A band of Neo-Nazi officers allegedly conspiring to commit a false-flag terrorist attack was only the most bizarre of the scandals that has rattled Germany’s military in the past year. Other allegations include sadistic practices in training, sexual harassment, and revelations about World War II memorabilia on various Bundeswehr bases.
At the root of such scandals is a wide gap between Germany’s military and German society. The military is sent into combat, but society often refuses to acknowledge that preparedness to fight and to make sacrifices requires heroism — a term Germans are deeply uncomfortable with. Society’s failure to understand the military profession opens the door for right-wing ideologues in the Bundeswehr to lay exclusive claim to military values and to commit abuses in their name. Where extremism and excessive violence occur, the Bundeswehr regularly turns a blind eye to misconduct within its own ranks, expecting blanket condemnation of their profession if failures come to light. Germans need to understand what sets the military apart: the readiness to serve, kill, and die for society. Otherwise, the Bundeswehr will retain the painful sense of rejection that lies behind the cowardly failures of its leadership to prevent and prosecute criminal acts and breaches of honor.
With the flurry of media attention over the Bundeswehr’s failures and an election coming up in September, Ursula von der Leyen, the minister of defense, recently picked a fight with the officer corps, diagnosing “weak leadership at various levels” and an “attitude problem.” Von der Leyen may lose that fight: Her approval ratings have suffered, and active personnel have been unusually vocal in critiquing her, causing her to rescind her sweeping condemnation and lauding the service of an “overwhelming majority of soldiers,” while still pointing out systemic deficits.
Both her critique and retraction are justified: Whereas most soldiers have a spotless record, the Bundeswehr’s problems reach beyond those garrisons presently in the spotlight. A sharp increase in reported incidents in recent weeks, often alleging wrongdoing going back years, testifies to a pattern of misconduct in the German armed forces. While completing basic infantry training in the Bundeswehr in 2015, I was shocked by much of what I heard and saw: comments playing down the evils of World War II and Hitler’s Wehrmacht, drunk superiors, a drill instructor sleeping with recruits, and more.
In light of widespread shortcomings, proposed reforms are sensible, but they do not go far enough. These include renaming barracks named after Nazi-era figures, a review of regulations governing traditions that currently permit displays of Wehrmacht memorabilia, and making it easier to report misconduct. These proposals do not address the disconnect between the military and society, the source of which is more deeply rooted than disappointment over abuse scandals and right-wing tendencies. Many Germans harbor a fundamental discomfort with military values, such as discipline, order, obedience, and ultimately heroism — the preparedness to give one’s life for one’s society.
Such discomfort is characteristic of what the political scientist Herfried Münkler terms Germany’s “post-heroic society,” which is no longer willing to valiantly march to war. Germans view this stance — according to Münkler, and rightly so — as a societal achievement: Skepticism regarding the use of force and military power certainly means progress in a society that enthusiastically threw itself into two world wars before becoming one of the world’s consolidated democracies. But whereas other modern liberal societies painlessly delegate the task of repelling attacks against their safety to “heroic communities” like the military and police, Germany’s collective traumata of imperialism and militarism make its relationship with the armed forces particularly intricate.
The Bundeswehr’s cautionary governing philosophy of Innere Führung (the literal translation of which would be “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” and which is officially translated as “Leadership Development and Civic Education”) reflects this uniquely delicate relationship. Laying out fundamental principles “on the self-image of soldiers in a democracy,” it attests to particularly high expectations regarding the character of the Bundeswehr and its soldiers. At the core of this concept is the “citizen in uniform”: citizen-soldiers ensuring mission success by defending — on the basis of their own convictions — the values of modern Germany, with human dignity first on the list.
But to think that high societal expectations alone could be sufficient to resolve all the tensions between post-heroic Germany’s democracy and the functional principles of professional armed forces is a dangerous delusion. Widespread German rejection of military values — such as heroism and sacrifice — implies a form of self-deceit that far exceeds opposing the armed forces for ethical or political reasons. Even those not fundamentally opposed to the military — more than three-quarters of Germans find the Bundeswehr to be an important institution, and about 80 percent trust it, according to a 2016 study — hide behind the illusion that in a post-heroic society, there can be a post-heroic military that rises “above” a supposedly antiquated warrior ethos and esprit de corps.
This stance clashes with reality. There are German troops operating in active combat zones like Afghanistan and Mali. In January, the German parliament voted to expand Germany’s military presence in the West African country. As long as Germany’s political leaders send the military to potentially deadly missions – including, apart from active combat operations, air-policing above the Baltic states or training missions in Northern Iraq – German military personnel may lose their lives. Readiness to make such sacrifices is an expression of values such as bravery and heroism. Without these values, there is no military.
Second, a failure to recognize what distinguishes professional soldiers creates a dangerous void, especially for recruits in search of structures that do not disparage their decision to join the military. It is somberly ironic that an anti-fascist rejection of heroism and sacrifice leaves the field open to those who propagate right-wing ideology, glorify violence, and praise the “soldierly pride” of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Only when liberal society recognizes such values as a valid motivation for recruits to enlist — and only if it provides the backing these recruits need to reflect their identity as German soldiers — can it ask them to give their lives. For post-heroic society, it may provide some comfort to realize that psychologists have long confirmed what soldiers say: Once in combat, they fight primarily for those at their side. Indeed, in the Hindu Kush, political abstractions such as dying for one’s country are a secondary concern.
Society’s disregard for soldiers’ values has left its mark. Decades of feeling abandoned and misunderstood have led to a truly misguided type of esprit de corps, which has now been laid bare by the investigation into the suspected right-wing terrorist cell. Authorities arrested one civilian and two officers, among them 1st Lt. Franco A., who had posed as a Syrian refugee and was allegedly planning a false-flag terror operation. In 2014, he submitted a master’s thesis filled with racist ideology at École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, a French military academy. Rather than taking disciplinary action or notifying the military counterintelligence service, his German superiors opted merely to orally reprimand Franco A. This was despite an independent review that attested to the radical-nationalist content of the thesis, calling it a how-to guide for racist propaganda. Antoine Windeck, the school’s commander, told German military staff that Franco A. would have been dismissed if he were French. Investigators later found a poster of a Wehrmacht soldier in Franco A.’s quarters. A swastika had been carved into his rifle.
That it took so long for someone to intervene shows how detrimental it is when soldiers look the other way instead of reporting misconduct. The catch is that soldiers will cease to turn a blind eye only when they no longer feel that German society harbors a blanket suspicion of the military, while society will remain distant unless soldiers take responsibility when facing justified criticism and proactively demonstrate that they condemn misconduct.
Some see the potential resolution of this dilemma in a return to conscription: True citizen–soldiers would carry the virtues of society’s center into the armed forces and hence improve the Bundeswehr’s image and accountability. The transition to voluntary recruitment in 2011 may indeed have contributed to the societal–military gap, because fewer families now interact with the armed forces than ever before. But in practice, the Bundeswehr had already been a quasi-volunteer force for several decades. And not all was well before the draft ended, not to mention the legal and political obstacles that make a return to the draft highly unlikely.
Short of literally forcing society into the military or devising other grand designs, Germany needs to start small. Instead of isolating itself at its own universities, the Bundeswehr could send more of its officers to civilian universities to study. Conversely, the military universities could facilitate civilian access to their competitive degree programs. That way, officers would maintain a stronger connection to the civilian world and to social expectations, while civilian students would engage with peers who have made the curious choice to risk their lives for the defense of civilian society. This would also be an important step toward strengthening the military’s public presence: German soldiers are notably absent from editorial pages and talk shows. Society at large, and the media in particular, must become more curious. Currently, there is little effort to examine what it means to be in the military. Public military displays — such as the “Day of the Bundeswehr,” introduced in 2015 — are a step in the right direction. On a smaller scale, commanding officers should also encourage their soldiers to more regularly wear their uniforms in public.
Today’s lack of acknowledgement by society makes soldiers susceptible to corrupting influences within the military and promotes a misguided esprit de corps that stands in the way of improvement. It also bars society from expressing heartfelt recognition for the sacrifices soldiers make in missions that Germans are in favor of, such as humanitarian rescue missions for asylum-seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean. But for such approval to be meaningful, Germans need to back up their expectations with material and ideational support. And for the idea of “citizens in uniform” to be invested with meaning, Germans — both in and out of uniform — need to take concrete steps. If Germany’s soldiers want loyalty and a sense of belonging, and if its post-heroic society does not want post-societal heroes, both sides need to reach out.
Mario Schulz is a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin and an MA student in international relations. He left the Bundeswehr in 2016 as a private first class.
Image: U.S. Air Force