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The Bundeswehr's image problem

May 3, 2017

The case of a German lieutenant suspected of planning a right-wing terror attack has unsettled both political and army leaders. The question of whether the Bundeswehr is a right-wing haven is as old as the army itself.

Bundeswehr Soldaten Tarnuniform
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

André E. had only spent a few days with the German army in the Thuringian city of Gotha when he told his supervising officer straight up: "I identify as a National Socialist." Based on his appearance, it wasn't exactly a secret. He sported a tattoo with the motto of the Hitler Youth, "Blut und Ehre" (blood and honor), because, as he said, he has so much admiration for the SS.

André E. was in training for 10 more months, learning how to shoot an assault rifle and throw hand grenades. This all happened 17 years ago, but André E. is not just any neo-Nazi. He is one of the accused in the Munich trial against the right-wing extremist group, the National Socialist Underground, or NSU. The terrorist group stands accused of bombing attacks and 10 murders. Why did the Bundeswehr not stop him?

Deutschland Bonn Ursula von der Leyen
German Defense Minister Ursula von der LeyenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Fassbender

Failure of military counterintelligence?

The case of Michael L. also continues to plague the Bundeswehr and the Defense Ministry, especially in light of the latest scandal around an extreme right-wing officer who was allegedly planning a terror attack. In 2012, reservist Michael L., then 35, was serving as an officer in Kunduz, Afghanistan. In 2008, he had enquired about becoming a member of the far-right party, the NPD, in the city of Kassel. He was also a member of a nationalist group known as the "Freier Widerstand Kassel" (Free Resistance Kassel). The state of Hesse had classed the organization as a neo-Nazi group. Despite his history, Michael L. made it to Afghanistan, something that Germany's military counterintelligence service, MAD, should have prevented. MAD is supposed to vet all soldiers before they serve in foreign missions. So why did Michael L. slip through?

A long history of image problems

Ever since it was founded in 1955, the German army has struggled with the image of being a haven for right-wing extremists. And it's no wonder. At the end of the 1950s, the army hired 300 officers from the Waffen-SS, Hitler's elite fighting force. More than 12,000 Wehrmacht officers were serving in the Bundeswehr - as well as over 40 Nazi generals. The Bundeswehr was tainted with this "brown legacy" from its inception, and its relationship to the new concept of the "citizen in uniform" was correspondingly ambivalent. Under Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauß (CSU, 1956 - 62), army barracks were named after Nazi generals; those involved in the resistance attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, were labeled "traitors"; and questions about war crimes were mostly taboo.

In the 1960s, the "conscientious fulfillment of duty" was still regarded as the highest of all virtues for a soldier. But General Heinz Karst, who was in charge of army training at the time, nevertheless declared that freedom and democracy were "not the last values."

At the same time, there was growing criticism about "excessive parliamentary control" over the young army. In the 1970s, Bundeswehr academies were supposed to help stamp out the last of the old mentality.

But the first generation of young officers rejected reforms and were opposed to Willy Brandt's policy of detente. At the start of the 1980s, Defense Minister Hans Apel (SPD) was met with protests when he said that which could not be denied: "The armed forces were in part enmeshed with National Socialism and its guilt...a regime of injustice like the Third Reich cannot form the basis of tradition."

Too lax on extremism?

And yet, the Bundeswehr remains attractive for right-wing extremists even today. Most of the cases that come to light have to do with what are called propaganda crimes: calls of "Sieg Heil" or swastika graffiti. According to MAD, neo-Nazi sentiment is most prevalent among 18- to 25-year-olds, drawn by the lure of weaponry and the hierarchies within the army. But once identified, neo-Nazis cannot simply be thrown out of the army; courts have to confirm the presence of right-wing extremism.

It's not that there are a lack of clues, rather that they are often discovered when it's too late, or by coincidence. The failure of MAD in connection with the NSU murders suspect raises the prospect that extremist tendencies were noticed, but that other soldiers and supervisors either didn't react, or reacted too mildly.

Deutschland Rekruten in der Grundausbildung
Bundeswehr soldier recruits performing exercises during basic trainingImage: picture alliance/ZB/S. Sauer

Neo-Nazi network?

As a result of all these "discoveries", Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has canceled her planned trip to the United States. It's an unusual reaction, and indicative of how seriously she is taking the situation. Observers are not ruling out the possibility that there is a neo-Nazi network within the armed forces. Some say that scrapping conscription is to blame. The Bundeswehr is lacking in "normal people," said Michael Wolffsohn, a former historian at the Bundeswehr Academy in Munich. Without conscription, the army has become overrun with extremists, eager to learn how to use weapons, he said.

Conscription was a guarantee that a cross-section of society would be represented in the armed forces, in keeping with the concept of the "citizen in uniform." Chancellor Angela Merkel oversaw the decision to scrap military service in 2011. In contrast, Sweden also did away with conscription, but after seven years of a professional army, it has now reintroduced mandatory military service.

Head shot of a man (Volker Wagener) with gray hair and a beard
Volker Wagener Writer for DW's Programs for Europe department