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Rank-and-file racism

Interview: Günther Birkenstock / smsMarch 2, 2013

Naval troops attacked their superior motivated by revenge - not the officer's skin color, the Bundeswehr said. If racism is a problem in the military, it's because racism is a problem in Germany, a soldier tells DW.

Naval troops on the "Hermelin" gunboat as it returns from Lebanon in 2009 Photo: Bernd Wüstneck dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Four of the Bundeswehr's naval troops tied a superior in a gunboat deployed off the coast of Lebanon and smeared paint on him. "Mongos live here," the soldiers are reported to have written on the leg of the officer - a German with roots in Thailand. The German Defense Ministry said the incident was not racially motivated. It was revenge that drove the soldiers' actions.

Ntagahoraho Burihabwa, whose parents come from Burundi, is a first lieutenant in the German Reserves. He served in the German military for 12 years. In 2010, he founded an association for soldiers with migrant backgrounds. Burihabwa, who was born in Germany, spoke with DW about racism and xenophobia in the German military.

Ntagahoraho Burihabwa Photo: Dominik Wullers Verein Dt. Soldat e.V.
Ntagahoraho Burihabwa has been a German citizen since he was three years oldImage: Dominik Wullers

DW: What is your view on the attack of a navy officer in Beirut?

Ntagahoraho Burihabwa: To me, this is first and foremost an attack on a superior. According to the Bundeswehr Operations Command, there is no evidence that the act was racially motivated. I do not have any other information but do have complete faith that the Bundeswehr investigated appropriately, and what the Operations Command said is the truth.

Did you ever personally experience anything similar while you served in the military?

No, I didn't experience anything like that. It's quite an extreme case when subordinates tie up their superior and write something on his leg. I had a few run-ins with racism in the Bundeswehr, but I also have to say that such actions are not systematic to the Bundeswehr,  and the worst experiences I had were outside the military. That's where the most and worst experiences were. What I experienced in the military was not because the Bundeswehr is the Bundeswehr but because racism is still a social problem that shows up in across all parts of society.

What is the Bundeswehr doing to prevent xenophobia?

There is a real sensibility for the issue in the Bundeswehr. It begins during basic training as part of the political education. Lessons there make it very clear that such ways of thinking have no place in the German military.

Is an effort made to ensure people with extremist tendencies are not accepted into the Bundeswehr's ranks?

For officers and non-commissioned officers there certainly is. There are also evaluations by psychologists, among others, who get a better view of a person's character. So in that way there are checks. For the rank and file members who voluntarily join the military that is also the case, as far as I know. For conscripts, it wasn't possible to ask specifically about it. But we have the military intelligence and if we have a suspicion about a person then it's investigated and checked, and the soldier is either removed from duty or is not permitted to serve.

What personal experiences have you had with discrimination?

Within the Bundeswehr, it was cases of verbal abuse directed at my appearance. I reported them and they were investigated. Outside the Bundeswehr I have other experiences - starting with verbal abuse like being called a "nigger" or people making monkey noises around me. And I have been stopped very often by the police and asked to show my ID. Once it even happened while I was in uniform, which really hurt me. These are the subtle experiences that I am sure many people with a different skin color have in Germany.

When you start an association for German soldiers with migrant backgrounds, it looks like you want to draw attention the problems such soldiers have.

No, that is a common misconception. We are not a self-help group for soldiers with migrant backgrounds that wants to raise awareness inside the armed forces. Our association comes from the military to give society a push in the right direction when it comes to questions of integration, which we see as being very undifferentiated and one-sided. In particular, it's about using the reality of our biographies to confront the cliché that there is a lack of desire to integrate among migrants in Germany. We are soldiers with migrant backgrounds who identify ourselves 100 percent with Germany and are even prepared, in the worst case, to give our lives for Germany.

It is about showing German society that there are people here with different skin colors and different religions and that those things do not get in the way of being at home and willing to serve in Germany.