by Katja Hoyer
Friday, 22
October 2021
Explainer
13:00

Does Germany have a mercenary problem?

Private armies have a long and undistinguished history in the country
by Katja Hoyer
Ex-Bundeswehr soldiers saw an opportunity to generate a sizeable income after their careers. Credit: Getty

Two former German soldiers have been arrested for planning to create a paramilitary group to fight in Yemen. The men were taken in under terrorism charges for attempting to recruit others to their mercenary band.

The project must have seemed a lucrative one for ‘Arend-Adolf G.’ and ‘Achim A.’, as they are called in the German press for privacy reasons. They had hoped that the Saudi government would finance the project. Each member of the 150-strong combat group, made up of ex-soldiers and police officers, was to receive up to €40,000 a month for their services.

These ex-soldiers saw an opportunity to generate a sizeable income after their careers in the Bundeswehr. While the German system involves tight legislation to support those leaving military service, this largely benefits specialised units rather than general infantry. Those who served in combat roles with few transferable skills often struggle to find a job.

Markus Biermann, a former non-commissioned officer who had served in the Bundeswehr for nine years, suddenly found himself on the private market as an unskilled labourer when he left the army. He claims to have sent out over 50 applications before a company finally granted him an internship. Many others find employment in private security firms where they often work on zero-hour contracts and for minimum wage.

Compare that to being a mercenary: a far more sizeable income for one’s work and lucrative gaps in markets across the world for your services. Now consider Yemen, where Civil War has raged since 2014. The UN estimates that it has claimed well over 200,000 lives, a quarter of which are children. Germany’s involvement in the resolution has been minimal. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported last year that only one Bundeswehr soldier was deployed in the region.

‘Arend-Adolf G.’ and ‘Achim A’ planned to offer their private army to the Saudi-backed government. Unfortunately for them, their repeated requests to Saudi officials for employment and funding fell on deaf ears in Riyadh and instead attracted attention in Berlin.

The men explained that, far from being terrorists, it had been their plan to bring about peace in the region by forcing the Houthi rebels to negotiate with the Yemeni government. But to the authorities, the problem begins with the formation of a private army in itself — illegal under German law.

Put into a historical context, it is understandable that the German state cracks down with significant force any attempts to create militia groups. The experience of the 1920s showed that private armies are a destabilising force and a threat to democracy.

Of course, the context of the years that followed the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of disaffected veterans simply refused to disband and fought their own street battles with communists, seem in the distant past now. But in these years German democracy was eroded, not in small part, through the contribution of Hitler’s private army, the SA. The fear and helplessness of German democrats then and the dark years that followed form part of the traumatic experiences of modern Germany.

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  • Private armies have been around in Germany for a lot longer than this. In 1809, when war broke out again between Austria and France, Britain invaded the Netherlands in support, and an independent anti-French force of Germans under the Duke of Brunswick fought its way up the Rhine to join it. They were evacuated, transferred to Spain, fought with distinction in the Peninsular War and again at Waterloo in which campaign the Duke was killed.
    These guys were essentially a private army, because although nominally “Brunswickers”, their parent state had been swallowed into Napoleon’s short-lived Rheinbund. Initially at least they were funded by the Duke.
    There was also a Russo-German Legion that fought against France in the Russian army until 1814 and was absorbed into Prussia’s in 1815. This force was raised from anti-French Prussians and from German-speaking prisoners captured by Russia. It was analogous to the Free French of WW2.
    The idea of private armies now seems rather weird, but of course the East India Company had one and it, along with some British regulars and local sepoys, was the mainstay of the forces commanded by Clive against the French in India in the 1750s and by the future Duke of Wellington against the local mahrattas 50 years later. It was your actual pukka full-on private army organised like the British but paid better and owing loyalty to the board of directors in effect.

  • Indeed. The British East India Company army later became the Indian Army of the Raj, which in turn became the modern Indian Army.

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