EXPLAINED: Why is German Twitter up in arms over a torch-light military parade?

Social media was abuzz on Thursday with criticism of the German army for marching next to the Reichstag with torches in their hands.

EXPLAINED: Why is German Twitter up in arms over a torch-light military parade?
Soldiers at the parade in Berlin on Wednesday. Photo: dpa | Christophe Gateau

The Bundeswehr held a ceremony on Wednesday evening in central Berlin to honour the 90,000 soldiers who risked their lives while serving during the two-decade operation in Afghanistan.

But one part of the ceremony hit a nerve among sections of the German public.

Dozens of soldiers in uniform marched in lock step in front of the Reichstag building, carrying flaming torches.

For some, the visual parallels to a Nazi march at the Brandenburg Gate in 1933 made the parade too historically insensitive.

Thousands of Twitter users posted with hashtags such as #Wehrmacht and #Ritual in which they said that the parade was not suitable for the modern age.

“When Germans carry troches I can’t eat enough to keep up with how much I’m vomiting,” wrote former Green Party politician Jutta Ditfurth. 

Satirist Jan Böhmermann wrote that he finds “torchlight marches by uniformed people in front of the Reichstag really, really sh*tty regardless of what the cause is.”

Highest military ceremony

Wednesday evening’s ceremony was supposed to be about the sacrifices made by German troops. A total of 59 Bundeswehr soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. 

The Zapfenstreich – a march with torches – is the highest military ceremony the German army has.

The custom is used to honour German presidents and chancellors as well as defence ministers at their farewell ceremonies. Its origins do not actually lie in the Nazi era, rather they date back to the 16th century.

The ceremony always takes place in the evening, and consists of a procession, parade music – including the national anthem – and a military retreat. Torches are always part of the affair.

The Association of German Deployment Veterans defended the decision to hold the ceremony in front of the Reichstag.

The organisation said that “for an army controlled by a parliament, we can think of no better place than the seat of parliament to honour the service of the Bundeswehr and the sacrifices of its troops”.

Centrist politicians also came out in support of the military. 

“The ceremony was absolutely appropriate in form, and it was held in the only appropriate place,” wrote Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, defence spokeswoman for the FDP. 

Green Party foreign affairs expert Omid Nouripour called the ceremony “appropriate, dignified and moving”.

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German army to employ rabbi for first time in a century

The German army will employ a rabbi as religious counsellor for the first time in a century, a firm signal that Jewish life is an integral part of the country, Germany's Defence Minister said Wednesday.

German army to employ rabbi for first time in a century
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer with a group of soldiers in Iraq this year. Photo: DPA

Priests and pastors are already providing religious services to the estimated 94,000 Christians in the military.

But the equivalent has not been available to Jewish soldiers, who number around 300.

“Today at the cabinet meeting, we sent an important signal to our Jewish soldiers,” Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on Twitter.

“After about 100 years, we will install a Jewish military rabbi in the #Bundeswehr (German army) again. A clear commitment – Jewish life is self-evident in our country.”

Religious counsellors in the army offer advice on ethical issues and accompany soldiers as they carry out training or further education.

Plans are also afoot to put in place a religious counsellor for the 3,000 Muslim soldiers, although talks have been held up because there is no central coordinating institution representing the community.

Germany's armed forces have over the years repeatedly come under fire over suspicions that some members are far right-leaning.

READ ALSO: 'Unacceptable mistake': German army apologizes for Nazi uniform Instagram post

Last year, then Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen ordered the military to cleanse itself of all links to the wartime Wehrmacht, after learning that steel helmets and memorabilia of the Nazi-era army were openly displayed at one of its barracks.

Most recently, Kramp-Karrenbauer vowed to take decisive action against cases of radicalism in the army, after it emerged that the Bundeswehr was to suspend a member of its elite force on suspicion of far-right extremism.