Who wants to be a soldier? Germany grapples with far-right extremism in its ranks

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BERLIN — In many nations around the world, those who serve their country in uniform are honored with parades and adulated as heroes. Not so in Germany.

In a country where any semblance of militarism calls to mind the Nazi past, the notion of a German soldier raising a gun in a foreign land remains for many uniquely abhorrent.

That’s why, when Germany’s elite commando force, the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK), was established 25 years ago, many Germans were apprehensive. But following a humiliating incident during the Rwandan civil war — when a group of German citizens became stranded amid heavy fighting and had to be rescued by Belgian paratroopers — the then conservative government had reasoned that Germany could not continue to lean almost entirely on its NATO allies for many aspects of its security.

KSK commandos subsequently served in Kosovo and Afghanistan — Germany’s first foreign combat missions since World War II. The German public was deeply divided over these engagements and remained intensely skeptical of sending troops to fight wars. Germans, after all, saw their country as a Friedensmacht, a “force for peace.”

In a nation where martial attitudes remain so far outside the mainstream, the question inevitably arises: Who in Germany would aspire to the life of an elite soldier?

It’s a question that many in Germany have been forced to consider since last May, when police raided the home of a 45-year old KSK soldier in a bucolic village in the eastern German state of Saxony and found, buried in his well-manicured yard, an arsenal of weaponry — much of it taken from military stockpiles — including an AK-47, 6,000 rounds of ammunition and 2 kilograms of plastic explosives. Police also found what the defense ministry described as Nazi “devotional items,” including an SS songbook.

Since then, a string of distressing revelations about right-wing extremism in the KSK and other parts of the armed forces have raised alarm over Germany’s military culture and stoked fears of security threats to the republic coming from within its own defense forces. Last week, police arrested another soldier in the state of Hesse on charges of possessing an illegal cache of weapons and ammunition; the soldier is accused of writing a right-wing extremist manifesto titled “How to take power in Germany.”

Nowhere has the scrutiny been greater than on the elite KSK. The KSK soldier arrested last May, identified in the German press as Philipp Sch., and members of his company had already caught the attention of military counterintelligence agents in 2017, when they threw a goodbye party for a departing commander at a shooting range near the KSK’s headquarters in southwestern Germany.

The commandos, according to a witness who later reported the events to a German public broadcaster, listened to right-wing extremist music while holding “Roman-medieval” games that included a severed pig-head toss. Some soldiers, according to the witness, gave Nazi salutes; the departing commander was fined €4,000 in a German court for having done so.

Germany’s leaders are now confronting a profoundly unsettling scenario: that they have been unwittingly training and supplying the very right-wing extremists whose ideology their republic — and its military — was designed to stand against.

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At the center of the problem is a striking paradox. Germany’s long ambivalence about its armed forces, known as the Bundeswehr, may be rooted in the lessons of history; but it could also be exacerbating the problem by fostering, in parts of the armed forces, a military subculture at odds with the society these soldiers have sworn to defend.

Last December, a parliamentary panel determined that, although there was no evidence to confirm some people’s worst fear — that a “shadow army” operating within the military was plotting to overthrow the republic — “networks” of right-wing extremists had established themselves within the armed forces and other parts of the country’s security apparatus.  

German military’s counter-intelligence agency, tasked with rooting out right-wing extremism in the ranks, examined 843 suspected cases of right-wing extremism in the military in 2020, according to a defense ministry report, a clear increase from the previous year. Some two-thirds of the cases involved personnel under the age of 35.

In an indication of the depth of the problem, military counterintelligence agents themselves have come under scrutiny for, in the words of a recent parliamentary report, “lacking professional distance” from the soldiers they’re supposed to investigate.

The German defense ministry has been cracking down on extremism in the ranks with intensified urgency.

Several weeks after police raided the home of Philipp Sch., German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced that the KSK’s international training exercises and foreign missions would be suspended or wound down pending far-reaching reforms, and that the KSK’s Second Company — the one Philipp Sch. was part of — would be disbanded.

The survival of the rest of the force, she added, would depend on the implementation of 60 measures, from changes to the way KSK soldiers are trained to how ammunition is safeguarded. The measures are intended, according to a defense ministry statement, to sweep out extremism with an “iron broom.”

But more questions about the KSK were raised in February following reports that the brigadier general tasked with leading and reforming the force, Markus Kreitmayr, had previously allowed soldiers to anonymously return hoarded ammunition to KSK stockpiles without consequences.

Speaking to parliamentarians on Wednesday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said the general could face legal repercussions. Thousands of rounds of ammunition and 62 kilograms of explosives in the KSK remain unaccounted for, according to an internal army report.

German leaders — faced with the difficult task of confronting extremism without pigeonholing some 175,000 regular and career soldiers in the process — warn against holding the Bundeswehr under collective suspicion.

The vast majority of soldiers in the KSK and Bundeswehr at large “adhere to the constitution without ifs or buts,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said on the day she announced the KSK reforms.

That is likely the case, but quantifiable information on the political views of Bundeswehr members is scarce. The defense ministry has commissioned a study to assess soldiers’ political views, to be released next year. Past surveys showed cause for concern: One survey of young Germans, done in 1992, found that 77 percent of those with extreme-right political beliefs had a favorable view of the military. The more extreme right their political beliefs, in fact, the more favorable their view.

Military culture tends to be revered by far-right ideologues everywhere, and it’s not clear whether Germany’s extremism problem is more severe that in the armed forces of many other NATO countries, including in the United States, where the recent concentration of military veterans among pro-Donald Trump rioters at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 prompted the Joint Chiefs of Staff to issue a memo reminding service members of their duty to protect the constitution.

But in Germany, right-wing extremism poses a unique existential threat for a military that has struggled to cut the links to its Nazi antecedent and, in the face of that history, to overcome the German public’s ambivalence about maintaining a fighting force at all. 

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Efforts to build a post-war military in Germany have always been fraught.

Just a few years after the end of World War II, American military leaders began to see the development of a West German fighting force as essential to defending Western Europe from potential Soviet attack.

The notion that West Germany, so soon after the fall of the Nazis, should remilitarize was deeply controversial, not least among the country’s citizens. Nevertheless, in 1950, as the behest of West Germany’s conservative government, a group of former officers in the Nazi armed forces — known as the Wehrmacht — convened in secret at a monastery not far from the Belgian border to conceptualize a new German military.

A new force, they determined, would need a new ethos to symbolize a break from the Nazi past. They came up with a concept that came to be known as Innere Führung, or “internal leadership.” Soldiers, in other words, were to be guided by their conscience, not a Führer.

It is an irony of history that the men who came up with this idea served Adolf Hitler and propagated the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” — the lie that the Wehrmacht did not perpetrate Nazi atrocities — in an effort not only to beautify their own reputations, but to legitimize a Bundeswehr, founded in 1955, staffed by former Wehrmacht officers.

Still, their idea that soldiers are “citizens in uniform” guided by innate democratic values and not blind obedience remains the core ideological pillar of the Bundeswehr today.

Much else has changed. Gone are the days when the Wehrmacht was officially mythologized. “The Wehrmacht was involved in the crimes of the Nazi regime in World War II,” reads the Bundeswehr’s current explanation of the concept of Innere Führung. “It cannot therefore endow a tradition to the Bundeswehr.”

Not all Bundeswehr soldiers are in agreement. This was made painfully obvious for the German defense ministry in 2017, after a German lieutenant was arrested in the Vienna Airport for hiding a loaded, antique pistol in a nook in the bathroom. The investigation that followed revealed a man steeped in far-right ideology who, according to federal prosecutors, was planning attacks against prominent left-wing figures, including Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister.

Following the soldier’s arrest, the defense minister at the time, Ursula von der Leyen, took a tour of the second lieutenant’s barracks and saw on display a series of photos and objects commemorating the Wehrmacht. In reaction, she ordered a comprehensive search of Bundeswehr barracks for similar items.

More than 400 pieces of memorabilia and artwork were scrutinized as potential Wehrmacht mementos: a portrait of a soldier’s great grandfather in uniform, a mural of Wehrmacht machine gunners, a display of aerial combat photos showing Nazi fighter planes. Offending objects were removed and von der Leyen set out to revise the decree that lays out the Bundeswehr’s traditions, explicitly ruling out veneration of the Wehrmacht

It’s against this backdrop that successive U.S. administrations have pressured the German government to boost its military might. Germany’s low military spending has been an enduring source of tension between the two countries: Despite recent increases, German spending still lags well below the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Germany has pushed the date for meeting that target back to the early 2030s.

U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to continue to apply pressure on Germany, something Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to acknowledge in her congratulatory statement following his victory. “America is and will remain our closest ally, but it expects more from us — and rightly so,” she told reporters.

German leaders have made such promises before. But longstanding political hesitancy about the role of the country’s military has left it notoriously ill-equipped and understaffed — an enduring state of affairs that has created a rift between German politicians who have long promised improvements and German soldiers who have come to doubt their sincerity.

In December, Lieutenant Colonel André Wüstner, the chairman of the association that represents Bundeswehr personnel, estimated that no more than half of Germany’s main weapons systems were combat ready, much lower than the defense ministry’s official figure of 74 percent.

The troops, he told the German newspaper Die Welt, were left wondering whether the German government is “really interested in operational readiness.” Kramp-Karrenbauer and the country’s top general recently acknowledged shortfalls in a joint paper, characterizing the military as “underfinanced” and “not adequately prepared” to handle evolving threats.

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Growing dissatisfaction in the Bundeswehr over a lack of recognition and resources, and an absence of clear purpose, has alienated many soldiers from mainstream parties, leaving an opening for the far right to exploit.

The far-right Alternative for Germany has sought to present itself as a savior of an eviscerated Bundeswehr, promising in its party manifesto to bolster the military’s fighting capacity and restore for soldiers “a high degree of social recognition for their special service to the fatherland.”

In keeping with the overall message, AfD parliamentarians recently commissioned a film titled, “The Bundeswehr Misery — Why Germany Can No Longer Defend Itself,” which begins with an interview of a former army commander declaring that the purpose of a military is not to “lead a grandma across the street,” but to be in a position “to use deadly military violence.” 

The party’s message appears to be attractive, if not to the wider population, then to many soldiers. In 2019, some 6 percent of AfD party members were career soldiers, according to an estimate provided by the party at the time. There are more former career and regular soldiers among AfD members of the Bundestag than among any other faction — circumstances that prompted the German tabloid Bild to ask in a headline: “Will Alternative for Germany become the new soldier party?”

Predictably, members of the AfD — which itself was recently placed under formal surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency for suspected right-wing extremism — have taken issue with the defense ministry’s methods for rooting out far-right ideology.

When von der Leyen moved to explicitly ban veneration of the Wehrmacht, members of the AfD accused her of dismantling the military’s tradition. “The minister is ordering responsible citizens in uniform to blank out large parts of German military history,” said Gerold Otten, a retired Bundeswehr officer and current AfD parliamentarian. “One should not from today’s perspective portray all members of the Wehrmacht as potential Nazi criminals.”

AfD politicians have also taken aim at the reforms now underway within the KSK. In October, Eva Högl, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces — a position designed to safeguard parliamentary control over the Bundeswehr, and, per the official job description, ensure “the principles of Innere Führung are observed” — revealed some of the techniques being applied to weed out aspiring commandos with extreme-right tendencies.

She described witnessing a “hell week” for KSK prospects and explained how, after a 45-kilometer night march followed by a rappelling exercise, exhausted soldiers were placed in a one-on-one talk with a psychologist and asked questions like: “Does Germany have to be protected from immigration?” In reaction to this interview, Otten, the AfD parliamentarian and retired Bundeswehr officer, tweeted: “It is unbelievable how perfidious the snooping of attitudes is carried out in the #Bundeswehr!”

As the AfD wages a campaign to win acolytes from the military ranks, the stakes for the effectiveness of the reforms now underway within the KSK could hardly be higher.

In an interim report to the defense minister, Eberhard Zorn — Germany’s top general — expressed optimism that the reforms would bear fruit and that the KSK would return to a “stronger operations” role this year. But he didn’t suggest the road would be easy.

“We see encouraging professionalism and determination, but also legitimate questions and concerns from those affected,” he wrote. “All those responsible for the service members here are facing a particular challenge.” 



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