German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen addresses journalists, after her visit at the 291st fighter squadron based at the “Quartier Leclerc”, a military facility for French and German military units in Illkirch-Graffenstaden near Strasbourg, France May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel fully backs her defence minister over her handling of a scandal about far-right sympathisers in the military, her spokesman said, after the arrest of an officer suspected of planning a racially motivated attack.
Ursula von der Leyen angered the armed forces and some politicians by lambasting “weak leadership” across the military at the weekend, but she has vowed to dig further to get to the root of far-right sentiment, even if it takes a long time.
The chief federal prosecutor is dealing with the case of the 28-year old lieutenant, identified only as Franco A., and a 24-year old student, saying there were “preliminary indications of preparations for a serious attack against the state”.
“The German defence minister has the full support of the German chancellor and the whole German government to shed light on all facets of the case of Franco A., as far as the German armed forces is concerned,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told a regular news conference on Wednesday.
The Social Democrats, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, have stopped short of calling for the minister’s resignation, which would damage Merkel five months before a national election. But their candidate for chancellor said von der Leyen, defence minister since 2013, could not evade responsibility.
“The political responsibility can’t fall on the troops,” Martin Schulz said. “Ms. von der Leyen is making everyone responsible for the situation in the army and is behaving as if she herself has nothing to do with it.”
Franco A. was arrested last week after falsely registering as a Syrian refugee in January 2016. Tagesspiegel newspaper said he had a list of five possible targets for attacks, including the justice minister and a former German president.
Die Welt newspaper reported on Wednesday that the list included major groups representing Jews and Muslims. Germany is highly sensitive to any signs of far-right extremism in its armed services because of its Nazi past.
Speaking during a visit to the French town of Illkirch, where the suspect was based, von der Leyen, often touted as a successor to Merkel, said digging into the leadership issues revealed by the case was likely to take months.
RACISM IN MASTER’S THESIS
She said it was unacceptable that the racism evident in a master’s degree thesis written by the suspect had not triggered disciplinary action by his superiors, even though the commander of the French military academy where it had been submitted had rejected the thesis and informed the suspect’s German superiors.