By Thomas Escritt and Sabine Siebold
BERLIN (Reuters) - In January 2014, the commander of a French military academy rejected the master's thesis of an elite German army officer under his charge for its extremist argument that human rights could lead to the genocide of Western races.
"If this was a French participant on the course, we would remove him," he told the young officer's German superiors.
An academic hired to review the thesis told senior officers in the German army, the Bundeswehr, that it included racist and radical nationalist content, but they chose not to formally discipline the man as they did not want to jeopardize the career of a high-flying recruit.
That laxness was a violation of German rules, which require that any report of extremism among soldiers immediately be investigated by military intelligence.
Now, the young officer in question, Franco A., is in custody awaiting charges for posing under a false identity as an asylum seeker. Investigators are probing whether he planned an attack that he seemingly hoped would be blamed on asylum seekers.
"There would have been an attack," said Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen in a television interview, describing a "horror" scenario. "There would have been a weapon at the site, with fingerprints on it. We'd have put the prints in the system and have got the match of a Syrian refugee."
The episode has blown up into a full-scale scandal about right-wing extremism in the Bundeswehr that has prompted a search of all German army barracks for Nazi memorabilia.
The case has also put pressure on the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel five months before an election, with her close ally, von der Leyen, facing criticism for failing to put the German army's house in order.
After the French commander's warnings had been ignored, it took a tip-off from Austrian police to bring Franco's plans to light, when they caught him trying to recover a loaded gun he had stashed in a Vienna airport toilet after an officers' ball.
German authorities have since discovered he had fraudulently obtained 1,000 rounds of live ammunition from Bundeswehr stocks and stashed it at the home of a 24-year-old accomplice. A search of his barracks in France found swastikas and memorabilia from the wartime army, the Wehrmacht.
Prosecutors are poring over chat logs and files found on his seized smartphone and computer for evidence that he had further accomplices. Franco A., whose surname is known to Reuters but cannot be disclosed due to German privacy laws, has no visible social media presence that Reuters has been able to find.
WEEDING OUT EXTREMISTS
When the German armed forces were refounded after World War Two, they disavowed any link to the Wehrmacht, which was complicit in many Nazi atrocities. Set up in 1955, the new Bundeswehr was to be a democratic body of "citizen soldiers" with the autonomy and confidence to reject immoral orders.
But in the case of Franco A., prior investment in a seemingly model soldier, chosen along with a handful of other promising recruits to attend an elite military college in France, appears to have outweighed civic commitment.
"When his master's thesis says that immigration leads to the genetic genocide of western peoples, then it should be crystal clear to everyone that we are dealing with Nazi ideas," von der Leyen said in a speech to German top brass last week.
Far from being sacked, Franco was given a verbal warning and allowed to rewrite the thesis. After graduating he was assigned to the Franco-German brigade in Illkirch - a prestigious unit that symbolizes the post-war rapprochement between the erstwhile foes.
Meanwhile, he had registered under a false identity as an asylum seeker named David Benjamin, posing to immigration authorities as a persecuted French-speaking refugee who spoke not a word of German. He commuted from the base in France to attend asylum hearings, where he spoke through an interpreter.
Many armies have had problems weeding out far-right extremists in their ranks. But for the German army, the past makes the issue especially sensitive.
Ever since World War Two, successive German governments have seen a commitment to human rights and opposition to extremism as key elements in atoning for the crimes of Nazi Germany and rebuilding allies' confidence.
This was more easily done when the German army was rarely deployed abroad, mostly contributing to peacekeeping missions. But with allies now asking that Europe's largest economy shoulder more of the continent's security burden, tough choices have to be made.
SWASTIKAS, NAZI MEMORABILIA
In rejecting Germany's tainted past, the army deprives itself of the sort of historical narrative that other fighting forces might use to create esprit de corps. For Franco's fellow officers in Illkirch, mess-room wall pictures of soldiers in gear that, to the expert eye, dated from the wartime army were a permissible nod to tradition.
But German regulations say otherwise, and von der Leyen won support, including from Merkel, for her pledge to get to the bottom of the multiple failings that led to Franco's extremism being overlooked.
At the weekend, prosecutors ordered searches of all German army barracks for similar relics. German media reported that Franco's own room was more luridly decorated, including with swastikas.
"Our image is hurt by these occurrences," said Volker Wieker, head of the German armed forces, in a television interview.
Von der Leyen, initially criticized for what seemed a blanket condemnation of the armed forces for tolerating extremism, has since apologized, praising the work done by the majority of their 250,000 members.
The military has found sympathy in unlikely quarters. Tobias Pflueger, vice-president of the pacifist Left party, said soldiers were being asked to do the impossible by playing a more active European role while rejecting Germany's military past.
"If you now send German tanks to the border with Russia in Lithuania, then you can't forget history," said the Left party's Pflueger, referring to calls for NATO to help protect their Baltic allies from an increasingly threatening Russia.
"German tanks were there before, and they did something there," he said. "There is a historical responsibility and Germany must be very cautious."
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Peter Graff)