German military pledges full investigation in far-right case

Remigio Civitarese
Mag 8, 2017

From left, German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen talk together prior to the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government at the chancellery in Berlin, Wednesday, May 3, 2017.

It is a unsafe political battle for Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman in charge of the Bundeswehr, who is often mentioned as a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Von der Leyen, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic (CDU) party, welcomed her support, but warned that it would likely take months to dig into the leadership issues revealed by the case.

This in turn has made her a target of chastened rank-and-file soldiers who charge she is tarring them all while dodging personal responsibility after more than three years on the job.

She was reacting to the unusual case of a 28-year-old army lieutenant, named by German media as Franco A., who led what prosecutors called a "double life" pretending to be a Syrian refugee.

He came to the notice of the authorities after Austrian police caught him with a loaded handgun at Vienna airport in February.

The soldier, who has an Italian father and German mother, had pretended to be a Damascus fruit seller named "David Benjamin" - ostensibly a Catholic with Jewish roots who had fled the ISIS militant group.

Germany's chief federal prosecutor's office said on Tuesday there were "preliminary indications of preparations for a serious attack against the state". It emerged he had expressed far-right views in an academic paper for a military academy in 2014.

She compared the case to other negative incidents involving military officials, including reports that a female soldier was forced to strip and perform a pole dance at a barracks in Pfullendorf in southern Germany.

Under German military rules, any report of extremism among soldiers must be investigated by military intelligence, the sources said, and the failure to do so in this case was a breach of civil service rules.

Greens lawmakers have demanded information from von der Leyen on any right-wing extremist network in the military.

Von der Leyen cancelled a trip to the United States in order to give her attention to the case, which has prompted criticism of her leadership.

On Thursday she was set to hold a crisis meeting with 100 generals and admirals, after vowing to "shine a light in the dark places" and predicting that "it'll be hard, it'll be painful, it won't be pretty".

While the vast majority of soldiers behaved impeccably, she said the latest scandals were no longer isolated cases. Von der Leyen said investigators were looking at the environment in Illkirch, citing evidence found of Nazi swastikas and photographs of Nazi-era soldiers.

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