Army of Democracy

Not Hitler’s Wehrmacht Anymore

By Johannes Simon

This article is the third in a three-part series on the changing role of the German armed forces. The second can be read here.

Christmas in the Bundeswehr. Afghanistan, December 2012.

Germany is set to become the leading military power in Europe, but it remains to be seen if the Germans are ready for this new reality. For once, the military has trouble finding new recruits.

Marketing efforts are trying to address the problem, by making the army more attractive to young people. Not everyone is on board with these efforts, though. When the Bundeswehr recently covered trains in the city of Potsdam in camouflage paint, it encountered stiff resistance from local politicians. To some, the army is still not normal.

A critical relationship to its past is still a central aspect of Germany’s national identity, and this includes the military. For a long time after WWII, the legend of the “clean Wehrmacht” persisted: the army had been simply fighting a war like any other; it was just following orders, doing, what soldiers do, while the real crimes were committed by “the Nazis” — people that ostensibly stood apart from the majority of the population.

This myth was central to Germany’s attempt to avoid a full reckoning with its past, as almost every German has at least one relative who fought in the Wehrmacht.

It’s also a lie, of course. The siege of Leningrad, in which more than a million Russian civilians died, is just one of the many crimes the Wehrmacht committed during WWII.

When a big historical exhibition cracked this taboo in the 1990s, exposing the deep involvement of ordinary German soldiers in the war of extermination in the East, during Operation Barbarossa, it still caused a great uproar among German conservatives.

The military has long sought to distance itself from its past. In principle, German soldiers are supposed to be “citizens in uniform” who are committed to the liberal values of the German constitution above all.

Ich diene Deutschland, a recently published book by Nariman Hammouti-Reinke, a female, Muslim army officer, speaks to this desire to have an attractive military which reflects the liberal and multicultural image that Germany wants to present to the world.

But efforts to normalise the Bundeswehr and shake off its stuffy and conservative image have recently been frustrated by a number of scandals involving right-wing extremism among German soldiers. In 2017, the German Oberleutnant Franco A. was arrested, because he was suspected of planning a right-wing terror attack.

Amazingly, Franco A. had pretended to be a Syrian refugee and applied for asylum. His plan, as it unfolded, was to stage a false-flag attack, to stir up anti-refugee sentiment.

Later, it surfaced that Franco A. had a long-known history of radicalism. A couple of years earlier, he had written an MA thesis at the German-French military university École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr that had been flagged by his French professors as right-wing, extremist work.

An independent examination by a German military historian concluded that the thesis was “a radical nationalist, racist call to action”. But Franco A.’s German superiors were unfazed and let him become an officer just a year later.

There seems to be a culture in the military that accepts and even protects nationalist radicalism among its soldiers. The problem goes much deeper than just a few bad apples. Franco A., we later learned, was part of a network of right-wing “preppers” that had members all over Germany. Many were former or still active soldiers, others were policemen, lawyers or members of the German interior intelligence agency.

A recently published investigation by Berlin’s taz newspaper provides a small window into this shadowy world. The network was preparing for the “Day X,” when the social order would collapse and make way for a right-wing power grab. It planned to set up weapons depots and met for armed training; some of them reportedly fantasised about jailing and killing left-wing politicians.

One of the network’s leaders had only been known under the nom-de-guerre “Hannibal.” The taz report revealed him to be André S., a member of the secretive elite German army unit KSK. Ironically, KSK had been the featured subject of one of the Bundeswehr’s hip new YouTube series. The series’ slogan: “One team, one myth: KSK.”

Reportedly, André S. is a privileged informant for the military’s own intelligence service, the MAD. So far, none of the network’s members has been arrested. One is reminded of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a Nazi terror group that had been allowed to go on a decade-long killing spree right under the noses of the security forces, which had extensively infiltrated the broader Nazi scene to which the NSU belonged.

The Bundeswehr’s trouble reflects the broader contradictions of German nationalism. In the grand geopolitical dramas of our times, the country is a minor player at best. To pursue its national interests, Germany needs European integration, good relations with its allies, and a multilateral international order.

That means, first and foremost, that Germany needs to show a friendly face to the outside world. These are the imperatives of centrist German patriotism. But this enlightened nationalism, if you will, is haunted by racist and chauvinist undercurrents, which would threaten the rational pursuit of German national interests if they ever came to dominate.

It remains to be seen, whether Germany can become the leading military power in Europe without succumbing to its darker nature — or if it will instead fall back on old anti-war reflexes and blow the whole thing off. In this journalist’s view, the Germans are ready. The country’s typical qualms about the dangers of militarism, which I took for granted growing up, seem to belong to another, distant era.

Johannes Simon is a journalist from Germany. He has a degree in North American Studies and spent some time in the United States and Spain. These days, he’s based in Berlin, writing on foreign policy, American politics, right-wing populism, migration, and anything else that comes up. Photograph courtesy of the Bundeswehr. Published under a Creative Commons license.