A report published in the New York Times on Friday delved into the infiltration of far-right extremists within the German military. It comes after police uncovered Nazi memorabilia and stolen weapons buried in the garden of a sergeant major nicknamed Little Sheep. Little Sheep was a member of the most elite military unit in the country: the KSK, Special Forces Command.
He was not alone. Little Sheep was one of 70 KSK members that met at a shooting range to drink, sing neo-Nazi songs, and raise their right arms. The group is part of a larger network of far-right extremists who are inciting violence and preparing for the day when they believe Germany’s democratic order will collapse.
The report goes on to explain that 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 137 pounds of explosives have been stolen from KSK stockpiles. Military counterintelligence is now investigating sources of extremism within the institution, noting that the proportion of KSK members among the flagged soldiers is five times higher than those from other units.
Until this point, the disappearance of weapons and ammunition did not prompt a thorough investigation. Instances of extremist soldiers were declared one-offs. Konstantin von Notz, deputy president of the intelligence oversight committee in the German Parliament told the Times, “Once they really started looking, they found a lot of cases. When you have hundreds of individual cases it begins to look like we have a structural problem. It is extremely worrying.”
The president of their domestic intelligence agency, Thomas Haldenwang, believes far-right extremism and terrorism to be the “biggest danger to German democracy today.” Those individuals have, as said in the Times, “Over the past 13 months…assassinated a politician, attacked a synagogue, and shot dead nine immigrants and German descendants of immigrants.”
Germany, like the United States, has seen a rise in the popularity of far-right ideology in the country as a whole. The political party Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) is now the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. According to the BBC, “AfD co-chairman Alexander Gauland has talked of fighting an ‘invasion of foreigners’ and the party openly focuses on Islam and migration, seeing Islam as alien to German society. Some of the party’s rhetoric has been tinged with Nazi overtones.” A large percentage of KSK soldiers are eastern Germans, a region where the party is particularly popular.
This “invasion” is cited as the main tipping point for far-right frustrations. The AfD was created in 2013 but gained much of its influence from a 2017 election. The 2015 migrant crisis was a rallying point, heightening existing xenophobia. André Schitt, a 30-year-old former KSK soldier known as Hannibal, was interviewed. He set up a Telegram chat network that connected those who are, as the Times says, “united in their belief that the migrants would destroy the country.” Schitt, who was fired for having stolen grenades, claims his network includes, “Special forces, intelligence, business executives, [and] Freemasons.” He also claims the group meets regularly and has a wealthy and influential supporter. “The forces are like family. Everyone knows each other.”
Why were some soldiers allowed to continue in their positions even after making their beliefs known? It is proof of a larger cultural problem within special forces units, in Germany and beyond.
The detailed Times report cited throughout this piece writes that “In June, a KSK soldier addressed a 12-page letter to the defence minister, pleading for an investigation into what he described as a ‘toxic culture of acceptance’ and ‘culture of fear’ inside the unit. Tips about extremist comrades were ‘collectively ignored or even tolerated.’” He was particularly concerned about an instructor of his, who was later found to have been flagged by counterintelligence due to a threatening email he sent to a co-worker. “‘You are being watched, no, not by impotent instrumentalized agencies, but by officers of a new generation, who will act when times demand it,’ it read. ‘Long live the holy Germany.’”
Recently, situations have arisen in special forces units in the United States that make it clear that the culture tolerates or even perpetuates dangerous views. The case of Edward Gallagher is the perfect example. The Special Operations Chief was accused of war crimes by his men, including murder. He was accused of many unnecessary and unauthorized killings, but the most concerning incident was the murder of a 15-year-old captive. The Times explains Gallagher stabbed the wounded captive several times and then “gathered some nearby SEALs for a re-enlistment ceremony, snapping photos of the platoon standing over the body.”
Gallagher’s men found it extremely difficult to speak out against him. They were told to let the issue go, and that their careers would suffer. Only after threatening to go to the highest levels of command were the men able to secure an investigation into Gallagher’s actions. SEALs, like those in the KSK, are part of a tight-knit community that prioritizes secrecy for operational security. In a system like this, hatred goes unchecked and can become dangerous. Some of his men even came to believe that he would expose their positions to try to lure out ISIS fighters, blatantly risking the lives of his men in hope of getting a Silver Star.
This, and many other questionable acts among American special forces, caused Special Operations Command to hold an extensive review. The extensive report filed afterwards explains a “lack of emphasis on professional development and personal maturity” during training, as special operations trainees are segregated from traditional military counterparts. SOCOM Commander General Richard Clarke explains that these “programs possibly foster an unhealthy sense of entitlement as a result of special treatment and facilities.” He went on to say that they will be focusing more on character rather than just on competence.
Clarke hopes that stopping the ‘special’ mentality of special forces will help with leadership, discipline, and accountability. The organization needs to focus on large-scale cultural change. Military Times, as part of their interview with Clarke, writes, “In practice, leaders often hesitate to deal with a problem, either because they are afraid of punching a hole in their formation and blowing their readiness for combat, or because they are afraid that misconduct in their formation will be a black mark on their career advancement.”
Extremism is allowed to fester within the special forces groups not only because of the secrecy and camaraderie but because for many, there are little to no consequences for radical behaviour. The KSK instructor who sent the threatening email was initially only disciplined by his superior. Edward Gallagher had a lot of sympathizers, even up to and including the President of the United States. The lessons learned from the report in the United States, and the plans that come from it could be applied in Germany. Doing so would save lives, root out extremism, and create a safer environment for military personnel.