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The German Military Has a Right-Wing Extremism Problem
Growing extremism, and a Wehrmacht fetish, riddle the ranks of the Bundeswehr.
A bizarre case involving a German officer and a planned terrorist attack has drawn attention to an alarming problem: right-wing extremism within the German military.
A German lieutenant posed as a Syrian refugee under an alias, applied for asylum in early 2016, and even received financial benefits after his application was accepted. He was arrested last week and charged with planning an act of violence; police found explosives in the home of a suspected accomplice. Police say he was motivated by xenophobia, and that the planned attack was possibly intended to frame the Syrian immigrant community.
An April 29 investigation by German news outlet Der Spiegel revealed that the soldier had expressed far-right views in 2014, and that the military knew of it — but had looked the other way. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen called it a failure of leadership in the Bundeswehr, or German armed forces.
The case coincides with a report, released in early April by the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD), that it is investigating 275 cases of mostly right-wing extremism among service members, most from 2016 and 2017.
Right-wing extremism is a “major concern” and has traditionally had a presence within the armed forces, said Christian Mölling, deputy director of the research institute at the German Council on Foreign Relations, in an email with Foreign Policy.
Far right-wing thought has long persisted in shadowy pockets of the Bundeswehr, fruit of a continued obsession with the Nazi-era Wehrmacht, sparking national controversy when it occasionally surfaces.
In 1995, an elite military school invited a notorious neo-Nazi, who had spent years in prison for his role in a bombing, to give a talk. In 1997, video footage emerged of soldiers making anti-Semitic comments and imitating the Nazi salute. In 2003, a former general of the German special forces, Reinhard Günzel, congratulated a German conservative member of parliament on revisionist statements comparing Jews to Nazis. Günzel was subsequently fired; in 2006 he published a book, called Secret Warriors, lionizing the Nazi-era roots of German special forces.
In part, that is a reflection of the continued reverence with which some members of the military view the Wehrmacht, said Philipp Liesenhoff, a researcher in the German Marshall Fund’s Europe program. Liesenhoff served as a member of a German special forces unit from 2006 to 2007.
“There’s this ideal of the German Wehrmacht – they’re seen as these tough, experienced fighters,” Liesenhoff told FP. “When I was there, there were repeated references to the toughness of the Wehrmacht soldiers. The people who trained us in basic training always made references to that time.”
Liesenhoff saw soldiers listening to neo-Nazi bands. “In the cantina, you could buy sweaters and keychains with letters in the fractured font of the Nazi era,” said Liesenhoff, with motivational slogans such as “Don’t complain, fight.” To blow off steam, he said, sometimes one person would yell “sieg” and another person would “heil,” a chant used at Nazi-era political rallies. It wasn’t common, but it also wasn’t a secret, and authorities tended to ignore it.
An attempted act of right-wing violence by a member of the armed forces is especially alarming because extremist violence has skyrocketed across Germany in recent years. From 2014 to 2015, the most recent data available, the number of violent crimes, including threats, arson, and attempted homicides, committed by right-wing extremists rose by 42 percent, according to a report by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
The number of these crimes that targeted foreigners reached a historic record, outpacing any previous year since the annual report was launched in 2001. The report attributed the spread of right-wing radicalization to backlash against Islamic terrorism, rising xenophobia after an influx of immigrants, and to “uninhibited hate speech.”
Right-wing extremism has often targeted immigrants, as with the so-called kebab murders in which an underground neo-Nazi group allegedly killed more than a half-dozen immigrant vendors, mostly Turkish, over a period of several years in the 2000s in different cities around Germany. Anti-immigrant sentiment has since surged amid the migrant crisis of the past two years, driving the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party to a spate of election victories across the country.
Neo-Nazi ideas have a particular foothold in East Germany. The eastern city of Rostock was home to the violent 1992 anti-immigrant riots that made international headlines, and right-wing extremism continues to have a wider following in the region than elsewhere in the country.
That affects the Bundeswehr: East Germany makes up one-fifth of the country’s population, but accounts for one-third of military recruits.
“East Germans are disproportionately represented within the Bundeswehr,” said Hans Kundnani, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, in an interview with FP. “The reason that’s significant is that obviously, within the former German Democratic Republic, neo-Nazism is more of a problem than in the west.”
Given its 20th century history, Germany has little tolerance for extremist sentiment. Article 5 of the Basic Law, Germany’s de facto constitution, guarantees freedom of speech — but with caveats that speech may be curtailed in certain cases. Ernst Zündel, a notorious Holocaust denier, was convicted of incitement of racial hatred in 2007 and sentenced to five years in prison under that portion of Article 5.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, aims to protect democratic principles and fights both right-wing and left-wing extremism, as well as Islamic extremism.
In theory at least, the military has tough guidelines for what speech is acceptable. Each new recruit must swear loyalty to the constitution, for example — and even the appearance of articulating political views hostile to the law of the land is a “contravention of this core military duty,” concluded a 2017 parliamentary report.
That also applies to online speech. The report noted that one service member made a Facebook comment about a crime allegedly committed by an immigrant: “One day the criminal government scum will also realize the integration of this rabble has been a complete balls-up and these vermin only want our money.”
The service member was disciplined after the comment was discovered. Indeed, most of the 275 investigations of extremism within the Bundeswehr involve some form of speech, often online comments, text messages, or verbal remarks.
But while guidelines do exist to fight extremist propaganda within the military, recent policy changes may only have served to make the problem worse. In 2011, Germany’s decades-long policy of mandatory military service was suspended. Military conscription, which drew recruits from all strata of society, had long been viewed as an important check on extremist thought within the military. Now, though, the all-volunteer force seems to be drawing from a more narrow pool.
“I think the fraction of people with worrisome motives [joining the military] has gotten larger since mandatory service has been disbanded,” said Liesenhoff.
German authorities have been trying to stamp out extremism in the ranks, though, adding 90 new staff members last year to the MAD, which performs security clearances and investigates political extremism in the armed forces. In the past, applicants needed only to divulge connections to extremist groups, provide a copy of their criminal records, and swear allegiance to the constitution.
But new rules due to go into effect in July would require each new applicant to undergo a security clearance prior to assuming any post. The goal, according to the Bundestag report, is to keep extremists out of the military in the first place.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images