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Von der Leyen: Germany must remove WWII-era names

May 14, 2017

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has said Germany must rename all barracks honoring WWII-era soldiers. The Bundeswehr has been engulfed in a series of scandals - from reports of sexual abuse to right-wing extremism.

Bundesverteidigungsministerin von der Leyen in Illkirch
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday that the military must rename about a half dozen Bundeswehr barracks that still bear the name of WWII-era officers.

The proposal comes as part of the Defense Ministry's latest push for Germany's army to make a clean break with its Nazi past following a series of scandals this year.

Read more: What draws right-wing extremists to the military?

"The Bundeswehr has to send signals both internally and externally that it is not rooted in the tradition of the Wehrmacht (Germany's Nazi-era military)," von der Leyen told Germany's Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "It needs to confidently put more of an emphasis on its own 60-year history. Why not rename those barracks?"

Among the major barracks named after Nazi-era officers are the Marseille barracks in the northern municipality of Appen, named after the famed Luftwaffe fighter pilot, Hans-Joachim Marseille, and the Feldwebel-Lilienthal barracks in Delemnhorst named after Diedrich Lilienthal, a non-commissioned officer who led a number of the Wehrmacht's anti-tank artillery divisions into the Soviet Union.

Created in 1955 for the defense of West Germany, Germany's Bundeswehr does not consider itself as a successor to the Wehrmacht. However, the German military has this year been plagued by a series of extremist scandals. The most notable incident saw the arrest of a lieutenant who posed as an asylum seeker to carry out an attack on a migrant center.

Last month, von der Leyen opened an investigation into whether there are right-wing extremists in the German military. In a related move, the head of the armed forces last week called for an inspection of all Bundeswehr barracks after investigators discovered Nazi memorabilia in a garrison in Donaueschingen.

Read more: Opinion: Attacking out of self-defense

Von der Leyen under fire

The scandals have piled pressure on von der Leyen, a senior figure in the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, less than five months before the German election. The defense minister drew criticism from an army association after she called out the armed forces for supposed "weak leadership." She later apologized for her criticism of the military but also warned there could be further revelations.

Infografik Bundeswehr Umfrage Deutschlandtrend ENG

The German defense minister's handling of the probe into extremist factions within the military has prompted criticism. Former Defense Minister Volker Rühe (CDU) told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that it was "completely inappropriate and absurd to place the whole Bundeswehr under suspicion of being an extension of the Wehrmacht." Von der Leyen's response to the scandal had created a "distorted picture of the Bundeswehr," he added.

Germany's parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Hans-Peter Bartels, a Social Democrat, said that "the issue of ties to the Wehrmacht and its traditions are now largely behind the Bundeswehr." Speaking to the Frankfurter Allgemeines Sonntagszeitung newspaper, Bartels said that von der Leyen's probe was merely about excluding a handful "problematic remaining devotees" but that her disproportionate response to the problem had spurred resentment among many soldiers.

dm/cl (dpa, Reuters, AFP)