The German Army’s Dirty Secret

Kaserne in Illkirch
Memorabilia from bygone days of the German military in the lounge of infantry battalion 291 in Illkirch. Source: Patrick Seeger/dpa

There are four pictures still hanging on the wall next to the bulletin board in a semi-public section of the German military’s Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg. Here, only students, their guests, military supervisors, and cleaning personnel are allowed in. One picture is conspicuously missing.

The visible photos are of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Bundeswehr Chief of Staff Volker Wieker and a student ombudsman. Up until last Thursday, there was a fifth picture of Helmut Schmidt, posing in a uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German Nazi army. Mr. Schmidt, who would go on to become defense minister and German chancellor, started out as a first lieutenant in Hitler’s army. Nobody at the university knows any more who hung the picture or when. Some say it had been there for twelve or thirteen years before Mr. Schmidt’s name was added to Bundeswehr University in December 2003.

What is clear is that in the wake of the scandal surrounding right-wing extremists in the Bundeswehr, Ursula von der Leyen had issued an order to remove anything to do with the Wehrmacht from the military property. The result? No more Lieutenant Schmidt.

Some see the move as a hysterical purge. Others say it should have been taken down a long time ago. Even at the university, the debate runs the gamut between these two extremes. Briefly, another image had taken its place – one of YouTube’s frustrated emoji, which pops up when a video is unplayable. It was accompanied by a text: “This picture is unfortunately no longer available because it displayed Helmut Schmidt as an officer in uniform. Apparently, showing common ground between the university’s namesake and aspiring officers is unwelcome. We’re sorry about that.” That picture had to go, too.

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