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Tribal cultures and Innere Führung – a contradiction?

Effective in a roundabout way: Innere Führung

No aspect of the Bundeswehr has had as much written about it as Innere Führung (IF, literally “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”). Discussions about these leadership and guidance principles are as old as the institution itself, and the debate shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. But why is this actually the case? At core, its content is not controversial: no-one can have anything against good leadership, and applying the values and norms of the German Basic Law to the armed forces of the Federal Republic really requires no further justification. How could it be otherwise, especially after the experiences with the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht?

Instead, the discussion is about what these principles should mean in practice. During the founding period of the Bundeswehr, this was the subject of particularly heated debate. Intense disagreement between Wolf Graf von Baudissin and his former colleague Heinz Karst spilled over into the public arena. And this was despite the fact that all protagonists in the early debates supported the basic principles of IF, backed the Basic Law and, for example, also accepted the Plot of July 20, 1944 as a historical reference point for the tradition and self-image of the new Bundeswehr. In essence, the argument revolved around the degree to which the new army should be geared toward war. To what extent did the culture or Habitus of the new armed forces – the set of characteristics encompassing their appearance and bearing, attitude and conduct – have to be civilized in order to motivate young soldiers to take up arms and give them guidance in the conflict of systems with the Eastern Bloc? Baudissin’s demands went too far for many, including the first commander of the Center for Leadership, Development and Civic Education of the German Armed Forces (Zentrum für Innere Führung), Arthur Weber. He demonstratively opposed his former patron by writing ten open letters in 1969.1 But even some of the most influential figures of the founding generation did not consider Baudissin’s pure doctrine to be practical – such as Adolf Heusinger, Johann Adolph von Kielmansegg, Hans Speidel and Ulrich de Maizière. Since everyone placed a slightly different emphasis, a compromise eventually emerged. The IF regulations were typical products of a ministerial apparatus, where no draft is ever returned as it has left the desk of a department head. The result is clearly seen in the IF manual (Handbuch Innere Führung) from 1957.2 It certainly did not go far enough for Baudissin, while for others it was already too much of a good thing. In the struggle to find a middle ground, several revisions followed. Then came the Joint Service Regulations (Zentrale Dienstvorschriften), which always sought to adapt themselves to current discourse in society and the armed forces. Admittedly, the manual is still the official document in which the Bundeswehr addresses Innere Führung most thoroughly and extensively – which is why it is still worth reading.3

From the very beginning, Innere Führung was a central component of the Bundeswehr’s institutional frame of reference. As such, it was not designed to have only an internal effect. It also served as an argumentation aid toward the outside world, as proof of the integration of the armed forces into the state and society, that lessons had been learned from history and that the Bundeswehr had distanced itself from the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht. When scandals or crises emerged, IF served as a useful argument to ward off overly sweeping condemnations. Its significance therefore went far beyond the brief statements in the Army Leadership Code, for example, which suffice the British Army.4

Over the past 60 years, the IF regulations have been revised time and again, most recently in 2017. Yet for many military personnel, the manuals and regulations remained too abstract. They were soon being described as “Inneres Gewürge” (“inner choking”), as pure “theology”, “incantations”, or as mere lip service.5 Although frequently unthinking, such harsh judgments are nevertheless understandable. A simple, concrete, generally comprehensible definition applicable to military practice has still not been presented. Instead, the participant observer sees superiors talking about IF using template speeches, or reads academic works penned by officers who always, somehow, ultimately “prove” that IF is a good thing. True to the phrase: quod erat demonstrandum. Evidently the main problem with Innere Führung is not the core of its content, but its communication, and overexpectations.

In the history of the Bundeswehr, the tendency has been to expect too much of IF in terms of motivating soldiers. Certainly, in contrast to the predecessor armies, in the Bundeswehr one could refuse to carry out an order, one could lodge a complaint, there was a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, and the Bundeswehr was under parliamentary control. These were all extremely important achievements that created a different environment than in the Wehrmacht or Reichswehr. But whether this helped to motivate the mass of soldiers – because as a result democracy could be experienced in the army as well – seems more than questionable. The constitutional patriotism at which the pure doctrine of IF is aimed presupposes a politically conscious soldier. Such a thing existed among the professional soldiers, especially among the staff officers, who in the early days of the Bundeswehr had, after all, experienced National Socialism themselves and were able to judge the value of the new laws and regulations. But this was certainly not the case with the great mass of conscripts. At least from the end of the 1960s onward, they perceived military service in no small part to be meaningless compulsory service – despite all the democratic achievements of the Federal Republic and its army.

At all times, the importance in terms of motivation of soldiers’ identification with their respective political system has probably been overestimated. Neither were all soldiers loyal to the Kaiser in 1914, nor were all soldiers National Socialists in 1939. And in the Federal Republic, the attitude of the majority of conscripts to the Basic Law was probably rather indifferent.

This does not mean, of course, that the political framework and thus also the IF relating to it had no effect at all. However, democratic consciousness developed less through political instruction and dry-as-dust regulations than through the normative force of social life. For the Federal Republic, this meant that school, work, the parental home and leisure time imparted to soldiers an understanding of values and norms that they were probably only rarely aware of, but which were nonetheless present. The vast majority of soldiers had a clear concept of right and wrong, of what you do and what you don’t do, that owed little or nothing to tedious lectures. And this frame of reference certainly differed from earlier times and arguably from other militaries too. In 2010, there were company commanders caught in the firefight in Char Dara who had no clear idea of the content of IF. And yet they knew how to motivate their soldiers and effectively advocate against savagery and moral depravity. The democratic footprint found its way into the Bundeswehr mainly along an indirect route, via social conditioning. I would actually suggest that the overall result would not have been significantly different if the many manuals and regulations on IF had never been written, and instead the Bundeswehr, like other armed forces, had merely been reminded of the values of the republic in a few concise words.

Tribal cultures as cohesion factors

So the pleasing conclusion is that the vast majority of Bundeswehr personnel acted in accordance with the principles of Innere Führung, even though they may not have been aware of it. However, this also means that other reference points must have existed in their social praxis. Military sociology has convincingly identified the sources of soldiers’ motivation. In a vertical plane, the perception of the armed forces as an institution is relevant, as is the relationship to state and society. For example, is the political and military leadership perceived as being competent, fair and truthful? Furthermore, the reason for a deployment, its objective, and its prospects of success are important. Together with that, on a horizontal plane, the relevance of primary groups was pointed out long ago, meaning those groups of people with whom the closest social contact exists. In the military, these can range from units up to the size of a company.6

In the conjunction of the horizontal and vertical planes, the different branches of service play a significant role in the cohesion of the armed forces. Within the Bundeswehr, these constitute specific communities, form their own distinctive cultures and characteristics, and create their own traditions and rites. This further differentiates the culture of the armed forces.

In the Bundeswehr, the most visible feature of the military branch of service or Truppengattung is the Waffenfarbe or “corps color”, which has always been particularly significant in distinguishing the different branches and therefore in establishing their identity. With the introduction of the field-gray uniform in 1909, the branches of the German armed forces could only be identified by their shoulder marks, gorget (collar) patches and rank insignia. To this day, the term “Fehlfarbe” – meaning someone who belongs to a different corps, as distinguished by the color – is familiar to everyone in the Bundeswehr. In addition, the insignias and colors of the berets, which were introduced in 1971, are particularly significant and usually not identical to the corps color.

I recently referred to the service branch cultures as “tribal cultures”, because in some respects they are like different tribes, although they are nevertheless all parts of an organizational entity. The term tribe is used in anthropology and ethnology to describe the culture of, for example, American First Nations. Of course one cannot equate the Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers), Panzergrenadiere (mechanized infantry) or Artilleristen (artillerymen) with the tribal groups of Native Americans, particularly since their internal social organization was very different and the terms nation, tribe, band or clan are not used in a clear-cut way. Parallels do exist, however, inasmuch as some indigenous peoples divided themselves into subgroups that differed in their ways of life, dialects, and social composition, and were also outwardly distinguishable from one another. Nevertheless, they went to war together, and sometimes even switched groups, which were bound together in a kind of friendly rivalry. But they were all conscious of belonging to the same community, or nation.

The term tribal cultures was first used to describe the cultures of British regiments, which play a more distinctive role in the land forces of the United Kingdom than the branches of service (Truppengattungen) do in the German Bundeswehr. So if we understand the term tribe to refer to powerful cultural entities, then in an international comparison it means very different things. In the context of German military history, the different branches of service each constituted an independent system of interpretation. Their potency should not be underestimated, and their significance for the Bundeswehr as a whole should be taken seriously. On a vertical plane, they linked the cohesion of companies and platoons – the so-called primary groups – with the organization as a whole. Even the top representatives of the armed forces – the generals and admirals – aligned themselves, sometimes quite demonstratively, with a Truppengattung. As a result, they were recognized by soldiers of the various tribes as being one of their own. Thus the tribal cultures extended from the smallest units far into the upper echelons, and therefore formed a kind of transmission belt between “above” and “below”.

All branches and service areas of the Bundeswehr have a tribal culture, but it varies in intensity. It is perhaps a bit less in the Luftwaffe (the German air force), because there the idea of the team that spans the service areas is more important. In the navy and especially the army, the tribal cultures are likely to be much more distinct, although comparative studies are lacking so far.

The closer the mission of a service branch is to the sharp end of the military profession, the more pronounced the tribal cultures seem to be. They can be studied particularly well among the Heeresaufklärer (army reconnaissance), the Jägertruppe (light, motorized infantry) and the Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers). The latter in particular can usually be recognized by their outward appearance, which is distinguished by their haircuts and physical fitness. For them, the airborne landing and the special combat situation it creates are culture-defining. The culture of these troops is characterized by surprise, improvisation, and also the compulsion to win a battle once it has begun, because there is usually no possibility of retreat. Parachuting has never had any real operational value in the Bundeswehr. Nevertheless, it has shaped the culture of this branch of the military – as it has for the special forces. “Non-jumpers” can only be part of the community to a limited extent, and every newly transferred commander would do well to jump out of a plane as soon as possible after taking up his position, if he wants to earn the respect of his soldiers. It is not the military significance of this act that matters. In military practice, it is completely irrelevant whether a commander knows how to parachute or not. Even in the highly unlikely event that he would actually have to do so in an emergency, there would be the possibility of a tandem jump nowadays. The cultural significance far exceeds the practical significance.

Since their formation in 1955, the Fallschirmjäger have maintained an elite mindset and cultivated their tribal culture with a particular devotion. This is facilitated by the fact that this branch of the military has always been limited in terms of numbers. Within the Bundeswehr, this culture has certainly been viewed critically, especially since some observers considered the military value of the airborne brigades to be extremely limited and thought there was no justification for any kind of elite attitude. Some also mocked the Fallschirmjäger, referring to them as “fallen fruit”, or using the derisory term Aufklatscher (“belly floppers”). Nevertheless, their reputation for being a special unit seems to have had an effect. It is notable that even during periods of widespread social protest against the military – for example in 1968 or at the time of the NATO Double-Track Decision – the paratroopers never had any recruitment problems. And today, many a general proudly and demonstratively sports the bordeaux beret, even though he only joined the force at an advanced age, in some ways as an “alien species”. Only a few set themselves apart as visibly as Generalleutnant Jörg Vollmer, for example. As Inspector of the Army, he made a point of wearing his green Panzergrenadier beret again, giving a clear signal as to which tribal culture he feels he belongs to. 

Bonding and detachment tendencies in the German armed forces today

Is there a conflict between the Habitus – the distinctive characteristics and conduct – of the fighter, as cultivated in some branches of the armed forces, and Innere Führung? Some Bundeswehr officials and officers think there is. Particularly in the Afghanistan generation, they see a tendency to reduce the armed forces to the will to fight, and to a combative attitude and manner that is valid for all time, i.e. without regard to any specific time or circumstances. They believe that a foundation of virtue is being advocated that is not compatible with the canon of democratic and civic values. Thus the miles bellicus is worlds apart from the citizen in uniform, since the latter is supposed to be guided by the deep conviction that, as a soldier, he is standing up for democratic values such as human dignity, freedom and justice. The more a military special ethos forms, the more the Bundeswehr distances itself from the post-heroic majority society, so the argument goes. Politicians and military leaders must therefore prevent outdated concepts of war from gaining any great significance in the construction of soldiers’ professional identities.7

Certainly all those who see soldiers primarily as mediators, cultural brokers and social workers, those for whom the Bundeswehr is mainly a domestic political project, have a problem with the Habitus of the combat troops. Some currently see a network of sinister reactions at work, since there is increasing talk of fitness for war and the will to victory in the army, and recently even in the navy.

Nevertheless, Innere Führung and the tribal cultures of even the combat troops are not mutually exclusive. Their representatives would also vehemently reject such an assertion. Good leadership is in any case constitutive for the cohesion of the corps. Nobody is proud of his beret if he associates it with nothing but harassment. And fighting for this republic, to feel a sense of belonging toward its values and norms, and to regard them as defining for the armed forces, does not exclude even a rustic Habitus, as is sometimes cultivated among the combat troops. This rusticality does not result from an opposition to Innere Führung, but from the combat mission. IF was not conceived by its founding fathers as a soft approach, but as a constitutive component of armed forces capable and willing to fight. To be sure, anyone who sees the Bundeswehr only as a domestic political project whose main task is to prove the military compatible with democracy, anyone who thinks that combat is an “outdated” task, is making a mockery of the purpose of combat troops.

Tribal cultures undoubtedly foster their own dynamics, because – where they are intensely manifested – they provide protected spaces for alternative interpretations and practices. In such spaces, rituals can flourish that violate human dignity, or a view of history can be preserved that stands in opposition to a changing republic.

As a structurally conservative organization, the Bundeswehr has always lagged behind social developments. It has never been a champion of social reform, and has therefore often been criticized by the social vanguard. However, the Bundeswehr has also often struggled to find a convincing middle ground between preservation and change. The debate over whether the history and tradition of the Wehrmacht deserved to be honored was essentially a rearguard action conducted by the armed forces and German Ministry of Defense without the necessary intellectual depth. While the names of barracks that had attracted public criticism were changed, the problem was not fundamentally addressed. To date, there has been no honest appraisal of how many Bundeswehr soldiers seek out role models from the pre-1945 era and, above all, why they do so and what conclusions are to be drawn from this. A number of prohibitions were imposed, which for most external critics did not go far enough, and had the internal effect of prompting many soldiers to retreat defiantly into the world of tribal cultures, or even further into primary groups, where they could indulge in their cherished narratives. Here it was sometimes difficult for the official offerings of tradition to reach them. If we stay with the example of the paratroopers, it is striking how much they struggled with the social debate surrounding the Wehrmacht in the 1990s, and that they were not really interested in developing their idea of their tradition. The higher officer corps in particular lacked appropriate leadership and education in this respect.

More generally, it is certainly problematic if only the tribal culture remains as a way to identify the soldiers, where in the worst case neither the constitutional bodies nor perhaps even the Bundeswehr as a higher-level institution still play an important role. If one believes the official investigation reports, such tendencies existed in parts of the Special Forces Command (Kommando Spezialkräfte, KSK). Today, its culture is sometimes associated in the public discourse with right-wing radicalism. This is certainly a gross oversimplification. It is undisputed, however, based on all that can be learned, that the combination of the tribal culture of the special forces with the extraordinarily tightly knit primary groups led to undesirable developments that were tolerated for too long.

To what extent the special forces, but also the paratroopers, attracted more right-wing radicals than other branches of service cannot yet be answered with certainty. The publicly available information does not tell us, and even in internal discussions with the Military Counterintelligence Service (Militärischer Abschirmdienst, MAD), nothing could be found out about this. Nevertheless, based on the strong camaraderie, a rustic fighter culture, and a glorification of the Wehrmacht that lasted well into the 1990s, a close relationship does seem plausible. Oberst Friedrich Jeschonnek, the then commander of the Airborne Operations and Air Transport School in Altenstadt, at least saw it that way and said in 1998 that the paratroopers seemed to attract radical right-wing forces.8

Tribal cultures thus harbor the danger of a kind of isolationism, with the result that in the worst case soldiers see only their own world and separate themselves from the rest of the armed forces, but also from society. To counter such tendencies in the Special Forces Command, Ansgar Meyer was deliberately chosen as their new commander. He is an officer who, as a tank man, HR person and “non-jumper”, is completely above suspicion. His remit is to ensure stronger integration of the unit into the overall Bundeswehr system.

On the one hand, tribal cultures had the potential to strain the institutional structure of armed forces through their countervailing interpretations. But they were also able to stabilize the vertical cohesion of the armed forces, because they provided an emotional home for soldiers. They formulated comprehensible interpretation offerings, which a political and military leadership that was sometimes detached from security policy reality was obviously unable to offer. In the 1990s, when everyone was talking about peace and many a lecturer at the higher educational institutions of the Bundeswehr took delight in redefining soldiers as social workers, some of the combat troops retained an awareness that they were not primarily cultural brokers, mediators or development aid workers, but ultimately combatants. Only as such was it possible for the troops in any way to fulfill their missions in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. When the Inspector General forbade himself from issuing overly critical situation reports, and ministers stuck to a denial of reality, the official narrative had little bonding force. Faced with unfulfillable missions on the ground and hearing no answers to their questions from the political or military leadership, many soldiers withdrew into their own worlds. It was important that the tribal cultures then provided a place of retreat that remained connected to the institution, at least in the vast majority of cases.

Whether this detachment had at the same time a political dimension, which in extreme cases could lead to radicalization, also depended very much on the superiors. It was mostly up to them to set limits. In Afghanistan, there were patches that were certainly not in line with the values and norms of the Basic Law, and there were also rustic discourses about the country and its people that were hardly in accordance with the official tone. Some officers tolerated this because they saw themselves as part of a community at war, to whom different standards applied than during peacetime. It should of course be asked what the consequences of this development were. Certainly the human skulls scandal of 2006 comes to mind. However, no incidents even coming close to war crimes were reported involving the Bundeswehr. Thus an alienation from society’s frame of reference does seem to have been present, but overall it was limited. A certain degree of “useful illegality” (Stefan Kühl) was accepted, but not allowed to get out of hand. Admittedly, this only worked because the extent of the fighting remained limited in the years 2009 to 2011, and the soldiers experienced skirmishes, but no extended battles.

In the long history of the Bundeswehr, tribal cultures in the different branches of service have mainly been a stabilizing factor in the cohesive fabric of the armed forces, despite some inappropriate developments. As a subsidiary system, they reflected the specific features of the very different soldierly cultures, which the organization as a whole was hardly able to do. As a result, they were closer to the soldiers’ social praxis, and strengthened the soldiers’ bonds with the Bundeswehr through special customs and traditions, but also through a language that was “species-appropriate”. In view of the constant overburdening of troops, militarily often senseless deployments, and a notable dysfunctionality of the organizational structures, it is thanks in considerable part to the tribal cultures that any missions have been fulfilled at all over the past 30 years. This conclusion is particularly true of the much-maligned special forces.

1 Recorded in BArch-MA, N 666/72.

2 For a detailed account, see Nägler, Frank (2010): Der gewollte Soldat und sein Wandel. Personelle Rüstung und Innere Führung in den Aufbaujahren der Bundeswehr 1956 bis 1964/65. Munich.

3 For a detailed recent discussion see Holz, Nicolas (2021): Zurück in die Zukunft. Empfehlungen zur Wiederentdeckung und Weiterentwicklung der Inneren Führung. Berlin.

4 The British Army names six values – courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment – which are briefly described in the guidance documents.

Cf. also (accessed November 21, 2021).

5 Documented in Neitzel, Sönke (2020): Deutsche Krieger. Vom Kaiserreich zur Berliner Republik. Eine Militärgeschichte. 5th ed. Berlin, p. 357.

6 On this point, see Biehl, Heiko (2010): Kampfmoral und Kohäsion als Forschungsgegenstand. In: Apelt, Maja (ed.): Forschungsthema: Militär. Militärische Organisationen im Spannungsfeld von Krieg, Gesellschaft und soldatischen Subjekten. Wiesbaden, pp. 139−162; Neitzel (2020), pp. 16f.

7 Cf. in particular Wiesendahl, Elmar (2010): Athen oder Sparta – Bundeswehr quo vadis? Bremen.

8 Observation visit 28/98 at Luftlande-/Lufttransportschule Altenstadt on April 22/23, 1998, BArch-MA 2/31927.



Sönke Neitzel was appointed Professor of Military History / Cultural History of Violence at the University of Potsdam in 2015. Previously, he taught and conducted research at Mainz, Bern, Saarbrücken and Glasgow universities, as well as at the London School of Economics (LSE). Recent publications: “Deutsche Krieger. Vom Kaiserreich zur Berliner Republik. Eine Militärgeschichte” (2020) and together with Bastian Matteo Scianna: “Blutige Enthaltung. Deutschlands Rolle im Syrienkrieg” (2021).