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"For the uniting Europe, I picture more and more islands of functioning cooperation"

Dr. Bartels, let’s assume we are on the on the road to creating a European army: How would you translate the principles of Innere Führung for European defense policymakers? Would they have difficulty understanding them?
The idea of the citizen in uniform means that military personnel are part of a democratic polity. This exists elsewhere in Europe, too. But what we call “Innere Führung” is very much a specifically German concept. 

It means that the military principle of command and obedience – “outer leadership” if you like – must be complemented by ethical standards, which every member of the armed forces should internalize. Every member of military personnel should therefore carry within themselves a standard for good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice. And this standard should be compatible with freedom and democracy. It is important to note that these individual standards may be rooted in a Christian conception of humanity, or in humanism, or in critical rationalism. You will often find a ge­neralized reference to the supposed “values of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz).” This is always somewhat wide of the mark, in my view, because it is a form of mechanistic derivative thinking, shaped by belief in military document hierarchies. 

Our firm conviction that, for example, classical human rights are universally valid, everywhere and at all times, does not derive in the first instance from the Basic Law. It precedes the Basic Law and underlies it. In other words, human rights are not valid because they are en­shrined in our constitution; they are in our constitution because they are universally valid – even before the Basic Law was adopted in 1949. 

During the Second World War, soldiers in the resistance against the Nazi regime had to fall back on such “inner” universally valid standards of good and evil when the system of “outer leadership” kept forcing them to do evil, to do wrong, to do injustice. Prior to July 20, 1944, many struggled with the decision of whether they could break their oath to Hitler and refuse to obey orders – which was an absolute duty in the Wehrmacht. They had nothing else to guide them except their own inner self, their conscience. Was that sufficient? 

Now the concept of Innere Führung says that your freedom of conscience is part of what it means to be a soldier. The conscienceless soldier who is only a combatant cannot be a defender of freedom and justice. Germany’s military personnel should know what they are fighting for: not for some objective given to them, but for something that is valuable to themselves – for their and our free constitutional order. To be able and willing to fight, not because it is commanded, but because it is a good and just cause, in accordance with one’s own conscience: this is “Innere Führung”. That is why all military personnel are entitled to historical, ethical and political education, from the first day of their service until the last. 

And, incidentally, that is also why this strange, unique, very German clause appears in article 20, paragraph (4) of the Basic Law: “All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available.” Every individual is the final authority that safeguards our freedom. So this was a particularly long answer. But that’s just the way it is with Germany’s special history, experience and responsibility.  

To follow up with a more specific question: Do you think that the relationship between democracy and the armed forces, as we have shaped it in Germany for good historical reasons, is acceptable across the EU? 
In principle, yes. To list some keywords, that means: the primacy of democratic politics, the right to vote and the right to stand as a candidate in elections, the right to file complaints and petitions, the election of representatives and freedom of association, for example in military professional organizations, the freedom of conscience, opinion and expression within the general duty of loyalty, the incompatibility of being a soldier with extremist, anti-democratic attitudes. And political education! None of this is exclusively German. Some of it still needs to become the experienced legal normality in some member states, especially the newer ones. But the trend is moving in this direction. Perhaps it is not necessary for us to call it “Innere Führung” – the “citizen in uniform” is sufficient. 

One frequently cited reason for European military integration is cost efficiency. Wouldn’t it make sense to improve cost efficiency on the national level first – in other words, in the German armed forces – before entering into a merger (to use the business term)?
There is no need to play off national efficiency increases against those on the European level. Everyone knows that a lot of money is spent needlessly in the Bundeswehr every day. This has to be addressed. But it seems evident to me that it is not a particularly bright idea for the EU Europe and NATO Europe to line up 22, 25 or 30 nation-state armies side by side with 200 different types of tanks, aircraft and frigates. By the way, the German and Dutch armies are currently “merging” in a very real way in their everyday routine duties. The feedback has been good, and I think that’s great! 

Many skeptics say that a European Army is “putting the cart before the horse”: There is a desire to create joint armed forces, yet only discuss the strategic culture later on. How do you respond to these skeptics?
Of course there are thousands of issues, large and small, to solve on the path to the European defense union. But given our disastrous European history of the 20th century, those are not bad problems. They are all fairly good problems. My idea for the uniting Europe is not for a big master plan negotiated by all nations that sets out how everything should subsequently unroll. Instead, I picture more and more islands of functioning cooperation that grow, meet and join together as they increase in size, and gradually form a mainland. 

And as far as today’s certainly very different strategic experiences and cultures are concerned: If progress is made toward integration in the military, then there will also be the so-called “normative force of facts” for foreign and security policy. If there is no progress, then the historically developed differences in strategic cultures will probably continue to exist for the time being. 

Dr. Bartels, thank you for this interview!



In 2015, Hans-Peter Bartels was appointed the twelfth ­Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragter des Deutschen Bundestages). After his Abitur and military service in 1980/81, he studied political science, sociology and ethnology at Kiel University (CAU). He earned his doctoral degree in 1988. From 1988 to 1998, he worked as a staffer at the State Chancellery of ­Schleswig-Holstein. In 1998, Hans-Peter Bartels became an SPD member of the German Bundestag for Kiel. Most recently, he served on the Defense Committee.