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German COVID-19 crisis team to be headed by two-star general

Ian Bateson
November 29, 2021

With cases of the omicron variant confirmed amid a major fourth wave of the pandemic, Germany is relying increasingly on the military as part of its response.

Major General Carsten Breuer of the German Bundeswehr
Major General Carsten Breuer has been recognized for his previous work dealing with natural disasters and epidemics and now is set to head the country's COVID crisis teamImage: Nikolas Armer/dpa/picture alliance

After Germany's future government announced last week the creation of a crisis team to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Christian Lindner, leader of the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and odds-on favorite to become the country's next finance minister, announced on Sunday that the team would be headed by a military general.

The German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that Major General Carsten Breuer was the general in question. The 56-year-old has led the Territorial Tasks Command of the Bundeswehr, Germany's federal armed forces, since 2018. The Command is responsible for handling cooperation between the military and civilian organizations.

"We provide support when the civilian side reaches its limits. We provide support when others can't do it anymore," Breuer said in a 2020 interview with newspaper Die Welt. "Our great advantage is that we are fast. We can quickly make many soldiers available."

That is an advantage German authorities have increasingly been relying on in recent months as case numbers have reached record highs and people across the country have faced hour-long waits to receive vaccine shots and boosters.

An increased role for the military

Even before the recent announcement of the crisis team, the German military was preparing to increase its involvement. Lieutenant General Martin Schelleis wants to mobilize up to 12,000 soldiers as quickly as possible to support overburdened clinics and health departments. Soldiers would also administer booster vaccinations and rapid tests near nursing homes and hospitals.

Schelleis has been leading the Bundeswehr's COVID-19 aid mission since the beginning of the pandemic. Under his plan, 6,000 personnel would be mobilized for these efforts by the end of November and 12,000 by Christmas.

In early 2020, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer established a separate contingent for support activities during the pandemic, which she stuck to even last summer when calls from the Bundeswehr to disband the contingent grew louder in light of the seeming calm.

Bundeswehr soldiers and Major General Carsten Breuer (background, left) assisting in a vaccination center
Breuer (in background) and his troops are among the many soldiers assisting at German vaccination centers Image: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/picture alliance/dpa

The Bundeswehr's crisis team is currently receiving dozens of new calls for help from local authorities every day. Municipal officials usually ask for soldiers to support vaccination centers and health authorities. The number of approved applications for administrative assistance from federal states and municipalities has already surpassed 7,700 and is only expected to grow.

Though the military has a higher vaccination rate than the wider German population — some 80% of soldiers are vaccinated versus under 70% of the broader population — it still faces challenges. While troops in the country's west, for instance, largely have vaccination rates over 90%, in vaccine-skeptic eastern states rates in some places are as low as 60%. Under new regulations, all soldiers are now required to be vaccinated.

COVID-19 Special: Germany's rising toll

Crisis team: Functional or PR?

Bundeswehr insiders credit the additional request for aid from local governments and authorities to Breuer's success in leading the Territorial Tasks Command. He has also been recognized for his previous work in dealing with floods and African swine fever. But the fact that incoming government officials are placing so much emphasis on who will lead the new crisis team when it is not even clear what powers it will have, has raised some eyebrows.

"To put out such a name when you don't have a health minister and/or a majority in your own parliamentary group for overdue decisions is — I'm sorry — not politics, just PR," wrote Die Welt journalist Robin Alexander on Twitter.

FDP defense spokesperson Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann responded by calling the accusation absurd and praised a "wise decision" to appoint a "professional."

Having generals in such positions is rare in Germany, but Breuer is not the only one to be pushed into the limelight during the pandemic. In March 2020, Surgeon General (Generalstabartzt) Hans-Ulrich Holtherm was made head of the newly established Health Protection, Health Security, Sustainability Department of the German Health Ministry.

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