For the first time in almost 90 years, the German military once again has a rabbi. Hungarian Zsolt Balla is officially inaugurated today as Chief Rabbi of the Bundeswehr. In 1933, Jews were expelled from the German army after Adolf Hitler came to power. The arrival of a military rabbi in Germany was announced at the end of 2019.
A total of ten Jewish chaplains are appointed to the army. Between 80 and 300 Jews are estimated to serve in the German army. The appointment of Balla and his colleagues also has some symbolic value. The German Defense Minister had previously described the decision as “a strong signal for a diverse and open army”.
In recent years, anti-Semitism in Germany has go back on. The army has to deal with far-right soldiers in its ranks. Last year there was an announced reform of the elite KSK unit for scandals involving the broadcast of far-right rock music and the Nazi salute. Some members are said to be open neo-Nazis. Intelligence says around 500 German soldiers with far-right sympathies are under investigation.
Balla is concerned about the far right in the military, he told CNN: “Everyone responsible should do it.” With his appointment, the problems are not only solved: “We have to work on a future vision of what German society and the army should look like ten years from now. Balla’s job is to discuss anti-Semitism with German soldiers, in addition to providing spiritual support to Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers.
Until the age of nine, Balla himself did not know he was Jewish. He is the son of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father and was born in Budapest. After seeing a brochure, when he asked his mother if he could go to a church service, he was told he was Jewish. His grandparents survived the Holocaust.
Chief Rabbi Saxony
Balla later moved to Germany, where he became a rabbi in Leipzig. He remains rabbi in Leipzig and chief rabbi of the state of Saxony. The inauguration takes place in a synagogue in Leipzig.
The German army currently employs only Catholic and Protestant clergy. Imams can also be appointed at a later date. The Dutch army has Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, humanist, Muslim and Hindu chaplains.