(JTA) — A German-born sergeant in the Canadian Army was fined roughly $2,200 and given a “severe reprimand” after joking about the Holocaust while conducting an infantry training course.
But the 38-year-old officer was not demoted, even though a military tribunal considered handing down that punishment.
The sergeant, identified as K.E. Bluemke, pleaded guilty last October in an Ontario court martial to one count of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.” He was charged after 12 participants in the training course said he had made multiple antisemitic jokes and comments about Jews and the Holocaust.
According to court documents, which were first reported on Friday by CTV News Vancouver Island, Bluemke began the training course by asking, “Is anyone here Jewish?” Throughout the course, he proceeded to make comments such as, “Move with the sense of urgency as a certain group did leaving Germany in 1939,” and “Why do Jews have big noses? Because the air is free.”
The military judge who issued the penalty said he was distressed by the Holocaust jokes.
“I am having difficulties finding the right word to qualify the use of stereotypes and the reference to the unspeakable horrors suffered by the Jewish community before and during the Second World War to make adverse comments intended as jokes,” Cmdr. Martin Pelletier, the judge, wrote in his decision. “The word ‘distasteful’ does not suffice. It is in my opinion utterly disgusting. Regardless of who in the [Canadian Armed Forces] engages in such conduct, it should make a reasonable member cringe and worry about belonging to the same organization as the perpetrator.”
The proceedings offer a window into how the Canadian military handles the presence of people with possible neo-Nazi sentiments, seen as a growing problem in multiple countries’ armed forces. Germany has been grappling with the rise of far-right extremists in its military ranks, and according to the publication Roll Call, a 2020 Pentagon report said that “Despite a low number of cases in absolute terms, individuals with extremist affiliations and military experience are a concern to U.S. national security because of their proven ability to execute high-impact events.” The National Guard airman who was recently arrested for leaking intelligence documents also reportedly spread antisemitic invective online.
Bluemke was born in Potsdam, Germany and immigrated to Canada as a child in 1995. He enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2002 after completing high school.
Soldiers in the training course described Bluemke’s conduct as “offensive, demeaning, and unprofessional,” according to court documents. Pelletier specifically cited a Jewish soldier’s victim impact statement as an “aggravating factor” in Bluemke’s sentencing.
That impact statement, filed on behalf of a soldier identified as Master Corporal Mahar, noted that Bluemke’s comments were “extremely disturbing,” whether or not Bluemke was joking when he made them. Mahar added in the statement that his confidence had been so eroded and he was so angered that he could not retain the information he was being taught.
According to the court documents, another master corporal enrolled in the course said Mahar did very well on the course, and did not feel that Mahar had been negatively affected by Bluemke’s comments. But Pelletier acknowledged in his decision that harm to the Jewish participant may not have been apparent to others in the group.
Pelletier referenced “the harm that the conduct caused to MCpl Mahar, as detailed in the victim impact statement introduced in evidence, regardless of the fact that the suffering experienced may not have been externalized and visible to others.”
Pelletier wrote that Bluemke had successfully completed counseling and probation, but condemned his remarks in the sentencing decision.
“He has made comments adverse and indeed demeaning to an entire community who has suffered unspeakable harm in history,” Pelletier said. “This conduct needs to be sanctioned with punishments that have a strong enough symbolic impact as well as a strong personal impact on the offender.”
In his severe reprimand, Pelletier said, “Sgt. Bluemke, I cannot understate how concerned I am with the conduct you displayed in front of course candidates in 2021 and I want you to understand that I did seriously consider reducing you to corporal. I hope this sentencing hearing has offered an opportunity to reflect on what you have done wrong and convinced you to do better in the future. I have decided to give you a chance to continue your efforts to rehabilitate yourself, based on what I have heard from those who have testified on your behalf.”
He added, “You may not see me again, but you will see them. I hope you will not let them down by reoffending.”
Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Toronto-based human rights, Holocaust education and antisemitism education organization, called on the Canadian Army to impose a zero-tolerance policy for antisemitism after Bluemke’s proceedings were publicized. Dan Panneton, the group’s director of allyship and community engagement, wrote in the letter to military leaders that had been assured in the past that antisemitism would not be tolerated in the Canadian military ranks.
“At a time of escalating antisemitism and hate, such hatred masquerading as humour must not be shown any tolerance,” Panneton wrote. “Sgt. Bluemke’s continued presence in the Forces contributes to an environment that’s unsafe for Canadian Jews.”
This story has been updated to include comment from Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.