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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Germany's Love Affair with Neo-Nazism

"There's this ideal of the German Wehrmacht [the unified armed forces of the Third Reich] -- they're seen as these tough, experienced fighters. 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 [Nazi era]."
"In the cantina, you could buy sweaters and keychains with letters in the fractured font of the Nazi era, [with motifs like] Don't complain, fight."
"I think the fraction of people with worrisome motives [joining the military] has gotten larger since mandatory service has been disbanded."
Philipp Liesenhoff, researcher, German Marshall Fund Europe program

"East Germans are disproportionately represented within the Bundeswehr."
"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."
Hans Kundnani, senior fellow, German Marshall Fund
German soldiers of the 291st Jagerbataillon take part in a military ceremony on 5 July 2012 in Illkirch-Graffenstaden, eastern France. AFP

It seems the concept of romantic Aryan 'supermen' is difficult to dislodge from a nation's consciousness, particularly among those with an especial penchant toward the appeal of racial superiority. And as much as Germany officially expresses its shame and regret over its serial roles in sending Europe into a tailspin of two world wars responsible for the deaths of millions of people, combatants and civilians alike, with fascist Germany extending its warmongering to include genocidal extermination of Jews, there will always be those who wax nostalgic over Hitler.

The German news outlet Der Spiegel recently produced an expose over the presence of neo-Nazis in the German military. Where the military authorities had full knowledge of the presence of these right-wing extremists, but preferred not to 'notice' their presence. The situation, according to Ursula von der Leyen, the German Defense Minister, represented a failure of the leadership of the Bundeswehr (German armed forces).

The Military Counterintelligence Service issued a report last month that it is in the throes of investigating no fewer than 274 instances of right-wing extremism in the last year, among service members. According to Christian Molling, deputy director of the research institute at the German Council on Foreign Relations, this kind of extremism has a tradition in the German armed forces where far rightwing values persist alongside an ongoing obsession with the Wehrmacht of the Nazi era.

There are ample examples where the military itself invites the normalization of far-right extremism to continue to be entrenched in the German armed forces. When, for example, in 1994 the invitation went out to a notorious neo-Nazi known to have been imprisoned for years in relation to a bombing, to lecture at an elite military school. Video footage of soldiers uttering anti-Semitic sentiments, imitating the Nazi salute surfaced in 1997.

A German conservative member of Parliament made statements comparing Jews to Nazis, and he was congratulated by a former general of the German special forces, Reinhard Guentzel, in 2003. While the general was fired, he published a book in 2006 titled Secret Warriors, championing the Nazi-era roots of German special forces; a reflection of the ongoing reverence held by some members of the current military, for the Wehrmacht.

Philipp Liesenhoff, during his time in the military witnessed other soldiers listening to neo-Nazi bands. He described scenarios where one person would shout out "sieg", while another would respond "heil", mimicking a Nazi chant common during WWII political rallies in Germany. Authorities, he stated, knew of these things occurring, but preferred to behave as though they had no knowledge of them.

The number of violent crimes; threats, arson, attempted homicides being committed by right-wing extremists increased by 42 percent from 2014 to 2015, a situation noted in an intelligence report produced by the country's domestic intelligence agency, with the number of such crimes targeting foreigners reaching a historic record. The report attributes this radicalization to a presumed backlash against Islamic terrorism resulting in rising xenophobia in the aftermath of immigrants flooding Germany.

East Germany in particular has distinguished itself for its violent anti-immigrant riots. And the sentiments in the East reflect what happens in the nation's armed forces. While one-fifth of the country's population is represented by East Germany, one-third of military recruits come from the East. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, while fighting both right-wing and left-wing extremism, along with Islamic extremism, must also give protection to the democratic principles to which Germany is dedicated. No easy course to follow.

In 2011, the national policy of mandatory military service was scrapped, even though it was seen as a check on extremism within the military. Conscription had drawn recruits from all segments of society throughout the entire country. Now the military is reliant on volunteers to comprise its recruits. And since more volunteers come from the East, where far-right extremism is endemic, the end result is anything but palatable.

In an effort to come to grips with the problem, the Military Counterintelligence Service has increased its staff to perform security clearances and investigate those in the armed forces who reflect political extremism. New rules are to require every new applicant to undergo a security clearance to ensure that no extremists enter the military to begin with.

The German Military Has a Right-Wing Extremism Problem
Growing extremism, and a Wehrmacht fetish, riddle the ranks of the Bundeswehr   Foreign Policy

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