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KSK: German army elite force and its links to the far-right

Anne Höhn | Nina Werkhäuser
December 13, 2022

A member of the German army's elite force, KSK, was among the far-right plotters who were arrested last week for planning to overthrow the government. DW takes a closer look at the KSK's tainted record.

KSK soldier
The elite unit has been under fir for some time nowImage: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images

The KSK elite force was created in response to an incident that many in Germany look back on with shame: In April 1994 the east African state of Rwanda was descending into violence amid the slaughter of the country's Tutsi minority.

Seven DW staff and their families caught up in the chaos desperately needed to be evacuated from a transmitter site in the capital, Kigali. But it was Belgian paratroopers — and not German special forces — who succeeded in getting the German staff out. 

How could it be that a country with a population of around 80 million was not able to come to the rescue of its own citizens?

The elite company that emerged from that insight first began to take shape in September 1996 with the creation of the top-secret Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK) force in the southwestern town of Calw. It was modeled on similar outfits in the US and UK.

armored vehicles and helicopter in action
The KSK elite force was modeled on similar outfits in the UK and USImage: Björn Trotzki/imago images

A further two years passed before the KSK was first sent into the field. That mission came when the government of Serbia refused to deport suspected war criminal Milorad Krnojelac to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Under his authority, it was alleged, there had been hundreds of cases of torture and rape in a Serbian detention camp.

KSK soldiers built a reconstruction of Krnojelac's apartment, which they used during weeks of preparations for the operation. One morning in June 1998, the order finally came, and the KSK was launched into action. That same evening, Krnojelac was handed over to the authorities in The Hague.

This was the first mission that was confirmed and one of very few that has been publicly acknowledged.

German special forces were also sent to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks on the US. Curiously though, it seems that the KSK has never been deployed on the kind of operation that it was actually set up for: liberating German citizens taken hostage abroad.

Right-wing extremism rearing its ugly head

In 2003, KSK commander Reinhard Günzel spoke out in support of Martin Hohmann, a Christian Democrat member of parliament, who had held a controversial speech on October 3, a German national holiday. In that speech, Hohmann had tried to equate crimes committed by the Nazis with offenses allegedly carried out by Jews during the Russian revolution.

Then-Defense Minister Peter Struck promptly fired Günzel, in return for which Struck was himself targeted with death threats.

This was the first time the KSK had made headlines in connection with far-right extremism. In the following years, such incidents increased.

Reinhard Guenzel smiling
Officer Reinhard Guenzel went out of his way in support for a far-right politicianImage: Herbert Nicolai/photothek/imago images

In 2007, KSK captain Daniel K. threatened a fellow officer who had publicly described the deployment of German troops against Yugoslavia in 1999 as a violation of international law and the mission in Afghanistan as a "betrayal of peace" not backed by international law.

Daniel K. received mild disciplinary sanctions from senior officers, which did not prevent him from moving up the KSK ranks. It was not for another 12 years that he was finally dismissed from service for having contacts with the far-right Identitarian Movement.

Another KSK soldier was fired in 2015 in the wake of a separate probe into the activities of far-right Bundeswehr soldiers. Using the codename "Hannibal," Andre S. had begun to build up a dense network of chat groups that shared information and opinions about the German government's refugee policies and what they believed was the imminent outbreak of civil war.

In 2017, investigators found ammunition, signal, and smoke grenades in Andre S.'s house as well as detonators for hand grenades. He was later sentenced to pay a fine for firearms and explosives offenses and was dismissed from the Bundeswehr.

How right-wing is the Bundeswehr?

KSK: an easy target for far-right infiltration?

"The incidents point to a systematic problem," says Dirk Laabs. He spent two years researching far-right tendencies in the police and the military, including the KSK, for his book "Enemies of the State in Uniform."

Laabs identified a tendency to misunderstand the whole notion of "an elite unit." There is a lot of pressure and a lot of frustration among the soldiers over what they see as a lack of appreciation for their work in politics and broader society. This, says Laabs, has come together to create a toxic mood in which "you get a unit that believes that it doesn't owe any accountability to anybody."

Laabs also argues that there is a leadership problem, with senior officers turning a blind eye to far-right incidents and infringements. The result is that soldiers who might otherwise speak out tend to keep their heads down.

It would, however, be wrong to view the KSK as a "shadow army within the Bundeswehr," says Laabs. "But what we do have is a whole lot of shaky, poorly led, young, far-right-leaning commando soldiers whose very existence is potentially in ruins. We should certainly keep an eye on what they do next."

One big problem, says defense expert Hans-Peter Bartels, is the lack of proper rotation among the people serving in these units. Bartels entered the Bundestag in 1998 and served as parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces from 2015 to 2020. He was the person soldiers could turn to.

"The turnover times at the KSK are impossible. There are people who have been with the commando force virtually from day one. They've got no idea about what's going on anywhere else in the military," he argues.

What's more, in recent times, the elite unit "is hardly deployed." After all: KSK forces are gradually being withdrawn from Afghanistan and — the worst-case — operations to rescue German citizens taken hostage abroad have so far simply not happened."

German lawmakers discuss 'Reichsbürger' plot

A new dimension

An incident in April 2017 finally led to one whole KSK company being disbanded. Far-right music and Hitler salutes were reported from a farewell party for the head of the 2nd Company. Pascal D. was later sentenced to pay a fine for, "using the insignia of unconstitutional organizations." Specifically, he wore a battle cry associated with Serbian extremists as a tattoo. Following the incident, he was dismissed from service with the KSK.

As a result of the same gathering, another KSK soldier appeared on the radar of the Bundeswehr's own intelligence service: Philipp S. During a raid on his land in February 2020, investigators found two kilograms of plastic explosives, weapons, ammunition, training grenades, and Nazi trappings. Philipp S. was handed a two-year sentence on parole for offenses against the War Weapons Control Act. He was also ordered to leave the Bundeswehr.

Germany's defense minister at the time, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, described the cache of weaponry as a "new dimension" in far-right activities. Just a couple of weeks later, in July 2020, the minister put forward proposals for reform of the KSK. The force would be given "time to press the reset button."

Meanwhile, the 2nd Company was unceremoniously dissolved, with members reassigned to other sections of the KSK or allocated to other units.

Philip S. in the courtroom
Philip S. was dismissed from the Bundeswehr and handed a two-year sentence on parole for offenses against the War Weapons Control ActImage: Jens Schlueter/AFP

No reform, no KSK

The negative headlines have hit the erstwhile elite force hard, says Hans-Peter Bartels. The vast majority of the KSK soldiers are definitely not anti-democratic, says the former armed forces commissioner.

The involvement of a KSK member in the planned coup by Reichsbürger extremists uncovered in December 2022 again put the elite force in the spotlight.

The Left party is calling for the elite force to be disbanded because of links to the "Reichsbürger." Previous accusations of "right-wing activities" at the KSK have not been dealt with consistently enough, Left party chair Janine Wissler said in Berlin on Monday. "Far too much is swept under the carpet, and it is urgently necessary to take action precisely against right-wing machinations in security agencies and in the military."

This article has been updated since its publication in 2021 to reflect recent developments.

This article has been translated from German.

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