German Professor Under Fire for Defending Torture

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    German Professor Under Fire for Defending Torture

    Controversial comments by a military historian who said torture can be a legitimate instrument in the war on terror have triggered an outcry in Germany. Defense Minister Struck is considering disciplinary action.

    German Defense Minister Peter Struck said on Wednesday that statements condoning torture made by Professor Michael Wolffsohn, a military historian, were "unbelievable" and "unacceptable" and said he was considering taking legal and disciplinary steps against the professor.

    Wolffsohn -- an instructor in Munich at one of Germany's top two military officer training schools -- attracted controversy earlier this month when he told a German television reporter that "if we attempt to counter terror with gentlemanly methods, we will fail."

    Referring to the excesses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he said, "In the anti-terror fight there are really no effective laws of war. I believe that torture, or the threat of torture, is legitimate as one of the instruments against terror, because terror basically… has nothing to do with our civilized order."

    However, Wolffsohn said that the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib "has gone too far." He later said his remarks were a "scientific-theoretical reflection" and that he did condemn torture.

    "A German soldier tortures no one"

    On Wednesday, Struck was at pains to make clear that the country's military establishment did not share Wolffsohn's controversial views.

    "A German soldier tortures no one," Struck (photo) said during a television talk show on the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq. "I am firmly convinced that even a young and not particularly educated soldier would never do what we have seen," he added.

    Germany's stringent postwar military training rules force soldiers to take responsibility for their actions, reflecting lessons drawn from the Nazi era. Struck said he was confident that German soldiers, who are deployed in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, would never mistreat prisoners.

    "I can rule that out because our soldiers -- even the ones who only do nine months' compulsory service -- learn during their training that they must not follow illegal orders." The minister added, "It would be an illegal order if anyone were to demand that prisoners be treated in the way that we have, for example, seen in the pictures from Iraq."

    Struck said he had ordered a meeting with Wolffsohn to determine whether the professor was instructing his students in a manner consistent with the German constitution.

    Wolffsohn known to court controversy

    Wolffsohn, who describes himself as a German-Jewish patriot, is no stranger to controversy. In his writings, he has often encouraged more national pride to normalize German-Israeli relations and said that the Holocaust should not be instrumentalized to serve the interests of specific groups.

    Critics have blamed his views for playing into the hands of right-wing radicals.

    His recent comments condoning torture aren't exactly new. Similar statements have been made by a host of security experts -- both German and non-German -- at security conferences across Germany in the past.

    Last year, the governor of the state of Hesse, Roland Koch, defended a police officer who had used the threat of force to extract the location of a kidnapped child from his suspected kidnapper. The kidnapper under threat of coercion did confess to the crime and led police to the boy, who was already dead by then.

    During a debate over the kidnapping incident, Jörg Schonbohm, interior minister of the state of Brandenburg, called for people to think about the methods they would want the law to use "if vast numbers of people were under threat from terrorism."

    "No endorsement of torture in a democracy"

    But Wolffsohn's comments seem to have struck a nerve this time given the fact that he was speaking on a nationally-televised talk show shortly after the release of photographs showing Iraqi detainees being abused by American soldiers.

    Angelika Beer, head of Germany's Green party said that Wolffsohn had lost the right to continue in his teaching job and that he should voluntarily step down. Beer said the right to freedom of expression stopped "at the point when it departs from the fundamental principles of our democracy and constitution."

    Even the head of the Munich military school, Professor Hans Georg Lößl has distanced himself from the professor's remarks. Though Lößl said that Wolffsohn's comments should be treated as his personal view, he admitted that the affair had affected their working relationship.

    "Torture and torture threats are instruments of dictators and despots. They can in no way be endorsed in a democratic society," Lößl said.
     

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