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Germany's special forces look the other way

Nina Werkhäuser | Anne Höhn
March 2, 2021

Already under investigation for far-right sympathies, Germany's elite commando unit has let its troops return stolen weapons without penalty. This is seen as a backlash to the embattled Bundeswehr's reform efforts.

KSK soldiers in action
The Special Forces Command (KSK) had been given the chance to reform from the insideImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

Brigadier General Markus Kreitmayr came up with an unlikely option early last year. The head of the KSK, a German special forces unit, told his troops they could return any weapons and munitions they had made off with — anonymously and without fear of consequences.

It had already become known that a large number of weapons had gone missing. Less clear was whether that was due to an inventory error or if KSK members had intentionally taken them, which would be a criminal offense.

Kreitmayr's offer was well received. At least 25,000 rounds of ammunition were anonymously returned between March and May 2020, according to the Bundestag's Defense Committee, which was only recently informed about the initiative. Hand grenades were among the returned arms.

General Eberhard Zorn
The missing weapons went unmentioned in a preliminary report on KSK reform, presented by General Eberhard ZornImage: Jörg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

KSK and far-right extremism

The KSK, based in south-western Germany, has been under close watch since incidents of suspected far-right extremism came to light last year. Soldiers flashing the Hitler salute and then weapons going missing were the last straw for German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

She established a working group to review KSK operations and come up with reforms. One of the branch's companies was dissolved entirely. The KSK is tasked with hostage rescue and combating terrorism abroad. It is known as the German army's rapid reaction force.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer
Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer established a working group to review KSK operations and devise reformsImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Missing guns or bad bookkeeping?

An investigation is expected to conclude by the summer and the KSK is "on parole" until then, Kramp-Karrenbauer has said. She has promised a transparent explanation of what happened. The controversial amnesty program for recouping weapons, however, may have been swept under the rug.

The missing weapons went unmentioned in a preliminary report on KSK reform, which General Eberhard Zorn, Germany's highest ranking officer and its armed forces inspector general, made public at the end of October. Instead, cases were referred to as "improper bookkeeping" and "clerical errors." Kramp-Karrenbauer was reportedly kept out of the loop.

KSK soldiers breaking into a building
The KSK is the Bundeswehr's rapid reaction force, tasked with hostage rescue and combating terrorism abroadImage: Bundeswehr/Andrea Ulke

Guns buried in the garden

A statement by a KSK soldier, who is accused of stealing weapons, blew the lid off the scandal. He mentioned the effort to collect weapons in Calw, the KSK's hometown, but said he did not participate in it. Rather, he said he preferred to bury the assault rifle and ammunition in his garden.

Zorn, who leads the working group on KSK reform, kept the controversial effort to recoup weapons from the parliamentary committee. He later admitted that was a mistake, and is expected to brief the committee at a hearing on March 3.

'Absolutely unacceptable'

Both the lack of transparency and the munitions amnesty program have left many lawmakers perplexed. Defense experts question whether a general can protect troops from the legal consequences of illegal activity.

"You can promise soldiers less severe consequences," Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a defense-focused MP with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), told DW. "But to say nothing will happen is just legally absolutely unacceptable."

Soldiers can use official weapons only in service. They cannot be carried while off duty or brought home. Possession of military-grade weapons, such as the hand grenades that were anonymously returned, is illegal in Germany.

How right-wing is the Bundeswehr?

KSK commander accused of obstruction

Greens MP Tobias Lindner said no such amnesty exists in the armed forces. That has led to accusations against Kreitmayr, the KSK commander, of obstruction of justice.

Kramp-Karrenbauer has denied rumors that Kreitmayr will be dismissed but it remains open if he will be questioned to clarify whether his amnesty offer was his alone or if his superiors instructed him to do it or knew of his plans.

The German defense minister expressed her distaste for the handling of the munitions scandal, which she said was a product of lack of discipline and "use of special rules."

Tobias Lindner speaking in parliament
Greens MP Tobias Lindner is an outspoken critic of the armed forces.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Fischer

Military weapons in far-right hands?

The anonymous return of weapons has an additional downside, Lindner said, by making it harder to investigate "whether far-right extremists in the KSK have been able to procure weapons and munitions." Extremist watchdogs have long warned of the dangers of highly trained soldiers with far-right sympathies, who could put their weapons skills to use.

Suspicion of far-right activity extends beyond Germany's special forces. Its military intelligence unit has registered about 500 such cases.

Far-right extremism is "not a problem on the edges" of the armed forces, said Eva Högl, the Bundestag's independent armed forces commissioner. When incidents are uncovered, they must be more quickly investigated and prosecuted. 

Last week, a soldier was arrested in the west-central state of Hesse last weekend for illegal weapons possession and making extremist statements.

This article has been translated from German.