Scandals Shake Germany's Faith in its Military

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Facundo Santana / Reuters

Members of the commission, who was ordered to investigate a reported mutiny on the training ship Gorch Fock (right), approach the vessel in Ushuaia January 27, 2011

It all started in November, when a young German sailor fell to her death from the mast of a naval training ship. Since then, a flurry of scandals have emerged from within Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, including allegations of a cover-up surrounding the death of a soldier in Afghanistan and revelations of the unauthorized opening of private mail sent home by German troops serving abroad. As Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg launches a wide-ranging inquiry, the affair has raised awkward questions over the Bundeswehr's training practices and leadership structures, and tarnished the reputation of the country's military.

Coming under fire for not addressing the scandals sooner, zu Guttenberg announced on Sunday that he had ordered up an investigation into the three incidents, the most serious centering on the death of naval cadet Sarah Lena Seele, 25, who fell from the 88-foot-high rigging of the prestigious training ship the Gorch Fock on Nov. 7. "No one can explain what exactly happened when my daughter died," Seele's mother told the news magazine Focus in an interview published Jan. 23, adding that she suspected the real cause of death had been "covered up."

According to a leaked letter sent to the Defense Ministry by the parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces, Hellmut Königshaus, other cadets refused to carry out orders to climb the rigging after Seele plunged to her death, and said they were then subjected to "heavy pressure" from their instructors. Citing an internal report compiled by Königshaus' team of investigators, the news magazine Der Spiegel said cadets complained of having to deal with drunken crew members and officers—one cadet said he was forced to scrub the officers' vomit from the deck. One male cadet claimed he was sexually harassed by crew members in the ship's showers. And a former female cadet, quoted by the German news agency DAPD, said some women on board the Gorch Fock felt "pressurized" by "unambiguous and direct [sexual] offers" from members of the crew. The vessel—which has been in service since 1958 and is the pride of the German navy—is allegedly dubbed in naval circles as "Germany's biggest floating brothel."

"There are many distasteful things which happened that have been reported to me," Königshaus told a news conference on Tuesday. In his official 70-page annual report, which was made public on Tuesday, Königshaus says there are structural weaknesses in the armed forces' leadership ranks and training procedures. In a damning indictment, the parliamentary ombudsman says in particular that inexperienced superiors lack "the knowledge and intuition for realizing when boundaries of breach of duty and criminal offence are crossed" and he calls for measures to improve troop conduct and discipline.

As well as the inquiry into Seele's death, Defense Minister zu Guttenberg—who's tipped to be the next Chancellor—has ordered up an investigation into the death of a 21-year-old German soldier in Afghanistan in December. The Bundeswehr initially ruled it an accident, claiming the soldier had killed himself while cleaning his gun. But a preliminary probe by military investigators that was leaked to the German media on Jan. 20 concluded he may have been shot by a fellow soldier who was playing around with his gun. German state prosecutors have now launched a manslaughter probe.

Meanwhile, ombudsman Königshaus has reported that, in the third incident included in the inquiry, letters sent back to Germany over the past three months by soldiers serving in Afghanistan were "systematically" opened before being delivered. In some cases, the contents were removed. Critics say the letter-tampering violates Germany's privacy of correspondence laws. "A soldier has the same civil rights as other citizens," Ulrich Kirsch, the head of Germany's armed forces' association, told reporters.

In the run-up to a series of crucial regional elections later this year, opposition parties have been quick to make political capital out of the scandals, saying that zu Guttenberg—Germany's most popular politician and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel—has lost control of his ministry. "The Defense Minister was slow to react," Hans-Peter Bartels, defense spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats, tells TIME. "He had enough time—more than two-and-a-half months since the cadet's death last November—to inform parliament and the public. But he only ordered an inquiry after all the media coverage."

Analysts say the Gorch Fock affair and the other incidents expose training failures and a breakdown in communication amongst the military leadership. "Training practices in the Bundeswehr have become much tougher because of Germany's foreign military missions, for example in Afghanistan," says Hans-Georg Ehrhart, a defense expert at the Hamburg-based Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy. "And those practices could have dangerous consequences." Ehrhart blames the recent spate of "irregularities in the Bundeswehr's training procedures" on a breakdown in leadership practices. "Senior figures in the armed forces covered up these cases—that's unacceptable for a modern and democratic army," he says.

A team of ten Bundeswehr inspectors arrived onboard the Gorch Fock, currently moored off Argentina, on Friday to question the cadets and crew members. The ship has been ordered to return to Germany and will remain out of service while the inquiry is under way. And it's not clear when or whether the pride of the German navy will be back at sea.