Deaths in the Military, Mutiny, Mail and the Minister

January 22, 2011

To put it mildly, Germany’s Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, will be facing a hostile parliamentary and media environment this week.

Three military episodes are dominating headlines following reports from the German parliamentary ombudsman to the military.

– The treatment of officer-cadets onboard the German Navy tall ship Gorch Fock, including events surrounding the death of a female midshipman after she fell from the ship’s rigging during a training exercise, and whether several fellow midshipmen behaved in a way that could be deemed mutinous. Currently the vessel is in Argentina. The captain has been relieved of his command. An investigation is underway and the vessel has been ordered to return to Germany. (DW-TV report in English)

– The investigation into the death of a soldier in December last year at the Pol-e-Chomri base in Afghanistan. It was first suggested an accident occurred while the soldier was cleaning his weapon. German media are now reporting up to 10 troops may have been fooling around and the soldier was killed by the weapon of a comrade.

– Feldpost: the unauthorized opening and tampering of letters posted by soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

Minister zu Guttenberg obviously has a lot of explaining to do about what’s happening inside the German military and his own department. He is also under pressure from opposition parties over whether he’s adequately informed parliament about the Gorch Fock incidents.

All of this comes at a time when Germany’s troop commitment in Afghanistan (and the timing of a possible withdrawal) is under debate, as well as what is the future of a smaller, professional German armed forces following the ending of compulsory military service.

Thomas Wiegold of the excellent German defence blog augengeradeaus.net has produced a good Audioboo summary of the Gorch Fock reports in English.

Listen!

And a Süddeutsche Zeitung interview with Minister zu Guttenberg also tries to zero-in on what the Minister did or did not know about these events and what action he is taking. A translation is below.

(Interview conducted by Peter Blechschmidt, published 21 January 2011.)

SZ: Minister, is the Bundeswehr covering up unpleasant truths?

Guttenberg: That should never be the strategy of the Bundeswehr, and that is also not the case.

SZ: But in the case of the soldier killed in northern Afghanistan also with the situation onboard the Gorch Fock has your Ministry not told the whole truth?

Guttenberg: Nonsense. In the case of the soldier killed it was officially known on the day after the accident, that possibly a second person was involved. The public prosecutor’s office were immediately informed and is investigating. With the investigation underway to gain evidence of the actual events, we can not make comments out of respect to those involved.

SZ: And of the alleged mutiny onboard the Gorch Fock, you hadn’t heard anything up till now?

Guttenberg: I was informed about that accusation through the documents of the military ombudsman dated 17 January. I immediately directed the Inspector of Navy and the head of the legal department here in the Ministry to clarify the facts. You will not hear any pre-judgement from me. But if these accusations are true, then there will be clear consequences. Generally speaking: degrading drill can not be tolerated. And the accusation of mutiny is a very serious one, in light of what I know so far.

SZ: But aren’t the accusations relating to the Gorch Fock so grave that you as Minister should have been informed?

Guttenberg: Part of the investigation will be to determine if the lines of communication were respected. If there were failures there will be consequences. All of that must be clearly explained. On this matter I have little patience.

SZ: After the death of the female midshipman aboard the Gorsch Fock the training exercise was suspended. At that time the impression came about this appears to have been merely an act of compassion.

Guttenberg: The responsible Inspector of Navy had decided out of technical reasons to suspend the training and to send the training crew back to Germany. The Gorch Fock though should continue her journey.

SZ: And you hadn’t heard about the opening of letters posted from Afghanistan?

Guttenberg: The responsible military leadership in charge did not have any knowledge of this. My mind reading skills are therefore very limited. But here too the investigations are in full swing.

SZ: Are these emerging developments now not posing the question of whether the inner leadership of the Bundeswehr has failed?

Guttenberg: Should the allegations turn out to be true we will most likely be dealing with individual failings. The inner leadership is successful and widely accepted within the Bundeswehr. To draw conclusions about the majority of Bundeswehr from potential individual misconduct – after all it’s about 250,000 soldiers – would be totally unjustified.