order to see where mercenaries are being used."

Franz Hutsch's book "Exportschlager Tod" is published by Econ.

Author: Tamsin Walker

Editor: Rob Mudge