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Types of Soldiers in Germany

The end of compulsory military service

The Bundeswehr is one of the most important public organizations in Germany. With around 280,000 employees, it is among the largest employers in the country. For several years, it has been going through the most extensive structural reform in its history. Its realignment with the goal of becoming an “effective and modern” Bundeswehr gained fresh impetus in the fall of 2010, in a surprise move by the then-defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. In a departure from the government’s coalition agreement, he decided to end compulsory military service with effect from July 1, 2011. He was following the recommendations of the Structural Commission headed by Frank-Jürgen Weise which found that “compulsory military service in the current form [...]” was “no longer justified.” This assessment was based mainly on the grounds of security policy: the threat had changed, it was argued, and this required a restructuring of the defense army to create a combat force with a completely new and significantly expanded range of tasks.

Unlike its European neighbors and NATO partners, however, Germany did not convert the Bundeswehr into a purely professional army. Instead it introduced a voluntary military service program (Freiwilliger Wehrdienst, FWD) as an instrument that draws upon the central ­ideas of compulsory military service.

This article considers the questions of who the FWD program is targeted at, and what motives and expectations volunteers have when they join the Bundeswehr. Following on from this is an analysis of what this means for the organizational culture of the Bundeswehr, especially for the concept of the citizen in uniform.

Volunteer members of the armed forces as citizens in uniform?

The end of compulsory military service represented a profound break in the tradition and self-image of the Bundeswehr as compulsory military service had been regarded as the foundation of specific features of its organizational culture – such as the principle of Innere Führung or the concept of the citizen in uniform. In 2011, after almost 55 years of compulsory military service, the Bundeswehr for the first time began to recruit its next generation of soldiers entirely on a voluntary basis. Consequently, it is not only the recruitment process itself that requires significant adjustment. The self-evident process of exchange between the general population (or at least some sections of the male population) and the Bundes­wehr, which compulsory military service had ensured for decades, suddenly ceased. As a result, impacts on the civil-military relationship can be expected – for instance, due to the weakening of traditional societal bonds.

Not least as a way of continuing to foster this civil-military exchange and integrating the greatest possible variety of social milieus or strata into the Bundeswehr, the voluntary military service (FWD) program was introduced at the suggestion of the Structural Commission. This program was intended to enable young people in particular to become acquainted with the Bundeswehr institution, without immediately having to sign up for a period of several years as a longer- or shorter-service professional soldier. The Commission views the FWD program as an offer “that reconciles personal, professional, social, and security-­policy interests [...] Our society needs a culture of voluntary participation.” Only German citizens can participate in the FWD program, so unlike the Federal Volunteers Service (Bundesfreiwilligendienst, BFD), which was introduced as a replacement for alternative civilian service (Zivildienst), it is not open to foreigners. The (mostly) young people who sign up for FWD do so for a period of seven to 23 months. The first six months are a probationary period during which the contract can be cancelled by either side without giving notice. Volunteers who sign up for a period of 12 or more months are required to declare their willingness in principle to take part in overseas deployments. This marks a fundamental difference between present-day volunteers and former compulsory conscripts. The latter were excluded from overseas deployments and were only required to commit to overseas deployment if they subsequently – and voluntarily – extended their service.

Before being accepted, much the same as during the era of compulsory military service, the young men and women go through a medical examination and a selection procedure which tests their physical, psychological, and cognitive abilities. The stated goal is that at any given time, between 5,000 and 15,000 volunteers will support the Bundeswehr. But who is serving Germany?

On the data basis and methodology of the ­study

In this study, this question is answered on the basis of an empirical survey. Between July 2012 and August 2013, 26 Bundeswehr FWD-program volunteers at two locations were each interviewed three times. The qualitative interviews were concerned with volunteers’ self-image, motivation, expectations, and experiences, as well as their attitudes to overseas deployments, the principles of Innere Führung, and political education. The study is designed in such a way that it can shed light on complex questions and interpretative frameworks based on a small number of selected cases. Depth of focus in the analysis is the priority, rather than its representativeness or the quantification of results. As the sample is sufficiently diverse, it can still provide an initial theory-like generalization that goes beyond individual observations; and, as a form of grounded theory, medium-range theoretical insights can be derived from the data.

The investigation shows that very different types can be found among the volunteers. FWD volunteers have various motives for joining the armed forces and therefore have different expectations. They adopt very different roles in the structure of the organizational culture. The study identifies three main types which are presented below1: ego-tacticians, conformists, and ideal soldiers.

Three types of volunteers in the Bundeswehr

Type 1: Ego-tacticians are primarily concerned with their personal benefit and they identify with the Bundeswehr only to a limited extent. They choose voluntary military service more for strategic reasons than non-material reasons. Extrinsic motives such as good pay or acquiring physical fitness are paramount. They therefore represent an attitude prevalent in their generation which prioritizes self-fulfillment and individualization while at the same time desiring financial security. They show little loyalty towards their employer and have a very low threshold when it comes to quitting the armed forces; yet they bring developments in civil society into the Bundeswehr. Mostly well-­educated and with many alternative options, they belong to that group of people – judging by the experiences of volunteer armies in other countries – who are most difficult for professional armies to recruit, and who probably would not have joined the Bundeswehr via other forms of service (e.g. as a regular soldier).

If one considers the contribution made by volunteers to the civil-military relationship, an important function can be attributed to ego-tacticians: they critically question procedures and routines and may therefore contribute to a valuable exchange between the civilian and military spheres – provided that their voices are heard in the organization. A skeptical attitude can be beneficial, especially for the civil-military relationship and may ensure that civilian and military values do not drift further apart. In other words, ego-tacticians may function as an important corrective within the Bundeswehr and advance to the status of a democratic supervisory authority in the system because they question procedures and orders. At the same time, they embody like no other type the value orientation of the younger generation and confront the Bundeswehr with demands for self-fulfillment and personal development as well as the question of the meaning of one’s own actions.

Type 2: Conformists are the easiest type to cater for in the current organizational culture of the Bundeswehr. They are loyal to their employer and often volunteer for military service out of a sense of duty, without having any great expectations for their time in the armed forces. They frequently perceive the Bundeswehr as being virtually a normal employer and therefore share the professional view of being a soldier that corresponds to Moskos’s occupation model. However, this type finds it difficult to assume responsibility. In their loyalty, they sometimes show almost blind obedience, which is problematic for the understanding of a citizen in uniform. Planning security, settled social conditions, and family cohesion are particularly important for conformists. In this regard, first of all, solid, reliable pay plays an important role as it positively shapes the basic attitude towards the Bundeswehr and makes it seem like an attractive employer. Secondly, a strong sense of family and a high personal need for security are often a reason why this type does not take on a longer-term commitment, according to findings from the interviews. The personal sacrifices and possible negative repercussions on their private life would be too great as a result of frequent relocation with transfers and potential overseas deployments.

Type 3: Ideal soldiers identify extensively with the values and goals of the Bundeswehr; for them, an overseas deployment is definitely part of being a soldier. Of all types, they come closest to the ideal of the Bundeswehr’s organizational self-portrayal in the campaign that was developed for the FWD program: “We. Serve. Germany.” (“Wir. Dienen. Deutschland.”). For this reason, they are called ideal soldiers in this typology. They are highly motivated and have sophisticated ideas about what makes a “proper” soldier. However, their clear expectations – with regard to the organization and their fellow soldiers – face limitations in reality. Hence, for some functions which are ascribed to voluntary military service, such as its integrative force, they are sometimes counter-productive because of their high expectations of the job. For example, they cannot understand why their fellow soldiers would choose the FWD program as a kind of well-paid gap year.

This type shows that over-identification can have a negative impact on the civil-military relationship. As a result of the strong identification with their environment and the internalization of military hierarchy structures, civilian values and authorities lose significance in some cases. This conflicts with the concepts of Innere Führung and the citizen in uniform. This type’s extensive identification with the Bundeswehr is largely due to a strong sense of distinction from civilians.

What do these types mean for the organizational culture?

The three different types show that the Bundeswehr is succeeding in attracting different groups of people. These include people who would not have joined the Bundeswehr either via compulsory military service (e.g. women) or via a career as a longer- or shorter-service professional soldier. Thus, the FWD program, designed to be a “flexible taster course,” is attracting new target groups. With its specific framework, it also appeals to different groups than the conventional career options (i.e. the longer-/shorter-service professional soldier) of professional armies.

All three types have one thing in common: they strive for virtues such as discipline, reli­ability, and stamina, and their personal material security is important to them. While striving for such virtues may seem surprising at first glance, the current Shell and Sinus youth study shows that precisely these values continue to be very important to young people – at least when they come from particular milieus, namely the conservative-bourgeois, the materialist-hedonist, or the adaptive-pragmatic ones.

But aside from these common values, the three types have heterogeneous expectations of military service which the Bundeswehr does not meet with a standardized training procedure. The different approaches to military service lead to a mutual lack of understanding among fellow soldiers. While some find that the physical and mental stresses are at the limit of acceptability, for example, others feel that even the general basic training is not challenging enough and they miss the “real” military. Yet the Bundes­wehr is not set up to cater to individual needs. This is a shortcoming of the organizational culture which all volunteer types are dissatisfied with. Socialization mechanisms are designed for leveling, not for developing personalities. The integrative effect which the former compulsory military service had via soldiers’ common obligation to serve is no longer present in the volunteer model and this creates new chal­lenges for the culture of the Bundeswehr.

That the sense of identification of many volunteers declines precisely in their own unit is an indication that volunteers are not deterred by the training units and activities which are felt to be typical of the military, nor by the supposed harshness and excessive physical demands, but instead are disillusioned by boredom, a lack of challenge, and broken promises in their own units. However, volunteers deal with this shortcoming in different ways. Conformists prefer agreeable conditions (planning security, solid pay) over a fulfilling job and therefore accept a lack of meaningfulness in their military service. Yet for ego-tacticians and ideal soldiers, the question of meaning and self-efficacy is a high priority and may become even more important to subsequent generations of volunteers. If many young people from the pragmatic Generation Y (i.e. those born between 1980 and 1999, which includes all of the interviewees), which the 2010 Shell Youth Study reported as showing a “decrease in ideologically shaped attitudes and an increase in pragmatic attitudes,” are still satisfied with acceptable general conditions, this attitude will probably change among subsequent cohorts. The 2015 Shell Youth Study reports that Generation R which stands for “relaxed” (i.e. those born between 2000 and 2015) shows a much greater willingness to experiment and a desire to contribute to social change. This coming generation, in particular, may question the meaning of military service to an even greater extent than current volunteers as their own self-efficacy is, to them, an important part of their lives.

Thus, in the years ahead, the Bundeswehr may lose precisely those volunteers who, while being difficult for the organization to cater to, would of the three identified types best correspond to its guiding concepts, namely Innere Führung and the ideal of the citizen in uniform.

This article is based on the results of my dissertation submitted at the Institute for Sociology at Goethe University Frankfurt. See Haß, Rabea (2015): Der Freiwillige Wehrdienst in der Bundeswehr. Ein Beitrag zur kritischen Militärsoziologie, Wiesbaden.

1 In my dissertation, the findings are presented in a much more differentiated form, and the main types, for example, are each divided into two subtypes. These differentiations have been omitted here, as it is only possible to summarize the key findings in abridged form in this publication format.


Rabea Haß is a project manager and one of the creative minds behind the Kitchen on the Run initiative. From 2011 to 2014, she conducted research at the Hertie School of Governance and at Heidelberg University on the topics of civic engagement, impact assessment in the non-profit sector, and volunteerism. She gained her doctorate at the Institute for Sociology at Goethe University Frankfurt, with a thesis on the voluntary military service program (Freiwilliger Wehrdienst, FWD) in the German armed forces. Having worked e.g. for the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk, THW) earlier in her career, she has extensive experience in crisis and conflict management.