BERLIN—More than 60 years after World War II, Germany once again is arguing over whether its military is fit to assume a place on the world stage, this time because of graphic photos of its soldiers in Afghanistan that were published this week.
One photo shows a German special forces commando with a human skull in his right hand and his penis in his left. Another shows a skull as a hood ornament. A third shows German soldiers "executing" a skeleton.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called them "shocking and repugnant."
For Merkel, the timing of the photos' publication, first in the popular newspaper Bild, then in just about every other German paper, couldn't have been worse. She'd just unveiled what experts call the most ambitious military strategic plan here since Nazi Germany's defeat, and she'd hoped to be leading a discussion on how Germany could take part in a broader range of peacekeeping activities worldwide.
Instead, the country is focused on the behavior of the 2,800 German troops who are part of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and asking whether the photos are the equivalent of the U.S. military's Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal in Iraq. Commentators have asked bluntly whether German troops are up to representing the country abroad.
"In both cases, the real issue is what is the makeup of today's German military," said Michael Wolffsohn, a historian at the German Military College in Munich. "The photos show our most elite soldiers demonstrating a complete lack of respect for civil rights, for civil society. This is the army we're going to send further afield?"
The strategic plan, a 133-page book, calls for Germany to prepare 33,000 rapid-response troops who could be deployed outside the country as part of NATO forces or a proposed European Union military. Currently, 9,000 German soldiers serve outside the country in peacekeeping missions from nearby Kosovo to Afghanistan and Congo thousands of miles away.
The plan says Germany's military must become more battle-ready, and calls for the military, which until recently hadn't ventured outside its borders, to prepare to play "an important role in future shaping of Europe and beyond."
While not calling for a significant increase in the number of German soldiers, it does call for a higher degree of readiness and suggests changes in German law to allow them to respond more readily to terrorism abroad and at home. It also calls for developing a policy for financing weapons purchases and for developing the European arms industry.
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Many military analysts say a broader military role for Germany is long overdue. They note that as Europe's largest economy, Germany dominates the European Union's policy discussion. They see a bigger military role as something that flows naturally from that.
"Germany has international security responsibilities, and this makes it clear that they are taking them seriously," Rob Boudewijn, the head of European studies at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch research center, said of the plan. "It is time again for Germany to look outside its borders."
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has urged Germany to take a more active role in peacekeeping efforts, and has called on the country recently not to reduce its presence in Afghanistan.
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But the photos have left a bad taste with many Germans, who worry that their troops' behavior has slid into barbarism.
Among the pictures, which Bild published Wednesday, are ones showing commandos petting a skull and perching a skull on their shoulders like a pirate's parrot. Bild said the photos were taken in 2003 near Kabul.
One newspaper, commenting on the pictures, mocked German pride by rerunning the headline it had displayed last year when a German was elected pope, "We are pope." But the newspaper crossed out the word "pope" and replaced it with "jerks."
Since the photos were published, Germany has increased security at embassies in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East for fear of retaliation. A leading Green Party member of Parliament, Renate Kuenast, said the pictures called the judgment of German troops into question.
"It's incomprehensible that the soldiers didn't think about the danger they might be putting their comrades in," she said.
On Friday, Bild reported that it had obtained still more photos, as yet unpublished.
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In a Bild interview, one of the soldiers who allegedly was involved in taking the pictures said the bones had been found in unmarked graves during reconstruction work. He told the newspaper that they weren't sure to whom the bones had belonged.
Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said Friday that two of the soldiers in the photos had been suspended and the others were under investigation. None of those involved in taking the pictures are still in Afghanistan, and four have left the military.
Ernst-Christoph Meier, who heads the group that debriefs soldiers returning from Afghanistan, said the Defense Ministry was investigating whether the stress of duty in Afghanistan had contributed to the pictures and whether officials should have anticipated this sort of behavior and taken steps to prevent it.
He said he didn't believe that the photos represented a widespread problem among German soldiers there. "We think these were individual cases," he said.
Still, at a time when Germany's leading politicians had hoped to be focusing on how to expand the military, the photos have become a major distraction.
On Friday, the widely read and respected conservative newspaper Die Welt noted that debate now is focused on the soldiers' conduct.
"This is not the first scandal in the German army," the paper said, "but it could become the most consequential one."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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