BONN, Germany -- The German Defense Ministry admitted yesterday that 24 servicemen this year had been linked with the outbreak of right-wing extremism that now grips Germany.
Defense Ministry spokesman Ulrich Twrsnik was able to provide few details, other than to confirm that investigations had been launched in all cases and that most incidents involved young draftees during their off-duty time. But he noted: "We are taking every case very seriously."
A written ministry statement released early yesterday stated that the majority of the cases involved soldiers spouting neo-Nazi slogans or otherwise expressing extreme right-wing sentiments.
But the German news agency, Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA), reported that three of the 24 had been implicated in three of the 11 known killings carried out by right-wing extremists in Germany this year and that one had already been sentenced to a five-year jail term.
A Defense Ministry spokesman, however, said the three deaths involved "skinhead" draftees fighting among themselves. At least two Germans died in the fighting, the spokesman said.
DPA also reported that three naval officers in the Baltic port city of Kiel earlier this week threw a training grenade into the grounds of a hostel housing foreigners seeking asylum, apparently to frighten them.
The disclosures bring a new dimension to the highly charged issue of the re-emergence of right-wing extremism in Germany.
It was the first official confirmation of right-wing radicalism within the military, a discomforting issue for a country mindful of the Nazi era and atrocities committed by German soldiers against civilians during World War II.
The disclosures also represent the second shock in a week to Germans, who watched their president, the most respected figure in the country, get pelted with eggs, rocks and fruit by extremists from the political left as he addressed a massive weekend rally in Berlin opposing xenophobia.
Both senior armed forces officers and members of the Bundestag's military affairs committee insisted that yesterday's announcements did not mean that Germany's defense forces had been infiltrated by the extreme right.
"Each incident is serious, but it is certainly not the case that there is a right-wing extremist tendency in the army," Lt. Gen. Helge Hansen, the inspector general of the Bundeswehr, Germany's army, told reporters.
Walter Kolbow, a Social Democratic member of Parliament, warned against what he termed "sweeping accusations of right-wing extremism about our soldiers." But, he added, "These incidents are an appalling alarm signal that must be carefully observed and resisted by every means possible."
In a letter to all commanders last month, General Hansen warned of the need to take swift action against any soldier expressing right-wing sentiments. "For our credibility, it is necessary to ensure that radical groups have no chance to carry out their activities under the auspices of the Bendeswehr," he wrote.
Mr. Twrsnik said that 22 of the 24 servicemen involved were draftees, rather than career soldiers; they carried their ideology into the army with them rather than learning it in the service, he said.
"This is a citizens' army and the army is a mirror of society," he said. The German military numbers a little more than 430,000 troops, of whom 191,000 are draftees.
Mr. Twrsnik said that there had been other instances of extremism in previous years, but not at the present level. But Maj. Helmuth Priess, the spokesman for a group of about 200 officers, known as the Darmstadt Signal, which occasionally criticizes official Defense Ministry policy, claimed that some older officers encourage right-wing attitudes because of their uncritical view of Naziism.