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German Army Faces Neo-Nazi Scandal

December 17, 1997

SCHNEEBERG, Germany (AP) _ The 571st Mountain Battalion did its best Wednesday to show the right stuff.

Fatigue-clad soldiers stormed buildings and leapt from tanks in a demonstration for Defense Minister Volker Ruehe. Helicopters swooped from the hills to rescue a man clinging to a snow-covered roof.

But mentality, not muscle power, is under investigation in Germany’s army, where evidence of neo-Nazism has appalled the nation in a scandal that started with the 571st.

Homemade videotapes that surfaced in recent months show battalion soldiers acting out rapes, killings and neo-Nazi skits, complete with Hitler salutes and anti-Semitic slurs. Some of the soldiers had been in training for peacekeeping duty in Bosnia.

Evidence from other units soon followed: photographs of partying soldiers in Bavaria surrounded by Nazi symbols, and reports that the military academy in Hamburg invited a convicted neo-Nazi to lecture on immigration.

The incidents all happened at least two years ago, brought to light recently by German news magazines just as the army was basking in success over fighting the summer’s floods. The disaster relief was a brief triumph for the army, which only recently started assuming a stronger role after years of post-war restraint.

Opposition politicians are calling for Ruehe’s resignation. Soldiers linked to the scandal have been dismissed or suspended from duty. And parliament has announced a probe into extreme right-wing activity among army ranks.

Members of the 571st have their own ideas. Sitting in their canteen, a group of soldiers said the men who made the videotapes might have been neo-Nazis, but more likely, they were just dumb pranksters.

``They were just out for attention. The group that made the tapes, it was a small clique, and they were that way,″ said Capt. Paul Puhlmann, a unit commander who knew the culprits. ``I’ve never seen any neo-Nazi tendencies.″

The other soldiers, who refused to give their names, made similar comments between mouthfuls of coffee and soup, fortification for the bitter cold outside.

Just in case troops might lean toward neo-Nazi behavior out of ignorance, the army has arranged some education. All members of the 571st are receiving instruction in German politics and history, such as how democracy works and what happened during World War II. Officers, in addition to the history classes, are learning how to recognize extremist tendencies among soldiers.

``The German military is not the nation’s school system,″ Ruehe said Wednesday, but ``deficiencies in political awareness″ of some troops must to be overcome.

The 600-strong battalion is near the Czech border just outside the eastern town of Schneeberg, and about 70 percent of the battalion is from the former East Germany.

While the defense minister says right-wing extremism is a general problem in Germany, he suggested Wednesday it might be more prevalent among people raised in communist East Germany, which took less responsibility for the Nazi period.

Ruehe has recommended that new soldiers be screened for extreme right-wing activities, through checks of school and police records. Justice officials have been wary of the idea as an invasion of privacy, but soldiers here welcomed it.

Army service is mandatory in Germany, which leads to a popular argument that neo-Nazism is no stronger in the army than in any other group.

But the argument has a flip side: About a third of the population opts for community service instead of army time, which means that left-leaning types aren’t fully represented. Some say the army might actually attract people with neo-Nazi tendencies, soldiers interested in serving ``the fatherland″ and learning combat techniques for a renewed fight for a racially pure society.

``That’s why the army should be mandatory for everyone,″ said Puhlmann, who strongly favored background checks for soldiers. ``We need to have a balance. Then people might not see the army in a negative way.″

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