German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo-Nazi Pilot Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Two leading West German air force generals were forced to retire after inviting to a military reunion the unrepentant neo-Nazi extremist Hans-Ulrich Rudel. The generals suggested that Rudel, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, deserved the same chance at forgiveness the former communist Herbert Wehner had received when he became a Social Democratic leader in the German parliament.

Summary of Event

The Bundeswehr (the West German armed forces) was created only a decade after the complete defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, and most of the initial volunteer officers and noncommissioned officers had served in Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht (armed forces). The new democratic West German government and its military advisers, however, wanted to insulate the Bundeswehr from Nazi traditions and to ensure that it, unlike several previous German military forces, was completely compliant with the democratic civilian government established in 1949. [kw]Nazi Pilot, German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo- (Nov. 9, 1976) Leber, Georg Schmidt, Hermann Rudel, Hans-Ulrich Krupinski, Walter Franke, Karl Heinz World War II[World War 02] Leber, Georg Schmidt, Hermann Rudel, Hans-Ulrich Krupinski, Walter Franke, Karl Heinz World War II[World War 02] [g]Europe;Nov. 9, 1976: German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo-Nazi Pilot[01650] [g]Germany;Nov. 9, 1976: German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo-Nazi Pilot[01650] [c]Military;Nov. 9, 1976: German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo-Nazi Pilot[01650] [c]Politics;Nov. 9, 1976: German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo-Nazi Pilot[01650] [c]Government;Nov. 9, 1976: German Generals Must Retire for Supporting a Neo-Nazi Pilot[01650] Wörner, Manfred Wehner, Herbert

Both of these goals were challenged by the presence of the highly decorated, right-wing, World War II Stuka bomber pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel at an air force squadron’s unit-tradition meeting in October, 1976. Rudel’s participation at the meeting was defended by two air force generals who suggested that Rudel should be forgiven for his neo-Nazi political past just as Herbert Wehner, a major Social Democratic leader in the Bundestag, was forgiven for his communist past.

In 1965, the defense ministry issued a directive on the issue of tradition in the Bundeswehr. The directive allowed air, naval, and land forces to name some units and bases after prominent Wehrmacht officers as long as those persons were not involved in Nazi crimes. However, the army chose not to adopt old unit designations from pre-1945 German military units. The air force, however, with the permission of its chief of staff, did allow links to German squadrons of that war. One of the Bundeswehr’s reconnaissance squadrons was named Immelmann for the World War I German fighter pilot Max Immelmann. In 1935, the new German air force under Hitler, Adolf Hitler had selected that name as well for one of its units.

The major problem that an air unit faced in planning any tradition meeting with members of the World War II Immelmann squadron was that its former leader was Rudel, who served as commander of the Immelmann dive-bomber squadron during World War II. He was the most highly decorated German fighter, credited with destroying over five hundred enemy tanks, but he did not detach himself from the Nazis. His postwar career included support of former Nazis who had fled to Latin America, and after his return to Germany he campaigned for neo-Nazi political parties. Not surprisingly, until 1976, defense ministers banned Rudel from West German military bases.

In 1975, the commander of the Bundeswehr’s Immelmann reconnaissance squadron 51 asked his superiors to allow a tradition meeting with survivors of the World War II Stuka Immelmann squadron. The state secretary for the defense ministry, Hermann Schmidt, refused to permit the meeting, fearing what might happen if Rudel were allowed to appear at an air force base. Manfred Wörner, a member of the Christian Democratic defense committee in parliament and a reserve officer, joined the debate after being notified of Schmidt’s decision. He wrote Schmidt a letter that praised Rudel’s military accomplishments in World War II and claimed ignorance of his political views.

Three months after receiving this letter, Schmidt informed Wörner that the issue had been resolved. Schmidt allegedly had approved of the meeting if held outside the air force base. The tradition meeting also received the enthusiastic support of General Walter Krupinski, the commander of West Germany’s combat air force. Krupinski, a recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves award during World War II, had flown cover for Rudel’s unit on the eastern front. Krupinski informed the Immelmann squadron that the meeting could take place on the base.

The Immelmann tradition meeting was held on October 23 at the Bremgarten air base near Freiburg in southwestern West Germany. Rudel participated in the weekend festivities, which included a review of German jet flights, and he signed autographs for enthusiastic pilots. German press accounts noted Rudel’s visit but initially did not predict major consequences. What produced the crisis was the off-the-record statement to the press by General Karl Heinz Franke, Krupinski’s deputy.

After the meeting, Franke defended Rudel’s appearance by suggesting that the decorated pilot had changed his political views, as had former “left-wing extremists.” He specifically named Bundestag member Wehner as an example; General Krupinski supported Franke. Although Wehner had joined the Communist Party in 1927, after the war he became a member of the West German Social Democratic Party and, unlike Rudel, fully accepted the new democratic state established in 1949. Rudel told the German magazine Spiegel, Der (magazine) Der Spiegel after the tradition meeting that he was a proud ultraconservative.

The West German defense minister, Georg Leber, a World War II air force veteran who had a reputation for being too promilitary, had to react to this attack on a leading Social Democratic politician. Moreover, forty Social Democratic members of the Bundestag demanded action from Leber and cautioned that political control of the army had declined. Indeed, one general had accepted a free vacation from the government of apartheid South Africa, and another general took part in a victory parade in Madrid commemorating Spanish general Francisco Franco’s triumph in 1939 over the republican government in Spain.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, Leber declared that he fired the two generals on November 1 because of their comments to the press about a member of the Bundestag. The two resigned on November 9. For the first time in the twenty-five-year history of the Bundeswehr, two generals were dismissed summarily to send a message that the Bundeswehr must rely on its own tradition for dealing with internal crises and, just as important, not meddle in parliamentary affairs.


The immediate consequences of the Rudel affair were the resignation of State Secretary Schmidt and Leber’s announcement that the general who had accepted a trip to South Africa had asked to be relieved and that no general would again participate in a Franco victory parade. Parliamentary control over the military leadership was clearly demonstrated by this time.

More important for the long run was an attack on the tradition guidelines of 1965, beginning with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s announcement on West German television on November 12 that the guidelines would have to be reexamined. Leber also asked his military advisers for a position paper on that topic, but he could not complete that project because he resigned in 1978 in the wake of a military counterintelligence scandal. Still, the Social Democrats and the left wing in general launched a massive attack on traditions that linked the Bundeswehr to the Wehrmacht, an attack that was supported by the new Social Democratic defense minister. Subsequent research by scholars, which revealed the Wehrmacht’s complicity in Nazi atrocities, provided even more support for a revision of the 1965 guidelines.

On September 20, 1982, those new guidelines became a reality, making it clear that the Third Reich and Wehrmacht had no place in the tradition of the Bundeswehr. One paragraph in particular rejected the defenders of Rudel, who had stressed his military deeds by declaring that military accomplishments must be rooted in “a state grounded in the law.” Another paragraph allowed tradition meetings but only by individuals who supported the Basic Law, West Germany’s constitution. Although the new Christian Democratic government after 1982 modified some of the clauses of the new guidelines, the guidelines remained basically unchanged.

Increasingly, the German defense ministry and the Bundestag removed traces of the Wehrmacht’s tradition. In 1995, a base named for General Eduard Dietl in Füssen was renamed for its location, Allgäu, and pilot Werner Mölder’s name was removed from an air force base in 2005. Moreover, the German government and press continued to monitor extreme right-wing activities in the Bundeswehr. Leber, Georg Schmidt, Hermann Rudel, Hans-Ulrich Krupinski, Walter Franke, Karl Heinz World War II[World War 02]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abenheim, Donald. Reforging the Iron Cross: The Search for Tradition in the West German Armed Forces. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. An excellent work on the attempts to establish democratic symbols and references for the Bundeswehr. Includes an informative chapter on changes in the military after the Rudel scandal. Solid bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brust, Klaus-Markus. Culture and the Transformation of the Bundeswehr. Berlin: Hartmann Miles, 2007. Focuses on the impact of European identity on innere führung (inner leadership) in the Bundeswehr.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Just, Günther. Stuka-Pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel: His Life Story in Words and Photographs. Translated by David Johnston. West Chester, Pa.: Schiffer, 1990. Complimentary treatment of Rudel’s military career, which reflects his views. Unfortunately ignores his persistent postwar Nazi sympathies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Large, David Clay. Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Scholarly examination of the establishment of the Bundeswehr. Includes sections on veterans’ organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shpiro, Shlomo. “Barking or Biting? Media and Parliamentary Investigation of Right-Wing Extremism in the Bundeswehr.” German Politics 9, no. 2 (August, 2000): 217-240. Revealing account of the problem of contacts between right-wing extremists and the Bundeswehr, particularly in 1997-1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Wayne C. Political Odyssey of Herbert Wehner. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993. Based on sources that reveal Wehner’s questionable collaboration with the Soviet secret police during his exile in Moscow.

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Categories: History