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Reflections on Ethical Standards for Military Personnel in European Armed Forces

“We ought to work on the vision of one day establishing a proper European army,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on November 13, 2018. Time and again, most recently from the French President Emmanuel Macron, there have been calls for a European army to help resolve global conflicts in line with European values and norms. The German federal government’s 2016 White Paper also expresses Germany’s commitment to defend human rights, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and international law together with its European partners. Anyone who wants to act together requires a common basis – also an ethical basis that is shared with one’s partners. In reality, the national European armed forces are far apart from each other when it comes to their military traditions. The following article therefore explains the key developments in the foundation of the German armed forces, with the implementation of the concept of Innere Führung (leadership development and civilian education), and calls for Innere Führung to be made the guiding concept for the armed forces of European nations, and for a possible European army.

In September 1957, under the West German Minister of Defense Franz Josef Strauß, a guide to Innere Führung was published. This small book was entitled Handbuch Innere Führung. Hilfen zur Klärung der Begriffe [The Innere Führung manual. An aid to understanding the terms]. It was written by employees under the sub-division head in the joint general staff of the German armed forces (Führungsstab der Bundeswehr, Fü B I Innere Führung). The sub-division head was Wolf Graf von Baudissin (1907-1993), who also made various contributions to the manual. Until 1972, the “yellow book” as it was known, because of its mustard-yellow linen cover, was issued to all officers of the Bundeswehr for self-study. Later on, the concept of Innere Führung set out in the book was transferred into Joint Service Regulations (Zentrale Dienstvorschriften), and understood as a standing order.

To this day, Innere Führung continues to shape the Bundeswehr’s self-image as well as its organizational and leadership culture.1 This article sets out a number of reflections on the question of whether a possible future European army can also draw inspiration from the concept of Innere Führung. Of course these only cover individual aspects of this complex topic. Each European nation maintains its own national traditions and ideas of what makes a good soldier. To permeate and align these with the fundamental European values of human dignity, freedom and justice cannot be an easy task. At international conferences such as ­EuroISME – the European chapter of the International Society for Military Ethics – it quickly becomes apparent that various differences in the historically shaped national military cultures still have a strong impact today. For representatives of the Western group of nations, the key point of reference – and above all: touch-down point – is the Second World War, whereas for the Eastern nations, it is the breakup of the USSR. Just as weapons systems are not always compatible with one another, multinational cooperation does not always work smoothly on an interpersonal level, even if some states and their armed forces are already cooperating very well together. Working together and exchanging ideas, for example in the German/Netherlands Corps, has led not only to amazed envy between the members of the respective national armies, but also to a degree of convergence in approaches to ethical questions and in military procedures.

As the starting point for my reflections on a common organizational and leadership culture, on a self-image common to all members of a future European army, I have chosen the Handbuch Innere Führung (1957).2 Now more than sixty years old, this manual accompanied the rearmament of Germany a decade or so after the end of the Second World War. Four groundbreaking ideas for the self-image of the German armed forces are briefly outlined here:

  • Europe as an area of peace
  • Critical reflection on national military cultures
  • Technical developments require ­responsible obedience
  • Human dignity as a guiding concept

Europe as an area of peace

The manual begins with a chapter on the oath. It clearly develops the difference between the oath to “the Führer” required of Wehrmacht soldiers, and the oath made by Bundeswehr officers to the democratic and free constitutional state. The following sections of the manual deal with the fundamental question of when and how war could be fought in the future. It sets out clearly that in accordance with the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of the Federal Republic of Germany, never again should Germany start a war. This is not a discussion about war guilt and the question of whether the other European powers were not also partly to blame for the escalations in 1914 and 1939. Rather, it is about practicing a new view of a pacified Europe. This says that Europe has always been a single cultural area, European peoples should learn to see themselves as a community, and never again should they turn their former, fabricated nationalisms against each other. And above all, that the soldier’s goal is not war, but peace.

“In the mind of the European and hence also of the German soldier, peace has always been considered the normal state, and thus constitutes the goal for the sake of which alone a war can be justified. It is from peace that warfare obtains its task and its limits.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:59)

With these words, the love of peace and the togetherness of European nations were clearly portrayed before the eyes of Bundeswehr soldiers. Thus from its foundation onward, the Bundeswehr was related to Europe, and Europe was to be a peace project from that time forward. Following the experiences of the two World Wars and the revanchism that repeatedly flared up, it was certainly necessary to commit German soldiers, many of whom had been trained under the Wehrmacht and National Socialism, to peace. Today, Europe has in fact become an area of peace in a turbulent world. But at the same time, the threats are evident: Growing nationalism and right-wing conservative populism, along with special national paths and separations, run contrary to ideas of deeper cooperation between European states, including in the military. The return to a commitment to peace among each other and externally could become a cornerstone for a European defense concept, and hence for the self-image of European soldiers.

Critical reflection on national military cultures

Another important element is likely to be the encouragement of self-critical retrospection, as German officers are urged to engage in. The authors of the Innere Führung manual acknowledge that it was “difficult” at that time “to take up the true European and German military tradition, after what lies behind us:

The issuing of criminal orders from the top,
their passing on to the lowest areas of command,
the expectation that they will not be carried out at the bottom,
their carrying out in some places,
the order to stand to one side, if crimes take place next to the soldier,
the confusion of moral necessity with political situation assessment.

That is – at least to such an extent – unique in European history.

The fact that unfair and unjust things can happen on the enemy side too is irrelevant when it comes to judging this phenomenon. So is the fact that great examples can be cited of a contrary attitude on the part of German soldiers.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:63)

Even today, an examination of each country’s own national military tradition with respect to the European convention on human rights could initiate a discussion process that would democratize the internal relationships and contribute to the emergence of a common European awareness in the armed forces.

Technical developments ­require responsible obedience

Such self-criticism will probably have to be practiced in any future European army too, since it is impossible now to take up medieval or even older traditions. In those days, the issues surrounding technology were hardly a concern. In view of the advanced technologization of war, to the point of nuclear annihilation, the Innere Führung manual is clear in stating, even at that time, that deterrence alone can be the only appropriate military strategy. This remains true today. It is the reason why NATO agreed on massive retaliation. Later on, the concept was replaced by flexible response. Today, too, the question of how to deal with nuclear weapons is urgent. The Western European EU countries still stockpile these warheads – even now that Russia has dismantled and repatriated the weapons systems that were secretly stationed in the former GDR. In addition, without this featuring extensively in the European public debate, a new strategic instability has emerged. It is intensified by the impending cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by the United States, by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and by cyber warfare. Russia and the United States have new weapons systems and are heading into a new arms race. The United Kingdom and France have nuclear weapons too, like the United States and Russia. But other states such as Pakistan and North Korea also know how to exploit the deterrent potential of nuclear weapons.

In this situation, it is particularly important that every soldier knows what he or she is doing, and what responsibility he or she bears for world peace. Particularly in military operations, it has to be clear that ill-considered action can have unintentional consequences, even a spiral of escalation leading to total annihilation. It seems that only responsible human action may be able to prevent this. By way of example, we should remember Stanislav Petrov. In 1983, he prevented the Third World War when he independently decided not to fire Soviet missiles, despite his computer system telling him the West had launched an attack.

It may seem surprising that a discussion about nuclear weapons was going on even in 1957, when the Handbuch Innere Führung was being compiled. The emergence of the peace movement is usually associated with the NATO Double-Track Decision, bringing to mind the major demonstrations against the stationing of U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe. But ever since the atomic bombs – Little Boy and Fat Man – were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and since the USSR caught up in 1949 with the detonation of its first atomic bomb, it had been obvious to experts what military conflicts would mean from now on: nuclear annihilation. So the Innere Führung manual clearly told soldiers: “For as long as the world powers are in military equilibrium and there is the threat that weapons of mass destruction will be used, the focus of aggression will naturally shift to the intellectual arena.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:36) This principle of resolving potential conflicts through the power of the intellect should still apply today to deployments of a European army, as a matter of course.

Human dignity as a guiding concept

The reflections in the Handbuch Innere Führung on a new model for soldiers who will safeguard the peaceful, free and constitutional Europe are just as modern and suitable for a European army. The manual states that the new model for Bundeswehr soldiers should be based on the individual acts of the resistance conspirators of July 20, 1944, since they had assumed responsibility in an unclear situation. European soldiers should stand up for “real loyalty,” for “real obedience,” for “real responsibility” and if necessary “[sacrifice] their existence for freedoms, rights and human dignity.” There is a special pointedness about saying that members of the resistance – who didn’t only exist in Germany, but also in the occupied countries – are models for soldiers today, since a discussion about the respective national military cultures and traditions could provoke strong sentiments. In France, for example, as in all other countries in Europe, there were collaborators with the ­Wehrmacht as well as resistance fighters. Elsewhere, even after 1945, the military forcefully prevented any democratization of state and society. In some European countries that might provide European soldiers, discussions about the “real” military tradition are probably still waiting to be had.

Even if, at first glance, many terms in the Innere Führung manual might seem old-fashioned now, like the thinking of the 1950s, they nevertheless address problems which are still current today. Fundamental to all these ideas is the belief that soldiers in a democracy are diametrically distinct from those in a totalitarian system. As “citizens in uniform”, they are not mere instruments of military and political leadership. Instead, they are thinking and responsible citizens who have assumed a special function and task in the permanent civil war – as Baudissin put it – to maintain the free constitutional order. The basic ideas of this concept of Innere Führung have been continued into the present-day Joint Service Regulation on Innere Führung (now referred to as A 2600/1 in the Bundeswehr system of regulations). The central ideas are:

  • legitimization of all military actions ­(primacy of politics),
  • integration of military personnel into ­society (democracy and pluralism), and
  • soldiers’ motivation growing from insight into the meaning of their service.

In today’s overseas deployments, justified on humanitarian grounds, word has gotten around that even those people in uniform who do not wear gold or silver on their epaulettes have to take on a lot of responsibility. It is of little help here for regulations to state that the enemy’s relics or holy scripts – such as the Koran – should not be desecrated, that prisoners should not be tortured or threatened with death, that foreign women (when interventions take place in different cultures) should be treated with just as much respect as women back home. These requirements have to be put into practice! The challenges are at least as great when soldiers in the country of deployment unexpectedly witness inhuman injustice or – as in Srebrenica – a massacre.

European soldiers should “uncompromisingly stand up for the basic values of Western humanity” and be ready “to risk all for the achievement and protection of the rights and freedoms of the humblest, even in everyday life.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:11) At the same time, it is expected that the basic conflict between freedoms and rights on the one hand, and totalitarianism on the other, will be an enduring one, which cannot be overcome easily. “In this world [one can] choose only one or the other” and should “decide [...] with the utmost consistency to be either liberal or totalitarian. [...] The defense of rights and freedoms does not authorize us to engage in crusades or activities that lead to the enslavement and extermination of others or even the whole world. Rather, it primarily means an expectation directed at ourselves.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:11) The values of rights and freedoms, formed in a long historical process in Europe, should be experienced on a daily basis by European citizens, and also by its soldiers in their everyday lives and in their service. “Rights and freedoms always remain at risk; the greatest risk comes from our own egoism. Their preservation and defense is our special responsibility for others.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:11)

It would actually be desirable to specify – similarly to the European Convention on Human Rights – that all members of a future European army have to stand up for freedom, peace, human dignity and democracy out of inner conviction. Because Innere Führung is oriented to these values and norms, and because the Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) A 2600/1, which is currently applicable in the Federal Republic of Germany, implements these values and norms in the German armed forces, the concept of Innere Führung would actually be suitable for European soldiers. It would ensure that the functional principles of operational European armed forces are in line with Europe’s free and democratic principles. Innere Führung thrives on the belief and experience that only what is worth living for is worth defending. Moreover, such a definition would draw attention to the political and internal commitment within the armed forces to the inviolability of all soldiers’ human dignity. According to this code of ethics, even the human dignity of the enemy would be inviolable – this, too, is an idea that Baudissin expressed back in 1957:

“Humanity is not divisible. If it is now to be the preserve only of particular groups, it will be lost completely. The soldier who has no respect for his fellow humans – and the enemy, too, is his fellow human – is not tolerable, neither as a superior nor as a fellow soldier nor as a fellow citizen.” (Handbuch Innere Führung 1957:64)

These four ideas from the 1957 Innere Führung manual remain valid today, even after more than sixty years. To develop them as the ethical core of a European army is essential if Europe is to have a civilizing impact in the crises and conflicts of the present day, including if necessary via military intervention. 

1 For further information on the concept of Innere Führung and an assessment of the implementation of its principles by soldiers of the German Bundeswehr see Angelika Dörfler-Dierken/Robert Kramer (2014): Innere Führung in Zahlen. Streitkräftebefragung 2013 [Innere Führung in figures. A survey among armed forces]. Berlin.


2 All of the following quotations are translated from German, and taken from Bundesministerium für Verteidigung (ed.) (1957): Handbuch Innere Führung. Hilfen zur Klärung der Begriffe. Bonn. Page numbers are given in the text.



Prof. Dr. Angelika Dörfler-Dierken is Project Area Leader for the topic “Innere Führung – Ethics – Military Chaplaincy” in Research Area IV “Security Policy and Armed Forces” at the Centre for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr. Out of ethical, historical and ­sociological perspectives she deals with current issues that are troubling soldiers – in terms of their professional­ self-image, their ­involvement in society, their implementation of the role-model “Citizen in uniform” in a democratic society and culture. Furthermore she examines those questions that arise from the contradiction between the order for German soldiers, to serve peace in the world, and the use of follow military means of violence. Prof. Dr. Dörfler-Dierken teaches at the university Hamburg and published numerous publications.