Following Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II in 1945, the once mighty Wehrmacht was demobilized and then dissolved entirely. Banned from maintaining a military of its own, responsibility for the country’s security fell to the four Allied, occupying powers — the US, UK, France and Soviet Union — for over a decade. It was only after the country’s division into two separate state entities in 1949 — the Western-backed Federal Republic of Germany, and Soviet-allied German Democratic Republic — that the prospect of Germany once again becoming militarized was seriously indulged. It took a further six years for the FRG to finally gain a military of its own — the Bundeswehr.
From its very birth, the Bundeswehr has been accused of providing sanctuary to right-wing extremists — perhaps unsurprisingly, given its earliest incarnations were genuinely riddled with former Nazi officers and generals, drawn from the former ranks of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauss (1956 — 62) even named Bundeswehr barracks after Nazi generals. Ever since, German leaders have battled to present as positive an image of the military as possible, limiting engagements to restricted interventions heavily touted as “humanitarian” peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Sudan.
However, these efforts have repeatedly been derailed by scandal — and with the April 26 arrest of a soldier on suspicion of planning an attack targeting asylum seekers and left-wing politicians, including Social Democrat Interior Minister Heiko Maas and former President Joachim Gauck, the country’s public relations blitz may have suffered its most palpable knock yet.
The 28-year old individual, identified only as Franco A, is a German citizen — he applied for asylum as a Syrian refugee in the German town of Giessen in late 2015, being subsequently granted asylum, shelter and benefits the following January. Officials bizarrely did not notice the alleged Syrian refugee was of German descent, and did not speak Arabic. Officials claim he planned to commit serious crimes to discredit refugees, deliberately leaving his fingerprints — stored in the refugee database under his assumed identity — at crime scenes.
The arrest is particularly damaging given the Bundeswehr possessed serious proof of his far-right leanings in 2014 at least, after he submitted a “clearly racist” master’s thesis to his university, but looked the other way — and has no clue whether he is part of a wider network. Officials are said to be investigating whether Franco A has up to five associates. In response, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was quick to condemn the military’s “failure of leadership,” and wrote an open letter to all Bundeswehr staff. In it, she stated it was no longer possible to “speak of individual cases,” and slammed what she perceives to be a misguided sense of esprit de corps that prevents troops from reporting extremism within their ranks.
The embarrassing case comes not long after the German Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) announced it was investigating 275 instances of far-right extremism within the Bundeswehr, including soldiers saying Heil Hitler, performing Nazi salutes and calling for violence against migrants in their own ranks — crimes punishable with prolonged jail terms under the German Criminal Code. Moreover, they are contrary to military guidelines on speech — even ironically articulating political views hostile to German law is considered a “contravention of core military duty.”
In one instance under investigation, a soldier posted hate calls on a Facebook page associated with far-right party NPD, calling for the deaths of “typical foreigners.” At the time, the soldier was “only disciplined” — authorities are now taking the case much more seriously.
MAD suggest neo-Nazi sentiment is most prevalent among 18- to 25-year-old soldiers, whose obsession with weaponry, order and hierarchies make them easy pickings for army recruiters. If and when these individuals are identified, getting rid of them isn’t particularly easy — their affinities must be proven in court, and often such leanings are discovered when it’s too late. For example, a former soldier, Andre E, is currently on trial for his alleged involvement with the National Socialist Underground, a terror group accused of a wave of bombing attacks and 10 murders in the 00s.
It’s arguable recent changes to German military policy have even exacerbated the issue of extremism in the Bundeswehr. In 2011, the country ended its policy of mandatory military service, which by definition drew recruits from all levels of, and demographics within, society. Since the ban, the number of ethnic minority and female recruits has fallen, meaning the Bundeswehr is staffed by an ever-narrowing pool of recruits.
The German military is currently undergoing significant structural reforms, partly inspired by scandals such as Andre E, and humiliations like the scheduled to come into effect in July will oblige all prospective recruits to undergo stringent security checks, to ensure they have no criminal or extremist history, or such connections. Nonetheless, given violence and extremism are on the rise in Germany, ensuring unsavory elements don’t make it through the screening process may be difficult.
An intelligence service report suggests in 2015, the number of violent crimes — such as threats, arson, and attempted homicides — committed by right-wing extremists rose 42 percent, with crimes targeting foreigners hitting a historic post-2001 record. The report attributes the burgeoning of right-wing radicalization to backlash against German’s immigrant influx.