BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's armed forces can be proud of their post-war achievements, the defense minister said on Tuesday, responding to a series of scandals involving far-right sympathizers in the Bundeswehr army's ranks.
The Bundeswehr, founded in the 1950s as West Germany's democratically-controlled army in contrast to the Nazi-era Wehrmacht, is heavily involved in peacekeeping and training missions abroad and has fully integrated women, she said.
Von der Leyen has come under fire for criticizing the army following a scandal concerning a high-flying officer accused of planning militant attacks while disguised as an asylum seeker.
That case has triggered one debate over how the armed forces should deal with their past, and another about whether von der Leyen's criticism had discredited the army's 250,000 military and civilian staff.
"After 61 years of the Bundeswehr, we have a proud and impressive history," the defense minister told reporters. "From that we can develop a much stronger tradition, our own sense of meaning."
The case of the officer, identified only as Franco A., has stirred up uncomfortable memories because investigators searching barracks after his arrest found dozens of items of World War Two-era memorabilia.
In her initial reaction, von der Leyen pointed to this as evidence that too little was being done to stamp out far-right sympathies in the forces.
The German parliamentary armed forces ombudsman, Hans-Peter Bartels, whose job is to hear soldiers' complaints, said her criticisms had caused enormous disquiet throughout the army.
"I don't know who advised her to let her criticisms be seen so drastically," he told Reuters. "But now it's happened and we have to repair the damage ... Every soldier I've heard from has a sense of having been targeted by the criticisms."
Harking to military traditions to foster an esprit de corps among soldiers is difficult for the Bundeswehr, which rejects the militarism of the past and honors officers who disobeyed Hitler and tried to assassinate him.
Speaking to the foreign journalists association, von der Leyen said the Bundeswehr had to draw its sense of pride from its post-war achievements.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt and Paul Carrel; Editing by Tom Heneghan)