German defence minister faces criticism over military scandals

Kate Connolly in Berlin
Ursula von der Leyen visiting the 291st fighter squadron in Illkirch-Graffenstaden on Wednesday. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Germany’s defence minister has come under fire after a series of scandals in the armed forces involving sexual harassment, bullying and a far-right plot for a racially motivated terror attack.

Ursula von der Leyen, often tipped as a successor to Angela Merkel, on Wednesday said she bore “responsibility for everything that happens in the Bundeswehr”, Germany’s armed forces, after initially blaming weak army leadership.

“It is my responsibility to remedy abuses we know about, which I am currently doing,” she told the tabloid Bild.

She has called for in-depth investigations to deal with the cases.

The most prominent scandal involves a 28-year-old soldier identified as Franco A, who was arrested a week ago on suspicion of planning an attack thought to be targeting asylum seekers and leftwing politicians, including the Social Democrat interior minister, Heiko Maas, and the former German president Joachim Gauck. A 24-year-old student in possession of explosives was also detained.

The soldier registered as a Syrian refugee last January, applied for asylum and was drawing money from the state. It is believed he planned to carry out the attack and leave a trail to his fake identity.

A defence ministry spokesman said Von der Leyen had cancelled a trip to New York and Washington DC to focus on the Franco A investigation. She had been due to meet with UN officials to discuss the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as her US counterpart, James Mattis.

The Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, have stopped short of calling for the minister’s resignation, but their candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, said Von der Leyen could not evade responsibility.

Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said she had the chancellor’s full support.

Von der Leyen travelled on Wednesday with the army’s chief of staff, Volker Wieker, to Illkirch, a French town south of Strasbourg where Franco A had been stationed and from where he is suspected of having stolen ammunition. Investigators have also found evidence of Nazi memorabilia and historical images of Nazi soldiers.

The defence ministry stands accused of failing to heed repeated warnings that a small rightwing extremist group was operating within the military. The Bundestag’s defence committee has launched its own investigation and is expected to release its findings.

Germany’s military intelligence agency, MAD, announced last week that going back to 2011 it had identified 275 suspected right-wing extremists in the military’s ranks, 53 of them from this year alone.

Von der Leyen’s initial public reaction to the allegations was to say the problems were long-term behavioural ones within the military. She told German television that “the German army has an attitude problem, and it appears to have weak leadership at various levels”.

Talking specifically about Franco A, she told reporters: “We have to ask systematically how someone with such clear rightwing extremist views, who writes a master’s paper with clearly nationalistic ideas ... was able to continue to pursue a career in the Bundeswehr.”

In an angry rebuke, the German armed forces association said in a statement: “If Mrs von der Leyen says there is a leadership problem, then one must of course say ‘leadership comes from the top down’.”

A 100-strong body of top military officials have been summoned to Berlin on Thursday to discuss the investigation into Franco A as well as the numerous cases of misconduct across the ranks.

Von der Leyen comes from a prominent political family and is the daughter of the late Ernst Albrecht, who was prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony. She has enjoyed a rapid rise up the political ladder in just 12 years, from a Christian Democratic Union councillor in the small Lower Saxon town of Sehnde to the federal government.

A mother of seven children who is also a qualified medical doctor, since 2005 she has held three cabinet posts, becoming Germany’s first female defence minister in 2013 when she launched a determined bid to reform the military.

In 2014 she launched a €100m campaign to make the military more attractive which included offering nursery services for soldiers’ children, limiting postings to fit around school term dates and increasing hardship allowances for tough foreign postings. She has also focused on trying to increase financial control over military equipment procurement.

The scandal comes just two weeks after Germany was left reeling from an attack on football club Borussia Dortmund’s team bus carried out by a German-Russian who is suspected of having obtained his explosives from army supplies.

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