Berlin - A new annual report into the current state of affairs in Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, has revealed a rise in cases of suspected rightwing extremism among its servicemen and women. Unveiling the document on Tuesday, Bundeswehr commissioner Eva Högl (SPD) outlined the preventative and punitive measures she wants to use to tackle the problem.

The number of suspected cases of rightwing extremism has gone up by 31 per cent, rising to 477 compared to the 363 reported by the Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) last year. Högl attributes this to a higher level of sensitivity in reporting cases. According to the report, a number of cases from previous years were also reported in 2020.

There were also 48 suspected cases of Islamic extremism, and 31 linked to the phenomenon of "Reich citizens" (Reichsbürger) who have been frequently spotted at corona sceptic demos. According to Högl, MAD will be adding staff to deal with such cases.

Photo: dpa/Wolfgang Kumm
Defence commissioner Eva Högl (SPD) outlines her annual report on the Bundeswehr.

"Clarify quickly, sanction quickly"

To tackle the apparent rise in extremism, Högl is calling for "watertight clarification and more prevention." In order to stop the spread of extremist trends and make Bundeswehr members more "resilient," a more comprehensive range of political education is needed, she says. This should become an "integral part of our everyday work," she said.

Extremism within the ranks of Germany's public institutions has become a much discussed topic in recent months, in particular after WhatsApp groups of police officers expressing rightwing and racist views were leaked in the press. Interior minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) finally commissioned an enquiry into racism in the police in October, after months of kicking his heels. 

Högl said the average duration of proceedings in cases of suspected extremism is currently much too long at 20 months, with some dragging on for several years. "Clarify quickly, sanction quickly," she demanded, adding that more staff are also to be made available to investigate suspected extremism.

To coincide with the release of the report, members of the Bundeswehr launched an independent social media campaign under the hashtag #WirGegenExtremismus (Us Against Extremism). Högl emphasised that individual Bundeswehr personell are not under general suspicion. She added that the absolute majority of servicemen and women have no links to extremism.

Högl also called for full clarification in the case of the recently announced amnesty for soldiers of the Special Forces Commando (KSK), who had stolen weapons and ammunition but were allowed to return them without sanctions. She had not been informed about the incident quickly enough, and the commander of the unit in question, Markus Kreitmayr, who also heads a KSK reform programme, is now facing criticism.

Diversity drive and helmet failures

Other sections of the report concern training, imbalance of power within the Bundeswehr and various individual complaints. According to the report, there were several complaints about unhealthy food and too much white bread. Furthermore, Jewish and Muslim chaplaincy is to be established in the Bundeswehr - 3,000 servicemen and women are Muslim.

Högl also wants to make the Bundeswehr more attractive to women and younger recruits. The average employee age in the Bundeswehr is 33.4, and just under 19 per cent of soldiers are women. Furthermore, the pandemic has stalled recruitment - 16,430 new recruits signed up last year, 19 per cent less than in 2019.

Other highlights include the bizarre case of the commissioning of new aviation helmets: specification headgear for the P-3C Orion aircraft was to be adapted and approved as early as 2008. However, the certification of the helmets was not completed until August 2020. "It is hoped that a sufficient number of the helmets will reach naval aviators before the P-3C ORION is retired in 2025," the report states.

Elsewhere in the report, positive outcomes were recorded regarding the move to make train travel free for uniformed personnel. On several occasions, soldiers have intervened in emergencies, such as an attack on a train attendant and in medical incidents, it stated. 

Germany's defense budget is set to increase to €47 billion this year, in addition to a €3.2 billion stimulus package. This is up from €45.6 billion in 2020 and €43.2 billion in 2019.

No more talk of drones

Corona has meant talks with soldiers abroad have mostly had to take place digitally. "Of course, this does not replace getting a direct impression on the ground," Högl said. She added that she has completed 30 visits to troops based in Germany, and wants to travel to the Bundeswehr's operational areas across Europe, Asia and Africa. On the subject of armed drones, Högl expressed her regret at the SPD's decision to continue discussing their usage after years of debate - she is in favour of their use.

Högl also confirmed her intention to pay special tribute to the 11,400 servicemen and women who have provided administrative assistance during corona, proposing to honour them with a deployment medal. Soldiers have helped out with vaccinations and contact tracing, while military musicians gave concerts in retirement homes to fight loneliness during the pandemic.