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Bundeswehr Without Cohesion. Negative Developments in Innere Führung

The Bundeswehr has had two lives. In its first life, it was a territorial defense army. Its purpose was to prevent war and it served as a deterrent against the communist threat. Then, following the end of the East–West conflict and the reunification of Germany in 1990, it began its second life as an international combat and crisis intervention force. The expansion of its raison d’être and range of tasks was not the only new aspect. To complete its realignment, the Bundeswehr’s capabilities, structure, equipment, arms, and personnel strength underwent a fundamental transformation process. The result was an “army of a new nature.” Only the guiding concept of Innere Führung with the “citizen in uniform” remained unchanged. That is, as a compass, an intellectual superstructure was implanted in the new Bundeswehr that was designed for the now obsolete conditions of rearmament, the East–West conflict, and a territorial defense army.

It is clear that this assertion is extremely controversial. What is at stake is no less than the political and social position of the armed forces, as well as the morals, attitudes, and professional self-image of soldiers. This article takes a critical look at what this means for the inner state of the Bundeswehr as a combat force and what consequences this has for the spiritual and mental orientation of soldiers on deployment.

Old Innere Führung for a new combat force

Transforming the Bundeswehr into an international combat force was primarily an elite project legitimized by the argument that reunified Germany had to give up its culture of restraint and “break the military taboo” (Chancellor Schröder) to take on international responsibility. However, following participation in the Kosovo War and the provision of relatively large numbers of troops for Bosnia and Herzegovina – as well as a number of smaller overseas deployments – the military and political disaster in Afghanistan resulted in an about-face culminating in the refusal in 2011 by Merkel’s coalition government to take part in the air war against Libya. In 2014, at the elite level, the argument which had been abandoned for a while was taken up again: namely, that in line with “greater international responsibility,” Germany should assume a “more active role.” The Bundeswehr’s participation in international military interventions should become a regularity.

This no longer has anything to do with the Bundeswehr’s original purpose and self-image as a territorial defense army. The civil-military relationship between the Bundeswehr and society has thus fundamentally changed as a result of its transformation into a combat force. While previously the Bundeswehr was still an “army in the people” in solidarity with the population, its reorientation meant it had been taken over by the state. It is now a military instrument of the state for pursuing the foreign-policy interests of the Federal Republic of Germany. Yet there is another significant factor to consider: the abolition of compulsory military service and the creation of a heavily scaled-down volunteer army severed the link between the combat-force soldier and the defense motive based on notions of citizenship and fatherland as well as solidarity with society.

Important, too, is the fact that this new army is sent on deployments beyond its own country – far from home. In distant crisis areas, combat-force soldiers risk life and limb without finding the desired esteem and recognition among the population at home. Instead, they are met with benign indifference. It weighs heavily on soldiers to get so little moral support and recognition from the public at home for their overseas deployments. With a self-image as a “citizen in uniform,” identification with this post-heroic peace society, far removed from the military, is something that can no longer be assumed to be unproblematic.

Is the guiding principle of Innere Führung still in step with the times?

The old guiding concept of Innere Führung was developed under different circumstances, in a different period, and in response to different challenges. So the question has long since been raised, by the new situation described above, as to whether it is still in step with the times, and whether it should be adapted for the new combat force. At first, military and political leaders thought that Innere Führung needed to be modified for the new combat force, and in the 2003 framework provisions for the Bundeswehr they expressly announced plans for its further development. But a short time ­later, with the 2006 White Paper for the German armed forces, there was a turnaround, and it was declared that Innere Führung had “proven itself during operations as well.” The leadership of the Bundeswehr has not deviated from this statement since.

Accordingly, the 2008 revision of Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift, ZDv) 10/1 “Innere Führung” left everything as it was. However, it imposed a normative overload on combat-force soldiers, by decreeing in section 301 that “through Innere Führung, the values and norms of the Basic Law are realised.” And this is expressed as a guiding principle for individual soldiers as follows (section 106): they “accomplish their mission when, out of personal conviction, they actively defend human dignity, freedom, peace, justice, equality, solidarity, and democracy as the guiding values of our country.”

How such an abstract system of values is supposed to take binding effect during deployments is anybody’s guess. And yet how easily it can be undermined in everyday operations is clearly visible. The way in which the political and military leadership of the Bundeswehr dealt with misconduct by Oberst i. G. Klein on September 4, 2009, is a good example. On that date, ignoring the rules of engagement, he called in air strikes against a tanker truck that was stuck in a river bed near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. In addition to a number of Taliban fighters, the bombardment killed around one hundred innocent civilians. Instead of critically examining the disaster, at least for a moment, in light of the principles of Innere Führung, everybody who was anybody in the Bundeswehr did their utmost to prevent any moral questioning of the misconduct. The message was that during deployments soldiers are bound to make moral mistakes, which have to be accepted.

The Bundeswehr did not question the continued existence of the old Innere Führung. However, it concluded from the new expansion of the tasks of combat-force soldiers that these could no longer remain exclusively combatants and classical experts in the use of force. Therefore, following the Swiss General Gustav Däniker, the Bundeswehr expanded the requirements and role profile of the combat-force soldier. For this reason, the 2006 White Paper for the German armed forces states that the soldier, in addition to the role of the combatant, must also fulfill the role of the “helper, mediator, and conciliator.”

This role set, expanded with police and civilian components, corresponds to the “miles protector” (Däniker) or to a “military law enforcer” (Haltiner) and has far-reaching consequences for a modern professional understanding and the identity of the today’s combat-force soldier. However, this fact is not given further attention. The relation of the “hybrid” soldier with his multiple role set and the “citizen in uniform” also remains unclear. So there is no question of a guiding principle that measures up to the requirements of the “combat-force soldier” and gives this concept a meaning.

A search for identity between "Athens" and "Sparta"

Because the fundamental structural change in the Bundeswehr was not followed by any discernible change in its guiding culture, Innere Führung, which had fallen out of time, found itself in a precarious situation contributing to the undermining of its meaning and to its striking loss of status in the Bundeswehr. Far away from the reality of deployment and any practical relevance, it is tending towards becoming a hollow incantation. As a result, soldiers are left on their own when it comes to their search for identity and dealing with their deployment experiences. With regard to the demand for meaning and guidance, for “Generation Deployment,” Innere Führung has become an irrelevant relic. The official guiding culture from the top and the actual organizational culture experienced at the bottom are drifting apart.

In this unstable situation of fermentation and self-discovery, undirected identity-forming processes have been underway for some time, leading to a controversy over two rival schools of thought: Sparta and Athens (Wiesendahl, 2010). The two schools differ in their image of the reality of deployment and in their understanding of identity and the model of the “soldier on deployment,” with which they believe the Bundeswehr should respond to its new role as a crisis intervention force.

Representatives of the “Athens” school of thought, who are mostly based in the military leadership, assume a picture of deployment that is determined by the new range of tasks of global security planning, crisis prevention, and crisis stabilization, and which goes far beyond previous interstate wars. Hence expertise in the use of force is no longer sufficient, especially not for a strategy of networked security. It is incumbent on the combat force to create a secure environment for political and civilian partners. This requires a “miles protector” with political and moral powers of judgment, intercultural competence, and a firm ethical foundation. This so-called “miles protector” corresponds to the model of the politically educated, active, politically and socially, integrated citizen and soldier (Seiffert, 2005: 42).

In contrast, adherents of the “Sparta” school of thought, who are strongly represented in the armed forces, see the reality of deployment through the lens of combat. It is primarily a question of the battle and of operations management on a small scale. This touches on the essential core of the military – namely, the preparation and implementation of firefights in order to take down an enemy in combat. Armed forces prove themselves in combat. The new multifaceted operational spectrum from crisis preparedness to post-crisis management and “post-conflict peace building” is left unaccounted for.

Morally, the combat-force soldier becomes a fighter through eternal soldierly values. With Sparta and the “miles bellicus,” the sense of civic duty – as a source of meaning and driving force for the military and the soldier’s fighting – is lost. Priority goes to the military craft, to upbringing or raising, and formation of character, less so to professional capacity to reflect and political education. According to this way of thinking, to integrate oneself into a society tending towards decadence constitutes a potential danger for soldiers – as they might fall prey to the progressive decline of values, consumerism, and individualism. The elements of this approach have recently all been brought together in the publication Armee im Aufbruch (Armed Forces on the Move).

It is obvious that Sparta is following a remilitarization and de-civilianization tendency of the Bundeswehr combat force. With its cult of the fighter, elitist special morality for soldiers, homogeneous community of views and anti-societal siege mentality, it has nothing more to do with the principles of the official Innere Führung.


The Bundeswehr is a pluralist social structure. In its mentality, in the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its soldiers, it is not on the march to Sparta. However, a “Generation Combat Mission” has returned from Afghanistan – Bosnia and Kosovo are not so problematic – with a damaged “core of motivation and identity” (Anja Seiffert). With 55 fallen and many more war-disabled soldiers resulting from a militarily “failed” and politically misguided, illusionary mission, they stuck their neck out but are not rewarded accordingly by society. Instead, they are met with benign indifference and disinterest. The fact that “Generation Deployment” is not given recognition may yet give rise to a military tendency towards introversion and a siege mentality via which the professional army self-referentially withdraws from society.

So far, it remains unclear in what direction the Bundeswehr’s meaningful self-image will develop. At any rate, the obsolete Innere Führung is subject to a collapse of credibility that makes it a “relic” in the eyes of combat-force soldiers with regard to its meaning. Based on the civilian, the “citizen in uniform” is a stranger among them. Yet no remedy can be expected from the Sparta-inspired ideological exaggeration, mystification, and glorification of the military. Sparta does not measure up to the reality of deployment, and it would not be accepted well in civil society.

The heads of the armed forces, in their role as a source of inspiration at the top, should initiate a reform debate in order to counter the gradual decline of Innere Führung. Yet they have blocked this for themselves by asserting that Innere Führung has proven itself and with their “carry-on-as-before” attitude. In this way, they are also avoiding the minefield, and, on the part of both the minister and the inspector general, they are allowing things to drift along. The last thing they want is a factional struggle over the spirit and soul of the armed forces, which then spills over into the outside world. They want an army that does not kick up a fuss and submissively takes part in the aimed-for increased number of deployments. This would actually accommodate adherents of Sparta in the Bundeswehr, because it would be a matter of putting the military to the test, which, in their understanding, constitutes the very purpose of the Bundeswehr. However, what is intended as a contribution by the Bundeswehr to international crisis missions makes it into an army of “wimps,” contrary to its “essential core,” if it is to be limited to logistical, training, educational, and medical support activities.

The military and political leadership faces the task of adapting the model of the citizen in uniform to the challenges of deployment reality. And, for them, there will be no getting around a normative unencumbering of the military service’s bedrock of values. How the “armed forces in a democracy” and “armed forces for peace” stand in relationship to combat force should be credibly demonstrated. Above all, the top brass of the Bundeswehr should show their colors by stating that, for the self-image of the armed forces, they will not accept Sparta with its misguided model of the fighter.


Baudissin, Wolf Graf von (1970): Soldat für den Frieden. Entwürfe für eine zeitgemäße Bundeswehr, Munich.
Bohnert, Marcel, and Reitstetter, Lucas J. (eds.) 2014: Armee im Aufbruch. Zur Gedankenwelt junger Offiziere in den Kampftruppen der Bundeswehr, Berlin.

Seiffert, Anja (2005): Soldat und Zukunft. Wirkungen und Folgen von Auslandseinsätzen auf das soldatische Selbstverständnis, Berlin.

Wiesendahl, Elmar (ed.) 2007: Innere Führung für das 21. Jahrhundert. Die Bundeswehr und das Erbe Baudissins, Paderborn.

Wiesendahl, Elmar (2010): Athen oder Sparta. Bundeswehr quo vadis? (WIFIS-AKTUELL), Bremen.



Elmar Wiesendahl is a specialist in sociology and political sciences. He was Professor of Political Science at Universität der Bundeswehr München for many years. In 2006, he moved to the German Federal Armed Forces Command and Staff College (Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr) in Hamburg, becoming a director and head of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Since 2010, he has been executive director of the Agency for Political Strategy (Agentur für politische Strategie, APOS) in Hamburg. Wiesendahl has researched and published widely on the development of political parties. He also deals with questions of political strategy development and the selection and qualification of elites. His military sociology interests focus on Innere Führung in the German armed forces and on the development of the civil–military relationship.