Fighting racism in the Bundeswehr | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.12.2013
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Fighting racism in the Bundeswehr

Soldiers with immigrant backgrounds make up a good proportion of the German army. But the Bundeswehr finds it hard to shake off a reputation for racism, even though it sees fighting racism as a priority.

"I swear faithfully to serve the Federal Republic of Germany, and bravely to defend the rights and the freedom of the German people."

As the young recruit declaimed the oath of loyalty on the parade ground of the Hendrik de Wynen barracks, his mother, a pacifist, wasn't there to watch the ceremony. Not only that, she and all his friends had warned him about the risk of racism in the military.

But they couldn't convince him: Dominik Wullers donned his uniform 10 years ago and has continued to wear it without regrets. At 29, he's now an officer.

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Soldiers fighting racism

Wullers' family comes from Cape Verde, and he's no longer an exception in the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces. Soldiers with immigrant roots have become a regular part of the army. The most recent study of the topic, carried out in 2009 by the Bundeswehr's Social Science Institute, came up with a figure of 12 percent.

Even so, the Bundeswehr is repeatedly confronted with accusations of racism. The debate was reignited in February when a naval petty officer with a Thai background was attacked by sailors under his command. It emerged that the attack had nothing to do with racism, but with revenge over a perceived insult.

Society mistrusts the military

All the same, racism and xenophobia are accusations that are often directed at the military. The parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Hellmut Königshaus, describes this as a kind of "short-circuit thinking," and puts it down to a lack of knowledge about the military and mistrust in society.

"The Bundeswehr has become an anonymous organization," he says, "especially in the last few years, as the number of conscripts has gone down, to the extent that there are now none at all." That means that society has a completely wrong idea about what actually goes on in the Bundeswehr.

According to the statistics, the official number of racist attacks in the military has been going down for years. Königshaus' report for 2012 lists 67 racist incidents, most of them so-called "propaganda offences," such as listening to far-right music. The figures for 2013 aren't yet available.

Pressure on racists

Although he admits there are probably racist attacks that don't get recorded, Königshaus insists that racist incidents are exceptional. He argues that this is because the Bundeswehr punishes offences severely - with consequences that can include a dishonorable discharge: "That creates early on a clear pressure on potential perpetrators."

Stefano Toneatto

Toneatto admits that everything isn't perfect yet

The Bundeswehr has been working for years against xenophobia among the troops, says its press officer, Stefano Toneatto, who himself has Italian roots. For one thing, the military has its own intelligence service which operates firmly against right-wing radicals. But it also uses educational methods: its Center for Leadership Development and Civic Education runs courses for members of the military on relations with people with an immigrant background - whether soldiers or civilians. Civilians with normal jobs, many of them from foreign backgrounds, offer integration crash courses and train soldiers to be trainers in their own units.

Self-confidence against racism

Toneatto admits that not everything is as it should be, in spite of their efforts, but, he adds, "that's not because of the structure of the Bundeswehr; it's rather because of failings in the individuals."

Toneatto says there are always two sides to be taken into account. He picks his words carefully as he explains that there are those who take on a role they choose, and those who are forced into their roles: "We have to make the soldiers aware that they can complain if there's a racist incident. If you don't say anything, you'll never change the situation."

Drohnen Untersuchungsausschuss 22.07.2013 Omid Nouripour

Omid Nouripour says it's hard to get through the solidarity of the troops

Omid Nouripour, defense spokesman for the Green party, doesn't think such self-regulation works: there's too much camaraderie among the soldiers and it's illusory to believe that every racist comment will be reported to an officer. But that leads to a tone in communication which may seem harmless but that ought not to be tolerated. "I experience the fact repeatedly that it's very difficult of break the silence among the soldiers," he says.

Getting on with integration

Nouripour's view is supported by the German Soldiers' Association (Verein Deutscher Soldat), an independent group of over 100 soldiers, both with and without immigrant backgrounds. They are campaigning for integration in both military and civilian life.

"They are not waiting for the Bundeswehr to do something for them; they are getting on with integration for themselves - and that in turn radiates back into the army and sets a direction for the future,"

Wullers has joined the association, and he says he's never experienced any racist incidents himself : "By the time you're lying in the mud with your comrades, no one's interested in where your roots are - you're just a soldier."

The association had, however, helped him to accept his own foreign roots, which he had always repressed. "The Bundeswehr gave me my German identity," he says now. "But I got my Cape Verde identity from the association." Wullers is now in the association's executive committee and fights for the right of people with immigrant backgrounds - whether military or civilian - to experience the tolerance due to them.

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