Mon, May 15, 2017 - Page 7 News List

German probe into right-wing violence turns attention to army

By MELISSA EDDY  /  NY Times News Service, BERLIN

The initial case was bizarre enough that it was hard to know what it meant: A 28-year-old German Army lieutenant was caught posing, improbably, as a Syrian refugee.

However, when the incident turned out to be part of an elaborate scheme to frame migrants in a terrorist attack aimed at top government officials, the investigation widened.

First one barracks was searched, then another, turning up Nazi-era military memorabilia that pointed to a larger problem some had long feared and which some commanders are accused of sweeping under the rug: far-right extremists in the army’s ranks.

The military police in Germany are investigating 275 cases involving accusations of racism or far-right extremism stretching back six years, according to the German Ministry of Defense.

While the ministry emphasized that that number represented a small minority in a force of nearly 180,000, half of the cases stem from last year and nearly 20 percent from this year, pointing to an accelerating problem that German military authorities are only now scrambling to address.

“In the past, individual cases were always examined, but it wasn’t seen or understood that these cases are not isolated, but there are networks and connections, also to extremists on the outside of the armed forces,” said Christine Buchholz, a member of the German Bundestag from the opposition Left Party.

“Now it is glaringly obvious to everyone that this problem has existed for a long time and poses an immediate threat to people,” she added.

The revelations, in the middle of an election year, have set off sniping between the civilian and military authorities.

They have also added a disturbing new dimension to Germany’s effort to address a surge of extremist activity since the country took in nearly 1 million refugees in 2015.

As Europe faces a range of challenges — including the rise of populism and the propaganda machine of Russian President Vladimir Putin — concerns about Germany’s soldiers have raised broader questions about whether and how the country can step into a leadership role, including a military one, commensurate with its size and its economic and political stature.

In particular, the widening scandal has revived concerns about Germany’s shift to a volunteer force, which began in 2011. That step, some have warned, could narrow the ranks to youths susceptible to Nazi nostalgia, or to other extremists looking for free training, and access to guns and ammunition in a country with strict weapons laws.

Starting in July, all applicants seeking to join the military will have to undergo a security check aimed at weeding out potential extremists.

SHADOW

However, that raises questions about how to handle those currently serving, at a time when the military is struggling to attract recruits.

Last week, the inspector-general ordered a search of all military installations for displays of souvenirs or images glorifying the Nazi-era military, the Wehrmacht.

Michael Wolffsohn, a professor of modern history at the University of the German Armed Forces in Munich, says the decision to scrap the draft had driven the military from the center of society.

“As soon as society in general retreats from the armed forces, it opens the way and the place for fringe groups on one hand and highly motivated idealists on the other,” Wolffsohn said.

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