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A legion of questions

Vera Kern
May 11, 2017

First it was Franco A. Then came a second Bundeswehr officer. The arrests of right-wing terror suspects working in the military raise questions about how attractive the Bundeswehr is for extremists.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Schulze

An investigation that turned up World War II German army helmets and other Nazi symbols stowed in the barracks has brought to light a legion of questions regarding possible far-right extremists in the German military. One of them is whether the Bundeswehr is a meeting place for right-wing extremists.

"The Bundeswehr fundamentally offers many things that appeal to right-wing extremists: Weapons, equipment, war, a harsh tone, hierarchy," said Captain Florian Kling, a spokesman for the Darmstädter Signal, a military watchdog group made up of active and retired soldiers. 

Zero tolerance for extremists

The Bundeswehr has taken a zero-tolerance approach toward extremists for years, Kling told DW. But how can a soldier with extremist tendencies be identified?

"These days, no one is open about being a neo-Nazi, making a Nazi salute or pinning a swastika to the wall or their chests," he said, adding that modern extremists keep their views under wraps.

The Bundeswehr is neither a shelter for right-wing radicals nor a breeding ground for right-wing terrorism. This has been stressed by many experts in recent days amid the scandal of two officers being arrested for allegedly plotting attacks. The majority of soldiers firmly support Germany's democratic values. Yet other observers have said there seem to be conditions in the military that encourage right-wing extremist ideology.

Infografik Bundeswehr Umfrage Deutschlandtrend ENG

Bundeswehr – a mirror of society?

Some point to the abolition of compulsory military service as one reason why extremist views have apparently found some fertile ground in the Bundeswehr. Germany has expected its military to reflect its society - often calling soldiers "citizens in uniform" - but since the end of compulsory military service, the barracks are less socially mixed, critics say.

Michael Wolffsohn, a former historian at the Bundeswehr University in Munich said he doing away with conscriptions has been a key problem. The abolition of the compulsory military service allegedly opened the army to circles that are much closer to armed forces, militarization and violence.

Frankreich  Illkirch-Graffenstaden Bundeswehr Soldaten vom Jägerbataillon 291
Do these men reflect all of German society?Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

"Any armed force without general compulsory military service is no longer a reflection of society, but is rather a disproportionate kind of extremist force," Wolffsohn said in an interview with the public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Kling was also critical of the lack of social diversification in the military since the end of mandatory military service. Some 70 percent of volunteer soldiers made the decision to work in the military during their mandatory conscription.

"This meant that there was more diversity, perhaps even liberal, critical, left-leaning minds, which made the whole system more heterogeneous," he said.

IE Heinz Schulte - MP3-Stereo

But the existence of radical views in the military does not necessarily mean it's no longer a reflection of society, according to some. Marco Seliger, editor in chief of the magazine "Loyal," a publication of the reservist association, said such far-right, far-left and Islamic tendencies have existed in Germany for years. The alarming difference is that soldiers have access to weapons and training to use them.

Seliger, an army reserve soldier, said the fact that right-wing opinions and radical views spread through barracks is evidence of a structural problem in the military. Superiors now have less time to engage with their subordinates.

"These days, a company commander is suffocated by bureaucracy," Seliger said. "There is so much paperwork, that he or she hardly has time to check on what individual soldiers are doing."

According to European working regulations, the Bundeswehr is also subject to a 41.5-hour week. This means that there is no time left to get to know people over a beer in the evenings - and perhaps to identify radical tendencies early on.

Controversial Wehrmacht symbols

Bundeswehr Radikalismus Rechtsradikalismus
Weapons like these, found in a German barracks in France, were used by the NazisImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P.Seeger

So far, hardly anyone seems to have perceived the danger that Nazi symbols could pose. Steel helmets from the Nazi era, pictures of soldiers, and barracks named after Nazi officers - in many Bundeswehr barracks there are memorials of the dark chapter in German history between 1933 and 1945.

The controversial Heritage Decree of 1982 allows the possession of Wehrmacht devotional objects - provided they are displayed in a "historically classified" way. Idealizing the Nazi period is not the decree's intention.

Many soldiers with moderate views may have hardly taken notice of such symbols. Far-right extremists may, however, have taken a very different message away from the memorials.

"Right-wing soldiers could have felt encouraged by this," Kling said. He said he sees such Nazi army memorabilia as a possible explanation for "out of control developments in the barracks."

Now Germany's Defense Ministry appears to have also recognized the problem. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has announced plans for a series of reforms to the military, including a review of the Heritage Decree.