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Military Practice Between Ethics and Tragedy: Moral Dilemmas in the Context of Peace Education for Armed Forces

The German armed forces need discussion partners outside of the military system

The guiding minds of the Bundeswehr wanted to integrate the new German armed forces into democratic society with the concept of Innere Führung (officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”) and the model of the citizen in uniform. For this reason, from the beginning, they sought discussion partners in the various social institutions and groups that were outside of the military system. This was true not only but particularly with regard to the values orientation within the newly formed Bundeswehr.

The concept of Innere Führung was also determined by the fundamental insight that the free, secular state thrives on conditions that it cannot itself guarantee. Other institutions have to intervene here if the state wishes to avoid falling back into making that claim to unlimited authority from which it had been led away after denominational civil wars and a totalitarian dictatorship. Values orientation therefore cannot be decreed by the state. Rather, the state must ensure in its institutions that there is scope and freedom for values orientation. To shape this scope, the state requires other institutions that stand outside the system of state. This was and is particularly true for the Bundeswehr, if it does not want to succumb to the danger of becoming a “state within a state” again.

The Protestant Church as discussion and cooperation partner

Even before the Bundeswehr was established, the Protestant Church was involved as a discussion and cooperation partner in developing Innere Führung and the values orientation in the German armed forces. The main driving force behind the concept of Innere Führung was the future Lieutenant General Wolf Graf von Baudissin, whose outlook was strongly influenced by West German Lutheranism.1 The guiding ideas behind the key concepts of “the conscientious individual”, “responsible obedience” and “the ability to resolve conflicts and make peace in a spirit of humanity” can only be understood in terms of Lutheran thinking. Graf von Baudissin received the most important suggestions for the concept in particular in the discussions with the future first Military Bishop, Dr. Hermann Kunst, and through the discussions in the Evangelical Academies. 

It was for a good reason that the Protestant Church got so strongly involved in these matters. Following the history of failure during the National Socialist period, the Church wanted to participate actively in building a democratic community. It wanted to assume “public responsibility”. After the fierce debates over the re-establishment of armed forces, the Protestant Church was greatly concerned not to be inactive in the development of Innere Führung as a contribution to the rebuilding of armed forces in a democracy. 

The Protestant military chaplaincy as a discussion partner in critical solidarity

It is not surprising, therefore, that after the military chaplaincy was established in 1956/57, military chaplains became and still remain partners to the Bundeswehr for dialogue and cooperation in questions of Innere Führung. The Protestant military chaplaincy has been seeing itself as an institution within the armed forces that is in critical solidarity with the Bundeswehr, while being independent of the military hierarchy and organized on a civilian basis. It seeks to make a conceptually important contribution as a complement to the Bundeswehr’s own specific elements of Innere Führung. This was especially true of its contribution to values orientation through Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (“character guidance training”, LKU). The experiences and discussions of the early years were set down in a Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv 66/2 (Merkschrift) of 1959. 

The term “values orientation” really does not go far enough, as it could incorrectly suggest that military personnel should be guided solely by the values and norms of the Basic Law. ­Lebenskundlicher Unterricht, in contrast, implies a more comprehensive concept, which in more recent literature is referred to as “imparting social orientational knowledge” (K. Tanner).2 Lebenskundlicher Unterricht “[...] deals with moral issues which are central to how we conduct our lives, to our relationship with the world around us, and to an ordered coexistence in any community [...]. It should show to the individual the sources that give meaning to life, and lead to systems of order through which the community becomes worth living in and hence worth defending” – ZDv 66/2 from 1959.3

Further development of ethical education and Lebenskundlicher Unterricht

The military chaplaincy had taken on this responsibility in the teaching of social orientational knowledge since the early days of the Bundeswehr. In the 21st century, however, the armed forces faced new challenges, along with changes in society (e.g. a changed denominational composition, different cultural backgrounds of military personnel, and encounters with other cultures in theaters of operations). Therefore, at the beginning of the 21st century, the whole concept of Lebenskundlicher Unterricht and ethical education in the armed forces underwent a rethink.

The ideas that had been discussed since September 2004 in both branches of the military chaplaincy and in the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, BMVg) produced the following results at that time: 

First: Ethical education is a task that cuts across the armed forces.

Second: Human dignity, freedom, peace, justice and democracy are the common foundations of our free democratic basic order, and form the ethical basis for Innere Führung.4

Third: Within the framework of Innere Führung, military personnel must be given space to reflect on and internalize these principles in self-education and self-development processes. They take responsibility for their own lives and actions, and can take responsibility for others.5 

Fourth: Ethical education is therefore described as an act of personality development, in which skills for living responsibly are developed, a confirmation of our community’s intellectual and moral foundations is facilitated, and the conscience is sharpened. This takes up the comprehensive understanding of education that was already found in the old notion of Lebenskundlicher Unterricht: ethical education in the Bundeswehr is understood in a comprehensive sense. It is neither about spelling out the basic principles of peace ethics or security policy, nor about working through different battle scenarios from an ethical perspective. What is aimed for, instead, is a comprehensive ethical reflection on the professional and personal situation of people who have made it their (life’s) task to maintain or restore security and peace. This is guided by a fundamental idea: ethical education in the Bundeswehr can only succeed when focusing on the whole person – with their cultural and religious backgrounds, their various areas of life and fields of action, and considering the associated ethical challenges.

Fifth: If this form of personality development is described as a comprehensive task for Innere Führung, then the military chaplaincy remains its discussion and coopera tion partner. This cooperative relationship takes concrete form in Lebenskundlicher Unterricht. 

One consequence of this further development of ethical education in the armed forces was to place Lebenskundlicher Unterricht in this new context. The new version of the Joint ­Service Regulation on Innere Führung was now followed by the new version of ZDv 66/2 on Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (now A-2620/3). The following key points should be noted:

First: Lebenskundlicher Unterricht is not part of Innere Führung, but it is an essential and indispensable complement to it.6 Therefore, in the relevant sections in ZDv Lebenskundlicher Unterricht, reference is made firstly to the newly adopted ZDv Innere Führung, in order to explain in what way LKU is an important complement. 

Second: Likewise, LKU is not to be equated with religious education, let alone a form of religious practice within the meaning of section 36 of the Act Concerning the Legal Status of Soldiers (Soldatengesetz). Rather, it is a form of instruction in professional ethics, as it is also given in other organizations (e.g. the German Federal Police, or nursing training) and in other nations’ armed forces (e.g. Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway) by chaplains who are particularly well qualified as teachers in this role. It is therefore applicable to all military personnel from now on.

Third: This new version returned to the original idea of Lebenskundlicher Unterricht. The idea of cross-denominational ethical education emerged from discussions between Bishop Hermann Kunst and Generalmajor Graf von Baudissin.

Fourth: LKU has the following goals: a) It serves to foster a sense of meaning and purpose in life (meaning). b) It should enable soldiers to recognize, reflect on and assess the ethical dimension of their actions (professional ethics). c) In view of cultural and religious plurality in the Bundeswehr and in the realities of deployment, it should help to confirm the common values of a free democratic society. In this way, military personnel are able to engage critically with other world-views and cultures, enter into dialog and develop intercultural understanding (confirmation of one’s own cultural identity). d) LKU strengthens conscience, and trains moral judgment and responsible action on the part of military personnel (sharpening of conscience). e) In a special way, skills for responsible conduct of life are developed (e.g. work-family balance).

Fifth: Military chaplains are particularly suited to the described tasks of Lebenskund­licher Unterricht. a) Orientational knowledge can only be acquired in a place of free and trusting expression. The state attaches great importance to this free space in the midst of the military realm. The special position of the military chaplain underlines this point. The independence of our military chaplains in the classroom is preserved. b) The military chaplaincy is happy to assume this responsibility as a cooperation partner of the armed forces. It sees Lebenskundlicher Unterricht as part of its overall mission. In a spirit of “positional pluralism”, military chaplains convey knowledge about the sources of our culture (religion, ethics, tradition). By this means, they encourage and demand of every soldier a confirmation in their own identity, and they teach soldiers to engage in dialog, critically examine other positions, and acquire intercultural competencies. c) This is why the military chaplaincy provides Lebenskundlicher Unterricht for all military personnel. In particular, LKU should support military personnel during phases when they are in situations that increasingly raise the fundamental questions in life (basic training, pre-deployment training, course training). 

With this further development of Lebens­kundlicher Unterricht, the military chaplaincy has the opportunity to make a contribution to the democratic culture in the armed forces, and to the respect for and protection of human dignity.

Lebenskundlicher Unterricht in the new setting of the joint service regulation on ethical education in the armed forces

For a number of years, efforts have been underway at the German Federal Ministry of Defense (BMVg) to develop an independent joint service regulation for ethical education to stand alongside the described joint service regulations. Representatives of the churches and other social institutions were involved in developing the new joint service regulation as discussion and cooperation partners.

During the discussions, both branches of the military chaplaincy highlighted the special features of Lebenskundlicher Unterricht as an educational format among the ethical education measures:

First: As an educational format, LKU is specifically aimed at personality development. LKU deals with current topics in the Bundeswehr within the framework of the curriculum (diversity, tradition, work-life balance, operational stress, etc.) This range of topics is complemented by ethical perspectives. LKU therefore contributes to the professional competence of military personnel. Beyond professional matters, it considers the person as a whole with their inner processes and social interactions, and thus contributes to the development of personal skills.

Second: LKU enables open discourse and provides the free space that is necessary for ethical education. The classes are not relevant to appraisals; the teachers enjoy a special trust with regard to confidentiality; they are outside of the military hierarchy.

Third: LKU fosters personality development through special learning settings: through special learning venues (seminar format, external conference centers, etc.), through the teachers’ special qualifications in the fields of ethics and self-reflection as well as qualified support for individuals and groups, and finally through a continuous institutional commitment by the churches to professionalization in both method and content. Especially on the last point, both branches of the military chaplaincy have undertaken a large bundle of professionalization measures in recent years, even setting up a dedicated center for ethical education in the armed forces (zebis).

Fourth: LKU takes place in a context of institutional cooperation to promote education: it is structurally integrated into the Bundeswehr’s educational work. It represents a continuous civilian element in education. As a systemic view from the outside, it promotes reflexivity. The teachers represent civil society in a spirit of critical solidarity.

Fifth: LKU also includes ethical education as an independent topic within the curriculum and in keeping with the basic idea of ethical education as a cross-sectional task for the key areas of Innere Führung.

Thus LKU is also ethical education in the armed forces. But it goes beyond that. In keeping with Innere Führung, a view of the whole person and an extension of the range of topics beyond explicitly military aspects are both necessary and helpful for the education of military personnel, and particularly also for the development of conscience. This is delivered by LKU for these purposes.

These thoughts on sharpening the profile of LKU compared to other educational measures in the field of ethical education have been incorporated into the new joint service regulation on ethical education in the armed forces. LKU as a necessary, essential and indispensable complement to the fields of influence of Innere Führung will be maintained as a separate element and remain regulated in a separate joint service regulation. 

Future challenges

The goals of Lebenskundlicher Unterricht provided by military chaplains can only be achieved if the teaching takes place in collaboration with superiors and the military personnel being taught. For this reason, in spite of being organized by the military chaplaincy, LKU must not be misunderstood. Lebenskundlicher Unterricht is explicitly not religious instruction (see above). Instead, it is an essential and indispensable complement to what happens within the framework of Innere Führung in terms of imparting social orientational knowledge. For the future implementation of the concept, it will therefore be important to coordinate the initiatives for ethical education in the armed forces with the LKU program. Without cooperation and coordination, ethical education programs might be run in parallel and so will be more likely to confuse military personnel than provide guidance. 

With regard to the further development of the ethical education format in the armed forces, methodological and didactic standards should be set that effectively promote personality development. In particular, this includes the implementation of the paradigm shift toward competence development, as stipulated by the current personnel strategy of the Bundeswehr and the European and German Qualifications Framework for Lifelong Learning of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (Kultusministerkonferenz, KMK). The military chaplaincy’s decades of practice in Lebenskundlicher Unterricht and the knowledge and experience gained from it should make a beneficial contribution here. 

In this context, one should warn against having disciplinary superiors as instructors. Otherwise, instead of offering ethical education as a self-reflexive process with open discourse (free space), the superior’s opinion will be taught in the manner of the correct conduct to conform with regulations. This would be a departure from the origins of Innere Führung, which in these matters has deliberately and consciously chosen discussion and cooperation partners outside the system (see above).

Military chaplaincy remains available as a partner. It wants to make its contribution to the necessary cooperation and coordination as well as to the further conceptual development. It therefore remains committed to the origins in respect of its mission and contribution to ethical education in the armed forces. Military chaplaincy remains a discussion and cooperation partner to the armed forces in the further development of Innere Führung.

1 Cf. Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika (2005): Ethische Fundamente der Inneren Führung. Strausberg.

2 (Translated from German).

3 (Translated from German).

4 Cf. ZDv A-2600/1, no. 304.

5 Cf. ZDv A-2600/1, no. 508.

6 Cf. ZDv A-2600/1, no. 503. 

7 Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv A-2620/3, no. 103: “Ethical education is a cross-sectional task that is found in all areas of influence of Innere Führung and in many areas of everyday military life. This is where the ethical and moral challenges of military conduct are discussed. The aim is to improve the ability of military personnel to make moral judgments, and increase their confidence in their actions. In addition, the capacity for reflection, intercultural and conceptual skills, decision-making ability and integrated thinking are to be promoted. This also includes the ability to discuss problems and ethical conflicts with other people, and solve them together.” 

Author

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Dr. theol. Dirck Ackermann, born 1962, is a Senior Military Superintendent. He studied evangelical theology, oriental studies and Islamic studies at Kiel and Jerusalem. Since 2005, he has been head of department in the Office of the Protestant Church for the German Armed Forces (Evangelisches Kirchenamt für die Bundeswehr, EKA), where his responsibilities include theological principles, peace ethics, security policy and Lebenskundlicher Unterricht. He is the editor of “JS-Magazin” and editor-in-chief of “zur Sache bw”.

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