A dubious amnesty for Germany's elite soldiers

A four-minute read

Dear Reader,

Today we are discussing the German army’s elite forces, who are doing everything in their power to heighten the suspicion that they have something to hide.


Jörg & Axel

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Four Things

  • On March 1st, hairdressers will be opening their doors to the public for the first time in months. A particularly entrepreneurial Duisburg coiffeur is auctioning off her first time slot - at the casual hour of one minute past midnight. The proceeds, she says, will go to charity. A full on melee is expected: some hairdressers are reporting that they’re fully booked until the end of the month.

  • Angela Merkel has put her righthand man, Helge Braun, to work on plans for an end to the shutdown. His orders: draw up individual “opening packages” for private contacts, schools, and the entertainment industry. Those pushing for a quick exit are likely to be disappointed though: the decline in infections since the start of the year has gone into reverse in recent days leading to speculation of a “third wave”.

  • An Austrian historian has brought out a new book on Adolf Hitler’s father based on a bundle of letters that were hidden in an attic for a century. The book promises to rewrite the dictator’s childhood; father Alois was a customs official in the Austrian empire. Historian Roman Sandgruber says that Hitler senior was also self-aggrandizing and had a hatred for scientists, the church, and the Austrian aristocracy.

  • President Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened a year of celebrations of Jewish life at Cologne’s synagogue on Monday. The occasion marks 1,700 years since the first Jewish community in the German-speaking world was documented in Cologne. "Be it in philosophy, literature, painting, music, science, medicine, or business, Jews have helped write and shape our history and made our culture shine," Mr Steinmeier said. 

The special forces’ dubious amnesty

In the 1990s Germany decided that it needed to have its own elite forces. Jealous that the British could send the SAS on secret missions, and that the US could dispatch the Navy Seals to take out bad guys on every corner of the globe, the German Defence Ministry also wanted an elite unit with a sense of mystery and allure.

Thus the Kommando Spezialkräfte (KSK) was born. Soldiers in the KSK are not allowed to speak about their missions, and no official communications about what the KSK get up to are ever released.

But the KSK have never been very good at staying in the shadows.

First, soldiers in the elite unit started complaining to the press about the exhaustion of constant deployment to Afghanistan, a country where the German government long insisted that its soldiers were not involved in war (merely in war-like situations).

More recently, a woman employed in the world’s oldest profession witnessed a company officer giving a Hitler salute at a KSK party she’d been invited to.

Then various media outlets reported that another officer was secretly organizing a nationwide network of “preppers”, who were preparing for the collapse of German society by taking weapons training.

Last summer, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer finally lost her patience. She told the KSK’s generals that they had four months to get their house in order - otherwise she’ll dissolve the force altogether.

Well, those four months have passed and the KSK still seems to exist. Given a report in Süddeutsche Zeitung this week, many people will be asking why. The unit’s commanding general, Markus Kreitmayr, reportedly allowed his soldiers to bring back munitions that they’d been storing at home. Tens of thousands of missing pieces of weaponry were apparently handed back in during this amnesty, which was issued without anyone in the Defence Ministry knowing about it.

Mr Kreitmayr’s head is now apparently on the chopping block.


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The new steam revolution

In the mid 18th century Prussian authorities were so befuddled by a new technology that was being developed in Britain that they sent a couple of bureaucrats to pose as interested investors in the company Boulton & Watt.

Their real goal though was to steal the plans for the company’s steam engine. While they succeeded, Prussia was so backward compared to Britain that its attempts to put the plans into practise still ended in embarrassing failure. But the experience was a sobering wake up call for the Prussian royals.

It was only after deep reforms to the quaint but highly inefficient German system of localized government that Prussia to start eat into the technological advantage that had allowed Britain to become a global hegemon.

The year 2021 could prove to be a similar turning point.

In a recent conversation I had with a Berlin epidemiologist, he expressed horror at the fact that “Ghana has more advanced software for corona case tracking than we do”. Southeast Asian countries, meanwhile, are living in another galaxy, he said.

Much like in the 18th century, talking about a German strategy for tackling the pandemic is often futile. Every state - sometimes even every district - implements its own plans. In terms of contact tracing, various different, incompatible pieces of software are being used by the 375 districts. Some still rely primarily on excel sheets and telephone calls.

In a national crisis, this localism can be a huge headache. If an infected person had contact with people in another region, simply plugging the data into the system won’t work. This is one of the reasons why local health agencies lost track of the spread of infections so quickly in the autumn.

The federal government has been working round the clock to develop a single piece of software that all 375 of the local health authorities can use. The health ministry has promised to have it up and running nationwide by the end of February. Crucially, its use would integrate contact tracing across district lines. But it would also automate much of the work of ordering people into quarantine.

Local authorities aren’t convinced though. Only two thirds of health agencies have installed it, Die Welt reported this week. And of those, just 84 are actually using it. Some say they “have no need for it”, others “have no time to teach their overworked staff how to use it.” In their defence, design flaws in the software mean it isn’t compatible with a parallel system that sends data through to the Robert Koch Institute.

In other words, you can have the plans - but without a change in mindset they’re just lines on a piece of paper.


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.