An Overview of the German Military Counterintelligence Service Report on Extremism Within the German Federal Defence Force

In the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the threat posed by military personnel in radical right groups quickly became apparent to policy makers and military leaders worldwide before being eclipsed by the event of September 11 and the resultant ‘Global War on Terror.’ While this phenomenon has attracted little scholarly attention, with the notable exception of Daniel Koehler’s fantastic report on the issue, it appears that this overlap has plagued nearly every NATO Member country. Notably, in recent years, four serving members of the British Armed Forces were recently arrested under anti-terror laws on suspicion of being members of the banned neo-Nazi group National Action. Moreover, and over in Germany, authorities uncovered a plot by a covert network of some 200 neo-Nazi far-right soldiers and veterans of an elite commando unit to murder left-wing politicians and asylum seekers. Finally, and as recently as last week, German police seized weapons and explosives at the home of a special forces soldiers believed to harbor radical right-wing beliefs.

Within this context, the German Military Counterintelligence Service’s (Militärischer Abschirmdienst; MAD) first ever report on extremism within the German Federal Defence Force (Bundeswehr) is highly significant. Released earlier last week, the report comes at the same time as increasing calls for transparency about radical right attitudes within the Bundeswehr – as well as their traditions in relations to Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany). One recent example typifying this was the arrest of Franco Albrecht in April 26, 2017, on suspicion of plotting a ‘false flag’ attack in an effort to stir anti-refugee sentiment.

The report relies on MAD’s innovative ‘colour indication’ (Farbenlehre) sanction scheme, which categorizes service personnel based on an assessment of their potential links with extremism (whether it be right-wing, Islamic, ‘diaspora-based’, Reich Citizens’/sovereign citizens movements, or left-wing extremism). Individual under suspicion are labelled ‘yellow’. Following an investigation, individuals cleared of wrongdoing are assigned the colour ‘green’, and deemed suitable for continued service. On the other hand, service personnel found to have credible extremist attitudinal orientations are labelled ‘red’ or ‘orange’ if their loyalty to German democratic values is deemed questionable. A designation of ‘red’ or ‘orange’ should lead to an individual’s removal from the German armed forces.

As the report highlights, in 2019, a total of 482 investigations into cases of potentially extremist personnel were launched, of which 75 percent focused on individuals believed to have links to right-wing extremism. Compared to the previous three years, the number of investigations into right-wing extremism within the Bundeswehr also increased in 2019. This is explained by the report as being partly due to additional public scrutiny in 2019; this may be a reference to the Halle synagogue shooting or other highly salient events outside of Germany, such as the New Zealand Christchurch mosque shootings. The increased presence of, and media attention focused on, emerging ethno-national and identitarian groups in Germany is also cited as a reason for the increased scrutiny.

Out of the 363 investigations into right-wing extremism conducted in 2019 – the majority of them triggered by xenophobic or anti-foreigner rhetoric, often posted on social media – 8 individuals were labelled ‘red’ and 27 others were labelled ‘orange’. While the report does not breakdown the service branches of individuals labelled ‘red’ or ‘orange’ due to their radical right alliances, it does show that the majority of (all forms of) extremist soldiers can be found within the Deutsches Heer, the land component of the German armed forces.

The report concludes with a commitment from Christof Gramm, the president of the Military Counterintelligence Service, that similar reports will be published annually and reiterated the Bundeswehr’s effort to root out extremism of all forms from their ranks.

As exemplified in Matt Kennard’s book Irregular Army, in addition to posing a potential important security threat, the presence of extremist elements within the ranks of NATO member state should be viewed as a threat to readiness and successful deployment. Documentation detailing how several countries seek to uncover and root out individuals aligned with radical right groups from their ranks has recently been made public through information leaks. Recent notable examples of this include Canada and the United Kingdom, countries which have generally been tight lipped about this issue. In contrast, Germany continues to be the forerunner – voluntarily publishing detailed data of extremist incidents within its rank. The German Military Counterintelligence Service report therefore represents an important step along this path for greater transparency in dealing with the issue of radical right extremism within the militaries of Western democracies, a step which would be welcomed should it be replicated by other NATO member states.

Mr Ondrej Hajn is an MSc Student in the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University.

Dr Yannick Veilleux-Lepage is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Assistant Professor in the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University. See his profile here.

© Ondrej Hajn & Yannick Veilleux-Lepage.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).