German minister's pledge to reform military fails to stem criticism

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s defense minister on Wednesday promised to reform the military after the arrest of soldiers accused of plotting to carry out an attack motivated by right-wing extremism, but her pledge failed to quell growing criticism of her leadership.

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German police on Tuesday detained a second soldier suspected of involvement in what prosecutors believe was a plan by a military officer and a student, both in custody, to carry out an attack and blame it on migrants.

Ursula von der Leyen, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said it could take months to address what she initially called “weak leadership” across the military that allowed incidents of extremism, sexual assault and bullying to fester.

But members of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in Merkel’s ruling coalition, the Greens and other parties criticized von der Leyen for not taking personal responsibility, despite over three years on the job as commander of the troops.

“Extreme mistakes were made at a high level,” Rainer Arnold, defense spokesman for the SPD, told reporters. He said her comments had created “an environment of uncertainty and mistrust” that were hobbling the military’s response.

He said von der Leyen had failed to tackle problems with the internal leadership structures despite warning signs when a sexual harassment scandal first surfaced last autumn.

Christine Buchholz, a member of the Left party, said the case clearly involved “a far-right extremist terror cell”, and urged von der Leyen not to treat it as an isolated incident.

Merkel has underscored her support for von der Leyen, calling her approach the right one.

Von der Leyen has apologized for her initial anger about the arrest of a 28-year-old officer, who was not dismissed despite writing what she called a “clearly racist” master’s thesis, but said she remained convinced reforms were needed.

“It’s important to me that we don’t lump everything together,” she told reporters after a two-hour session of the parliamentary defense panel. “But we must proceed with all firmness on these specific cases, not just right-wing extremism ... but also the cases of sexualized violence.”

“The overall responsibility lies with me, that is not a question,” von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen said she planned to improve leadership training and accountability, starting with detailed discussions at the lowest level of the military.

Officials would also revamp the “Traditionserlass”, a policy last updated in 1982, which provides guidance for how troops should treat the legacy of the German military, which also coordinated a failed attempt to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1944. It now says some German troops were responsible for Nazi atrocities, while others were “innocently abused”.

The military also needed a faster and more efficient reporting scheme for potential threats, and would need to increase the political education of troops, the minister said.

“I am completely clear ... that we need a broad process in the military itself, that we must travel together - from recruits to generals, from instructors to the minister,” she said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alison Williams