It’s not easy to be a minister. Particular a minister of defense, and in Germany. It would seem easy to make the leap from that position to that of chancellor, but this is an illusion – it’s so near, but yet so far. In fact it’s worse: the job of minister of defense is a death trap it’s best to keep one’s distance from. The biggest political star in the galaxy of West German defense ministers – Franz Josef Strauss – was forced out of his post after an epic scandal sparked by his order to search the editorial offices of Der Spiegel, which had published several articles on corruption inside his ministry. Strauss bounced back after the scandal, but he never managed to win his longed-for chancellorship.
And not so long ago, in 2011, another promising conservative politician – Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg – also found himself sucked into that «death trap». He was forced to resign after a scandal prompted by accusations that he had plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation. The scandal was quite advantageous for Angela Merkel, because Guttenberg had actually been favored for the position of the future leader of the CDU and the chancellor of Germany. After his resignation and withdrawal from major-league politics, Angela Merkel could see no other serious opponents in her party. And then Ursula von der Leyen was named as her potential successor – and it was she whom Merkel appointed to that «death trap» in 2013, when the present cabinet was being formed. The current string of Bundeswehr scandals all took place a year ago, but these events could be viewed as a remake of the Guttenberg story. However, there is an important difference: von der Leyen is in no way a rival to Merkel at the moment. In fact, despite her taste for publicity (the defense minister is a frequent guest on political talk shows), she has never eclipsed her party boss’s popularity.
Who knows, perhaps the desire to showboat a bit could explain the defense minister’s unconventional response once the accounts of Senior Lieutenant Franco A. became public? That story reads like a screenplay for an action movie with a moral to its story. He seemed to be an outwardly appealing young man, but was in fact a snake in the grass. He was living a double life: one of his identities was that of an officer in the Franco-German Brigade, whose work was praised by his superiors and fellow officers. However, this hero had a dark side: he is a «true Aryan» and was planning actions that would manifest his hatred of non-Aryans. He had registered as a Syrian refugee and was preparing to commit a terrorist act «in the name of» this phantom refugee in order to discredit the German government’s policy of compassion toward refugees. Working with their Austrian colleagues, German intelligence services uncovered his criminal plan in the nick of time. There was a happy ending: the miscreant was captured, his accomplices were identified and offered a public apology, the lackadaisical top brass have acknowledged their mistakes, and the network of right-wing extremists in the Bundeswehr has been nipped in the bud. This mind-boggling story even includes a scene in which the protagonist is apprehended in the restroom (!) of the Vienna airport, trying to retrieve a gun that he had stashed there (?).
And it is in this absurd light that the German media is presenting the story. However, all the while references to the sensitive nature of the matter keep cropping up. No less surprising was the reaction of the minister of defense: she posted an open letter on her ministry’s website condemning both the sluggish response of her military commanders (who did not look more closely into what was happening) and the «hazing» in the army. This was an allusion to other recent scandals. In January, seven servicemen were discharged from duty after an investigation into complaints about perverse forms of «initiation rituals,» as well as abusive behavior and sexual harassment in a military unit based in a quiet town in straitlaced Swabia. And just a couple of months later a similar scandal came to light in the idyllic Alpine resort of Bad Reichenhall. Fourteen servicemen in the mountain ranger unit stationed there were charged with sexual harassment.
Naturally, the opposition party used all these incidents as an excuse to criticize the government, especially since the media was adding to the flames by tossing sizzling hot facts into the dry tinder: citing informed sources, it reported, for example, that in the last two years no fewer than 200 complaints of sexual harassment had been filed within the army. Opposition politicians claim that the incidents in Bad Reichenhall and the Swabian town of Pfullendorf are only the «tip of the iceberg,» and that the hazing in the army appeared to have been conducted systematically.
After the incident involving Franco A., the defense minister acknowledged the severity of the existing problems: in an open letter, von der Leyen heaped shame on her subordinates. Instead of a planned trip to the US, the minister conducted a meeting in Berlin on May 4, inviting 100 members of her army’s top brass to attend. The Federal Chancellor’s office assured the minister that she had Angela Merkel’s «full support,» offering the required salute toward her valiant men-at-arms, the vast majority of whom are serving in an exemplary manner.
The minister also has the backing of the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr (the Chief of Staff) Volker Wieker. That general has publicly acknowledged the need to look into the causes of these scandals and has spoken of his concern that the «mechanisms for self-correction» in the Bundeswehr were not operating as desired. But neither the opposition nor even the CDU’s partner in the ruling coalition, the SPD, held back on their criticism. The minister has been called on the carpet: she will have to offer some explanations to the Bundestag deputies on the Defense Committee. «We’re not interested in a song and dance, we want explanations based on the merits of the case», quipped Agnieszka Brugger, a committee member from the Green Party. And in fact, Minister of Defense von der Leyen was appointed almost three and a half years ago and there is no way she can disavow personal responsibility in the matter, although stepping down would be one option. This is exactly what one of Frau von der Leyen’s predecessors, the Social Democrat Georg Leber, did back in his day. He directed the Ministry of Defense for six years, then submitted his resignation after a scandal involving the wiretapping of his secretary’s telephone. Ursula von der Leyen apparently does not intend to resign. However, she is being squeezed by every political party with the exception of the CDU/CSU and has apologized to the generals for not adding the needed words praising the vast majority of servicemen who are beyond reproach.
There is no doubt that all the political parties will attempt to turn this situation to their own advantage during the pre-election campaigning. The Christian Democrats can emphasize that a terrorist act was prevented, which means that the public can sleep peacefully. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees has begun double-checking the personal data of 2,000 migrants. We should expect to see disciplinary actions taken against the military, who will be blamed for being insufficiently vigilant. In addition, it is important to show their NATO partners that the Bundeswehr is not under the influence of right-wing extremism. This is especially urgent right now, given the confrontation with Russia, since the German armed forces can lay claim to the title of Europe’s leading army, defending the Baltic states from the threat from the East.
Last year, the Bundeswehr was hot under the collar over problems not with right-wing extremists, but with Islamists: 20 soldiers had been identified from within its ranks who were associated with radical extremist organizations. Fears were expressed that such individuals were deliberately enlisting in the Bundeswehr to obtain military training, which they would then use to fight infidels, for example, in the ranks of the Islamic State. As a result, the counterintelligence services were granted the right to screen all volunteers for membership in such organizations. Last year’s news stories have already been forgotten, but it looks like this new scandal isn’t going to blow over anytime soon.