German soldiers 'died after microwave exposure'

Imre Karacs
Wednesday 18 July 2001 00:00

Despite not going to war for more than half a century, Germany's army did sustain casualties in peace time – and the death or maiming of hundreds of soldiers by wanton negligence is only now coming to light.

Amid reports that at least 58 servicemen have already died after being exposed to X-rays and microwave radiation while manning radar installations, a group of veterans threatened yesterday to sue the German government.

The Defence Ministry, at first denying the scale of a cancer epidemic in the ranks, later conceded that more than 300 servicemen have filed compensation claims, but only six cases have been approved. The ministry said its own figures on fatalities were "uncertain".

A veterans' organisation says it has been contacted by more than 300 soldiers who used to work at radar installations in the 1960s and 1970s. An official report published last month established that technicians and other soldiers had not been adequately shielded from radiation, even though the harmful effects were already common knowledge.

Reiner Geulen, a lawyer representing the victims, said the army – the Bundeswehr – only introduced the necessary safety measures in the 1980s. "The servicemen were irradiated for 25 years," Mr Geulen declared.

According to the organisation representing radar victims, more than 300 former soldiers have reported injuries caused by radiation. Of these, 158 "watertight" cases have been diagnosed, including 31 cases of leukaemia, 25 testicular cancers and 22 brain tumours.

After last month's official report criticising safety measures and training, the Defence Minister, Rudolf Scharping, promised "big-hearted" compensation to injured radar technicians. But the size of the pay-offs has yet to be determined, and there has been little evidence of generosity in the ministry's assessment of claims.

The report estimated that up to 1,000 radar operators might have developed cancer. The ministry's "uncertain" figures admit to 336 claimants so far. Only 43 of these have been dealt with, and most claims appear to have been rejected.

"To me, it is incomprehensible that the Defence Ministry is still underplaying this problem," said Bernd Ramm, a radiation expert at the Charité hospital in Berlin.

Health experts say the cancers could easily have been avoided by incorporating lead shields in the army's mobile radar installations, as was customary for similar equipment in the civilian domain. But such safety measures would have cost money, diverting precious resources from other military objectives at the height of the Cold War. According to Mr Ramm, Germany bent over backwards to meet its Nato obligations, putting the lives of its own soldiers at risk.

While the government is in semi-denial, the victims' group says its members are dying. Three of the 58 fatalities were buried this year. Their lawyer, expecting no progress over the summer while the politicians go on holiday, yesterday issued an ultimatum: they will sue unless a compensation package is agreed by September.

A legal battle reminiscent of the multiple lawsuits which forced German industry and the government to pay compensation to Nazi slave workers would be highly embarrassing. The Bundeswehr is already held in low public esteem; every year it struggles to find enough conscripts to fill its barracks.

Potential conscripts can duck out by volunteering for charity work instead, and already the majority of available young men choose this option. The revelation that for decades the Bundeswehr paid no heed to the health of its soldiers has futher tarnished its public image.

The flood of compensation claims aproaches just as the Defence Ministry is cutting back costs. Now Mr Scharping must brace for a punitive legal battle and an expensive pay-off. Installing those lead shields would probably have been cheaper in the long run.

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