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Germany Tries To Root Out Neo-Nazis Inside The Ranks Of Its Military


The German government is looking for neo-Nazis inside the ranks of its own military. This follows the recent arrests of two army officers charged in a far-right terror plot against refugees and politicians. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In the northern town of Rotenburg, there is a German army barracks named for Helmut Lent. He was a World War II night fighter ace idolized by Hitler confidant Hermann Goring. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen says naming the barracks here for the fighter ace sends the wrong message not only to the public but to the German soldiers who live here. She now wants the barracks renamed, along with a half-dozen other installations across Germany named for Nazi-era war heroes.

That's welcome news to Mack Andelosen (ph) at the local Green Party here in Rotenburg.

MACK ANDELOSEN: We need in place rules which the new Bundeswehr after the war should, well, be based upon the moral values, the ideals and also the idols.

NELSON: And a clear separation from the Nazi era.

ANDELOSEN: Yes, exactly.

NELSON: But a recent survey of the roughly 1,000 German soldiers at the barracks found they don't want a name change. Neither does Rotenburg mayor Andreas Weber. He says the city council voted 27 to 4 to continue calling the barracks Lent Kaserne, as residents have for half a century.

ANDREAS WEBER: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The mayor says there is no evidence the fighter pilot was involved with the Nazi party and that Lent was, in fact, married to a half-Jewish woman.

WEBER: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He instead wants to add a plaque on the barracks explaining who Lent was. But the mayor expects what he or the majority want won't matter, given the pressure on von der Leyen to act after the arrests of the two military officers in connection with the terror plots. The defense minister was especially angry when she learned that many within the ranks of the two officers knew they held far-right views but did and said nothing. She has since announced plans to clarify how the German military is to conduct itself with regard to Nazi history and neo-Nazis and make it easier for soldiers to report any far-right activity or views by their peers.

On her orders, military officials have also searched all posts for Nazi memorabilia and weapons. Tomas Wigol (ph) is a veteran journalist who blogs on German defense affairs.

TOMAS WIGOL: There is a rather fine line between very conservative soldiers and memorabilia of the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army, and real right-wing extremism. And what they're trying to do now is to define that line.

NELSON: There are also complaints that the German army is being forced to give up its traditions.

FLORIAN KLING: I can imagine a lot of people outside of Germany are thinking that this might be crazy to get rid of this tradition and to get rid of this past history of Germany.

NELSON: That's Florian Kling, a German army captain and spokesman for a military watchdog group called Darmstadter Signal. He says he supports the reforms.

KLING: Especially as German soldiers who are now fighting abroad and also protecting our democracy, we have to very carefully make sure that no one ever gets seen as being too close to the Third Reich again.

NELSON: He and many officials and experts NPR interviewed are convinced that only a very small number of Germany's 178,000 active duty troops hold far-right views. And they say any extremist trying to enlist will find it a lot tougher to do so starting in July. That's when German military intelligence will start doing intense background checks on all recruits. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.