On May 23 [deletion], Karl Carstens of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was elected president of West Germany, making him the second former Nazi party member in a row to fill that prestigious post. Herr Carstens is known to have been a rather more ardent National Socialist than was his predecessor, Walter Scheel. That, however, is but the oldest skeleton in the sixty-four-year-old rightist’s closet.
More recently Carstens has faced charges he perjured himself in October 1974 in testimony on weapons deals between the BND (the German equivalent of the CIA) and such clients as Rhodesia, South Africa, and the Greek military junta.
The transactions took place during the sixties under governments headed by the CDU’s Ludwig Erhard and Kurt Georg Kiesinger. Carstens, who occupied top-level posts in the German foreign ministry (1960-66), defense ministry (1966-67) and chancellery (1968-69), in 1974 claimed ignorance of any BND dirty work. His signature and comments appear, unfortunately for him, on numerous government documents published earlier this year by the magazine Der Spiegel.
According to the contents of a top-secret eighteen-page letter written in 1973 by BND chief Gerhard Wessel and published by Der Spiegel in December 1978, and in the 1960s, the German intelligence agency entered into a special partnership with the Bonn-based Merex company. Through Merex it unloaded surplus weapons on countries like India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia; such deals had been banned by international agreements signed by West Germany. But cover-ups are not an American monopoly, and the deals were classified secret and tendered through such third parties as England, Italy, and the shah’s Iran.
Merex made millions selling planes to both sides in the 1965 India-Pakistan conflict, planes it got from the German and American governments. According to Anthony Sampson in The Arms Bazaar, Merex boss Gerhard Mertens sold the Pakistanis 90 outdated F-86 Sabre jets with the Pentagon’s OK.
Mertens had founded Merex in 1963 with the help of Otto Skorzeny of the SS, his wartime commandant with whom he remained closely associated through the 1960s. Skorzeny was the daredevil who saved Mussolini’s life in 1943, and escaped punishment for war crimes including the alleged torture and murder of over 100 American POWs. According to Der Spiegel and Nouvelle Observateur, he went on to become the postwar head of the Paladin group, an international mercenary combine based in Spain and composed of right-wing soldiers of fortune, including many former OAS terrorists.
When in February 1977 Italian police arrested the neo-fascist leader Pierluigi Concutelli for the 1976 murder of Rome judge Vittorio Occorsio, they discovered, according to the magazine Giorni, not only the murder weapon, but also proof that the right-wing terrorists had been receiving arms shipments from none other than Merex. The middleman was one Guido Giannetini, an informer for the Italian secret police who had close connections in the German BND, and who this past February was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1969 bombing of a Milan bank that took sixteen lives.
In the mid-1960s an Indian magazine revealed the connection between Merex and the BND, which was then headed by Hitler’s master spy on the Eastern front, Reinhard Gehlen. However, that did not put a stop to the arms trade. Instead, the intelligence agency decided, according to Gerhard Wessel’s 1976 testimony, to find “a more proper firm.” But the Merex contracts didn’t run out until 1970, and the BND didn’t look very far for a substitute.
In 1966 the BND joined hands with a Düsseldorf subsidiary of the Dobbertrin company that was run by Gerhard Engel, who had been a lieutenant in World War II. Three years later Engel was joined by Erwin Hauschildt, a BND agent transferred to Dobbertrin with the written approval of Karl Carstens.
As detailed in Wessel’s 1973 letter, Dobbertrin’s activities on behalf of the BND, which also ran through 1970, included weapons sales to both sides in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war (a la India-Pakistan), to the Rhodesian and South African governments, and to the Greek colonels.
How much, then, have the revelations affected Karl Carsten’s career? Not much at all, as witnessed by his recent ascent to the presidency. No doubt he was aided by the unwinding of a complicated legal battle two months before the election. A compromise was reached with former Social Democratic parliamentarian Gunther Metzger, who in 1975 had accused Carstens of perjury—only to be accused of the same by Carstens. In a settlement couched in legal jargon, Metzger conceded that Carstens was only “objectively” rather than “subjectively” guilty of perjury in testifying he knew nothing of BND shenanighans.
Der Spiegel recently offered an explanation for the settlement as well as for the unlikelihood of an official investigation. The thesis was that current chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democrats, when they were in office as part of a coalition government in 1966, had been informed of the goings-on. Schmidt himself was defense minister from 1969 to 1972. And so Karl Carstens may not be the only one interested in letting bygones be bygones.