The most popular member of the German government has had a tough week. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has faced attacks from the opposition that he was not forthcoming enough about troubling incidents within the armed forces in recent months.
While the details are only now emerging of an alleged "mutiny" on a training ship for navy officers that took place in November, the minister is also facing criticism for not revealing the full details of a fatal accidental shooting of a German soldier in Afghanistan in December. This is all hot on the heels of allegations earlier in the week that mail sent home by troops based in Afghanistan had been opened.
On Wednesday, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Hellmut Königshaus, released a report into a dispute onboard the three-masted training ship Gorch Fock that followed the deadly fall from a mast in November of a young female cadet. After the incident, the ship's crew is said to have staged what the German press has described as a "mutiny," refusing to climb the rigging despite orders and "great pressure" to do so. But the report also includes accusations of massive intimidation of cadets on the vessel, including sexual harassment. The ship has interrupted its current voyage and is at anchor in Argentina, where German Bundeswehr armed forces investigators are to arrive soon.
Meanwhile, the death of a solider at a German army outpost in Afghanistan in December has also come in for closer scrutiny. Initially it was assumed that the young man died after his gun went off while he was cleaning it. It has now emerged that he may have been shot during horseplay with another soldier, as the two were posing with their guns. Prosecutors are investigating the incident.
What Did Guttenberg Know?
Questions are now being raised about how much Guttenberg, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, knew about these incidents. The opposition is even speaking of "cover-ups" and "secretiveness." Green Party parliamentary floor leader Jürgen Trittin, speaking in Friday's edition of the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, accused the minister of wanting to conceal the exact circumstances of the soldier's death in Afghanistan.
On Friday, in an interview with the Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Guttenberg rejected suggestions that there had been any kind of cover-up, saying that in the case of the shooting in Afghanistan, his ministry had not wanted to comment on a case being investigated by prosecutors. He said he had been informed about the events on the Gorch Fock on Jan. 17 and that if the accusations of any wrongdoing were proved correct, "clear consequences" would be drawn.
The minister also dismissed the idea that the leadership of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, had failed. "If these charges are proved true, then in all likelihood we are dealing with individual failures," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "It would be completely unjustified to make conclusions about the entire army from a few possible individual lapses."
German newspapers on Friday take a critical look at the Bundeswehr's mishaps, with one editorialist arguing they are "not worthy of a modern army."
In an editorial, SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:
"The image that the minister has sought to cultivate since taking office, of someone who demonstratively tackles things head on does not protect him from critical questions: Did Guttenbuerg know about the incidents earlier, but kept quiet? Or does he not have his troops under control?"
"Could things become serious for Guttenberg, who up to now has been unassailable? Did he actually keep back information? Or does a minister who likes to be upfront about information and transparency now have to painfully realize that there is still a tendency in the Bundeswehr apparatus to hide things that are unpleasant -- even, if necessary, from the top commander?"
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"There was not enough information flowing from the military to the Defense Ministry. That is something that has to deeply worry Defense Minister Guttenberg. A similar information disaster faced him when he took over the ministry. Following the rocket attacks on two tanker trucks near Kunduz (on Sept. 4, 2009), the minister was either not shown essential reports or they were given to him too late. Guttenberg drew the correct conclusions from this and completely shook up the ministry so that this would not happen again."
"One cannot compare the tragic death of one soldier with the devastating attack on the tanker trucks. Regardless of the seriousness of the incident, however, there must be a guarantee that the minister and his team are always kept in the loop. Guttenberg has to tackle structures within the Bundeswehr apparatus, which favor the concealment, cover-up or denial of these kinds of incidents. That is something that he has already announced he would aggressively do. However, it would seem that there has been little fundamental change in the armed forces since then."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The three incidents have nothing to do with one another. What they do have in common, however, is that they all occurred far from home, in circumstances that make it hard for superiors to supervise: on a ship in the southern Atlantic and in two German army outposts in Afghanistan. It was the federal parliament's commissioner for the armed forces who made the incidents public. That is good, and shows how important that role is."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"What is wrong with the Bundeswehr? ... The reaction to both incidents was not worthy of a modern army and has nothing to do with the ideal of citizens in uniform."
"Guttenberg, the master of putting on a perfect show, will now have to deal with unpopular details such as structure and make-up of modern commandos. It is not enough to sketch out great designs for military reform. The minister also has to say how he is going to do away with old, bureaucratic structures, how he will reduce the number of generals and how he will bring the army into line with the needs of a modern, open society."
Focusing on the Gorch Fock incident, SPIEGEL ONLINE's Roland Nelles writes:
"Under orders from the Kaiser, around 2,000 German soldiers ran directly into enemy fire at Langemarck in Flanders in 1914 in what turned out to be a suicide mission. Later, German officers and troops fought in Russia and elsewhere in insane wars in which they were doomed. They willfully obeyed the cruel and deadly orders of their 'Führer.' There were almost never any cases of mutiny or insubordinance or insurgency on the front worthy of mention. And the few who did desert from the Wehrmacht were considered traitors -- even long after the war ended. Otherwise put, slavish obedience is a German invention, through and through. At least it was back in those days."
"But, thank God, 60 years of democracy has enlightened Germany. The country is more diverse and it is now at war in order to help other people. But today's Germany is also a country full of pacifists: It is a country in which the citizens ask critical questions about the orders they are issued. They will now longer blindly follow nonsensical orders just because an officer is yelling at them. … They believed in an enlightened democratic society, they recognize abuse of power and they decry it."
"It would be great if, when the investigation is completed, we find that is exactly what happened on the Gorch Fock. Can one lead an army with people like that? Absolutely -- the best in the world."
The conservative Die Welt, also weighs in:
"This is not just about leadership and obedience, but about the basics of training and professionalism that soldiers need. If there is an open dispute between the commander and young soldiers, then it is already too late. Clever leadership includes understanding the shock that a sudden death causes and dealing with it, before it affects the solidarity and functioning of the troops, by ensuring emotional stability. ... There will now be an investigation: If the young soldiers lost their nerve, then it is their responsibility and they will have to bear the consequences. However, if their commanders failed to live up to their supporting, helping and paternal task, then that is quite a different matter."