The bike shop-cum arms supplier | The doctor who would be king

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Dear reader,

Today we are looking at a surprising new weapons supplier for the Bundeswehr. And we’re discussing the most popular talk show guest in Germany, a man who is more ambitious than he seems.

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Jörg & Axel

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German guns

The major sales argument of German arms producer Heckler & Koch used to be that its bestseller, the G36 assault rifle, has been in the hands of the Bundeswehr for sixty years straight. 

Now the Swabian defence company, founded after the war by former employees of the Mauserwerke, needs a different pitch for its machine guns, assault rifles and handguns, which they sell to police departments and military all over the world.

On Monday the German Defence Ministry declared to general surprise that the contract to replace the armed forces’ 170.000 G36 rifles will not go to Heckler & Koch but to Haenal, a virtually unknown company from Thuringia.

Years of criticism of the latest version of the G36 - that it overheats and is not accurate - led to an extensive technical investigation. After seeing the results, then defence minister Ursula von der Leyen declared that:

“The G36 in its current form has no future in the German Bundeswehr.”

A four-year tender process ensued. In the end there were only three rifles left, two produced by Heckler & Koch, and the Haenel MK 556

Shocked at the loss of a €250M contract to a small east German competitor which two years ago had revenues of €7M, the Swabians decided to take legal action against what they claim has been a faulty tender process. 

The resulting delay might suit Haenel just right. They must now ramp up production capacity to supply the Bundeswehr with 120.000 rifles until 2023 - no small feat for a company which in 2018 had nine employees.

Reactions in Thuringia were mixed. The state is governed by the Left party, who oppose all forms of defence production. Steffan Dittes, a parliamentarian from the party, told MDR that:

“Haenel should manufacture bicycles again” referring to the company’s GDR past - after the war the Russians turned the company into a bike shop.

Christian Herrgott from the CDU was more optimistic telling Der Spiegel  

"this decision is good for both the Bundeswehr and for Thuringia.”

The only problem is that neither Haenel nor it’s parent company Merkel Jagd- und Sportwaffen Gmbh are from Thuringia  - they are subsidiaries of Abu Dhabi’s state owned defense manufacturer EDGE... 

As Heckler & Koch plan their strategy to topple the decision in the courts, complaining about the far from spotless human rights record of the Arab oil state risks backfiring. For years Heckler & Koch has had to explain why its guns, in defiance of Germany’s Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz, keep ending up in the hands of dubious customers.

Kurdish Peshmerga, Sudanese rebels, Serbian snipers, Ghadaffi’s palace guards and Saudi soldiers fighting in Yemen have agreed with Heckler & Koch all along - the G36 fires just fine…


The doctor who would be king

Anyone who enjoys watching German political talk shows will have become accustomed to one particular face over the past half year. No politician has been invited onto talk shows more in that time than Karl Lauterbach, health spokesman for the Social Democrats.

With his neat bow tie and ruffled hair, he looks more like a professor at a dinner party than a politician. As indeed he is. Lauterbach is still technically employed by the IGKE institute of epidemiology in Cologne. But his role there has been put on hold for the past 15 years while he has been sitting in the Bundestag.

The 57 year old likes people to think of him as a doctor first and foremost. He regularly updates his quarter of a million Twitter followers with summaries of the latest Covid-19 research.

The media are often more than happy to play along. An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung this week quoted him extensively as it “debunked” a theory that most Covid-19 deaths are “with” rather than “due to” the virus.

But Lauterbach is not currently a doctor, he is a politician. And a rather ambitious one at that. After his hopes of gaining a ministerial role in 2017 were dashed, he ran for the SPD chairmanship last year on a platform of pulling his party out of the coalition.

Meanwhile, a closer look at his Tweets shows more than a hint of bias. 

NDR journalist Andrej Reisin has listed the inaccuracies that Lauterbach spreads on social media, all of which seem intended to increase fear of the disease.

In one case, Laurterbach cited a UK study to claim that “60 percent of relatively mild cases still struggle with Covid symptoms 3 months later. It is important that people who endanger themselves and others with their selfish behaviour learn this.”

What he failed to mention was that the study only involved people who were hospitalized. Most people understand a “mild case” to involve a bit of coughing and fever - or no symptoms at all - which is how the RKI sees it too.

His pessimistic predictions are also often wide of the mark. In April, as the lockdown ended, he foresaw a swift return of an exponential rise in cases that would lead to everyone being forced back into their homes.

Virologists don’t seem to take him very seriously. Dr. Hendrik Streeck (see Sept. 2nd edition) treated him like an errant school boy when he recently commented on a Twitter post: “Mr Lauterbach, once again you’ve got it wrong… you can do better.”

One health specialist with a particular axe to grind is his ex-wife, Angela Spelsberg.

The two met while studying at Harvard in the 1990s. Spelsberg, now head of a cancer research centre in Aachen, says that her ex-husband spends too much time sitting on TV studio sofas to have a proper grasp of the facts. (This isn’t the first time that Spelsberg has cut him down publicly. After years spent in the divorce courts, she told a magazine that “he’s only interested in money and his career.”)

“We can now go back to events in football stadiums and so forth just like previously. We are no longer in a pandemic in Germany,” is Spelsberg’s rather different take on the current situation.

Of course, Lauterbach is not the first ambitious person to act as if their professional background lifts them above the political fray. Angela Merkel famously likes to be portrayed as a trained scientist who only stays on as Bundeskanzlerin out of duty. Let’s see if it works as well for him as it has for her.


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 and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

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.

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