Manhood rites – Violent rituals, sexual assault and right-wing extremism in the German armed forces
The Joint Service Regulation on Innere Führung (literally “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”) says the following about the model of the mature “citizen in uniform”, who is bound by his conscience: “Bundeswehr personnel fulfill their mission when they actively stand up for human dignity, freedom, peace, justice, equality, solidarity and democracy as the guiding values of our state” – and hence the German armed forces – “out of inner conviction.”1 According to the German “Act Concerning the Legal Status of Soldiers” (Soldatengesetz), the cohesion that this requires is essentially based on camaraderie. Its norms, however, are not implemented solely from the top down in linear chains of command and obedience. Rather, according to the sociologist Stefan Kühl, these norms of camaraderie are formed “in the shadow of the official formal organization – through the autonomous, self-initiated actions of members of the armed forces.”2
From research on rituals, we have known since Émile Durkheim that ritualized action is constitutive for the generation, consolidation and representation of community ties. This also includes the assurance of belonging to the respective reference group, and its internal differentiation through the assignment of particular roles. In the Bundeswehr, this certainly applies to well-known official military rituals and ceremonies such as the oath of enlistment or the Großer Zapfenstreich (“Grand Tattoo”). But how can we place the bizarre and mostly humiliating rituals of violence and disgust in the Bundeswehr in this context? Here too, the rituals are an autonomously active form of self-empowerment, with which the personnel involved aim to create and consolidate a camaraderie-based sense of community. But this ritual bonding takes place through offensive, often even illegal actions. These disrespect, contradict and harm the model of a soldier as a responsible citizen who has the ability – as is postulated of him – to resolve conflicts and make peace in a spirit of humanity. In the incidents that have come to light in the recent years in the Staufer barracks in Pfullendorf, in a Gebirgsjäger (mountain infantry) battalion in Bad Reichenhall, in parts of the Special Forces Command (KSK), among German Panzergrenadiere (motorized infantry) in Lithuania and in the guard battalion at the German Federal Ministry of Defense, it is also striking that the bizarre and violent rituals are regularly accompanied by sexual harassment and assaults, as well as expressions of right-wing extremism, conspiracy theories or anti-Semitism.
What are the deeper causes of this ritual behavior? From a socio-psychological perspective, what is at the core of these boundary-transgressing rule violations, and how are they linked to each other in the military context? This essay will explore the idea that all three phenomena – especially the rituals that are the main focus – can be understood as an attempt at a exclusively male self-initiation. According to this hypothesis, this ritual self-initiation is borne of the more or less unconscious desire to establish and strengthen a group masculinity that is ready to fight, kill and make sacrifices, through the forceful and bodily overcoming of what is considered to be feminine, non-masculine civility. Official military training in large part also serves this goal, but seems to be perceived as insufficient. Thus an exclusive subculture with a male-bonding character is formed time and again, especially at the level of lower ranks, to which newcomers must prove their affiliation. The soldiers involved give expression to a masculine and at the same time nationalistic concept of honor, which is intended to ward off the elementary fear of being regarded and ostracized as someone who is marked as female and/or homosexual and denounced as a “weakling”, “loser” or as an unreliable “failure”.3 The underlying traditional, archaic and warlike ideal of masculinity is compatible with the heroic male image of the new right. This is surely one of the main sources of the affinities with right-wing extremism that keep coming to light in the Bundeswehr.4
Now, with regard to this obvious susceptibility to initiation rituals as well as to sexist and right-wing extremist ideologies of inequality and violence, it is frequently pointed out that the Bundeswehr is a “mirror of society”, and that it is therefore no wonder that the same negative phenomena spread there to a similar extent as in the world outside the military. That is no doubt true, albeit with a significant qualification that will be discussed later. But if we take the idea of the Bundeswehr as a mirror of society seriously, then it makes sense first to look at society as a whole, and in particular at the still predominant structures of gender relations. These have for some time been characterized by erosion and, as a consequence, in particular by a struggle to maintain male dominance – a struggle that plays out in various social arenas. The military is one of these arenas of masculinity.
In postmodern Western societies, traditional gender relations have been in flux for some time, influenced by progress in equal opportunities. However, these changes remain largely superficial as long as the underlying structures of a gender order that is still asymmetrical and hierarchical remain fundamentally untouched. According to the sociologist Sylka Scholz, these superficial changes conceal and deny above all the “intellectual and moral dominance of male value and order systems”: It still applies in gender relations, despite all modernizations, and is linked to the “production of a hierarchical two-sex culture”. There is a fundamental core to this culture of inequality: the “masculine is considered the norm and superior to the feminine,” while the feminine continues to be regarded as subordinate, inferior and of lesser value.5
This system of male dominance is deeply embedded in the cultural order of society and in largely unconscious patterns of perception and attitudes (not only those of men). This means that men in male-dominated societies are still subject to a more or less strong pressure to emphasize differences compared to women, to ascribe values to these perceptions of difference, and to posit themselves not only as a different gender, but fundamentally as the more important and superior gender. This self-positing must be protected and – “in case of need” – proven. As a cultural construct, masculinity in this light can be understood as a fragile condition, susceptible to crises. In the event of conflicts – which are always also experienced as a crisis of masculinity – this condition must be repaired or even created anew. In other words, at the center of the self-image of a culture built on hierarchical gender oppositions is the image of an intact and autonomous, yet permanently threatened masculinity.
This threat is particularly evident in the field of sexuality, because a man’s desire directed toward women according to the norm of heterosexuality makes him highly dependent: dependent on his own desire and, with this fixation, at the same time dependent on the women onto whom his sexuality remains programmed. Under these conditions, the man is nowhere weaker and (seemingly) more subject to outside control than in the field of sexuality. Thus he experiences an inescapable dilemma: an irresolvable conflict between a compulsive desire for autonomy and a deep-seated fear of dependency. The consequence is the development of a defensiveness and readiness to fight in a crisis, at the unconscious core of which is an ambivalent attitude toward femininity, characterized by fear, desire and a hostility extending all the way to hatred, as well as toward anything threatening that is unconsciously marked as feminine: signs of “weakness”, which are perceived as not masculine, associated with women and femininity, and can now, if necessary, be vigorously fought against in the outside world as legitimate “self-defense”. Psychologically, this is one of the main sources of all forms of everyday sexism up to and including manifest sexual and sexualized violence in civilian society and everyday life. And therefore also, if we continue with the idea of the Bundeswehr as a mirror of society, in everyday military life and finally even in the everyday life of war. Sexism and sexual assaults in the military, but especially the rapes that occur in almost all wars, are a powerful attestation to this. Sexual violence in war is not only a specific mixture of sexual desire, power and violence as a means of war strategy. It is always at the same time also a kind of elementary proof of manhood.6
Seen in this light, the internal rituals of the Bundeswehr, which are repeatedly downplayed – even from within the Bundeswehr itself – as important “group-stabilizing elements”, are not mere late-pubertal tests of courage by immature young men who have gotten a little out of hand, but will eventually calm down of their own accord. Rather, they should be understood as a self-chosen means of generating an intact soldierly masculinity, which has to prove itself ready to defend and fight if its integrity is threatened – all the way to overcoming the taboo of killing. And here, in the training in the use of weapons and in the associated generation of the readiness to kill and be killed, we find the key difference compared to similar male self-initiations outside of the armed forces.
Of course everyday military life and combat deployments cannot be simply reduced to this gender dimension, but they cannot be adequately understood without considering how it operates. While the staged rituals of violence may contradict the soldierly ideal of Innere Führung, they do not fundamentally contradict the masculinity-forming goals and tasks which are in any case inherent in military training as a form of organized transition from a civilian to a military masculinity.
Military socialization and gender
Neither the greater integration of women into the armed forces nor the transformation of traditional interstate wars into new asymmetrical ones or into modern, professional high-tech warfare have fundamentally changed the fact that the military and war still have a profoundly male character. “More than almost any other sphere of life, the military determines the construction of masculinity and is itself highly imbued with masculinity.”7 This refers not only to the long military tradition that continues to shape the military today, as well as the dominance of men in the armed forces in terms of numbers, but above all to the values and norms of behavior which are embodied therein and which determine the training of soldiers. Even after the suspension of compulsory military service, the German armed forces remain an influential institution for producing the prevailing construct of masculinity. And this construct includes the self-image of an intact, but multifariously threatened group masculinity, whose militarization within a homosocial fighting community promises protection and successful immunization against these threats.
In his affirmative justification of the exclusively male character of the military and war, one of the best-known military historians, Martin van Creveld, sums up this aspect naively and almost cynically in gender ideology terms. War, according to van Creveld, is and remains a proof of masculinity that is necessary both in terms of culture and developmental psychology. Necessary because, in contrast to the development of female childbearing capacity, there is no biological transition of the boy to manhood, and consequently the boy must first be made male through cultural rites. This generation of masculinity, van Creveld says, can only be done by men themselves, since it is mainly about finally dissolving the bond with the mother and expelling the “female substance” from the bodies and souls of the young adolescents. Only such an initiation can overcome this dependency on women and halfway immunize the boys against future female influences, which are closely associated with an imagining of female sexuality accompanied by desire, fear and envy. But since, van Creveld continues, there is no longer any traditional tribal initiation in developed societies, social institutions such as the military must inevitably take over this function of overcoming femininity. And in the final analysis – in a conclusion that glorifies masculinity and disdains women – he concludes that no field of activity is more suited “to confirming masculinity than war”. In view of the “superior sexual and reproductive qualities of women”, war offers men the opportunity to finally prove “what they are good for”. And so war offers to “the human personality” – which in van Creveld’s androcentric view is of course the male personality – “a good opportunity to fully develop.”8
This reads like a manual for male initiation in a warlike, patriarchal, tribal society. From a critical point of view, this heroizing glorification of war means that belonging to the military and participating in war both have the character of a hypervirile, exclusively male rebirth with initiation-like features, through which traces of the maternal are eliminated and thus the influence of fear-inducing images of femininity is warded off. “The military initiation rite,” as Eva Kreisky succinctly puts it, “lets one enter the world of ‘true’ masculinity.”9 From this perspective, wars also serve to mobilize, deploy and prove this militarized masculinity, which is oriented toward defense and fighting, and to repair its subjectivity, which is experienced as threatened or even damaged.
How and by what methods is this construct of soldierly masculinity created? At the center of military socialization, at the core of which is socialization to kill – a fact which is often willingly forgotten – there is a fundamental reconstruction of the personality: the transformation of a “civilian self” into a “military self”. For Markus Euskirchen, this means: “First, the young man – during basic training – is partially broken down, reconfigured and rebuilt.” The subsequent “restructuring” of the young men “takes place under the promise of a super-masculinity, to be acquired collectively.”10 One of the most important means of this restructuring is the development and channeling of mechanisms for processing the fears generated by military training and massively amplified under deployment conditions. The fears are thus to be transformed into an aggressive imagining of the enemy – and that means, in a spirit of camaraderie and with esprit de corps, to be warded off and transformed into the seemingly justified fight against an external enemy. In this way, fear can be transformed into hostility, hatred and cruelty.
This transformation into a masculinity more or less geared to war as a part – operating as smoothly as possible – of a killing machinery ready to defend and fight starts first of all with the recruits’ bodies. The physical training practices and their methods of hardening, fatiguing, strengthening, punishing and so on are intended to put the soldiers’ bodies and therefore their minds into a state of controlled self-discipline and continuous vigilance, with the constant possibility of criticism and punishment.
The classical characteristics of this military-masculine bodily self include strength, courage, determination, an aggressive willingness to fight, toughness, discipline, unconditional devotion and obedience, a spirit of camaraderie, bravery, tenacity and a willingness to make sacrifices. The characteristics must be inscribed, as it were, in the soldier’s body and soul during the military socialization. This canon of soldierly values also makes clear, as already indicated, what does not belong to it: everything that is considered the opposite of this militarily upgraded masculinity and is typically denounced as feminine (or “gay”) and categorized under the labels “wimp”, “wuss” etc. And it is precisely in this context that the so-called “initiation rituals” belong, which are therefore primarily assigned the function of proving masculinity.
The bizarre initiation rituals of the Gebirgsjäger in Mittenwald, which hit the headlines in February 2010, are a good (or rather: bad) example. In order to advance as a “Fux” – a prospective member of the “Hochzugskult”, an internal team hierarchy – the novices had to eat raw pig’s liver and rollmops stuffed with fresh yeast to the point of vomiting, drink excessive amounts of alcohol and – not without titillation for a community of male soldiers – perform naked climbing exercises in front of their assembled colleagues. Only those who had endured and survived these tests were henceforth considered to be “real” Gebirgsjäger.
With this knowledge in mind, these rituals and tests of toughness within the team must be classified as something that is largely ignored in the public debate (which is usually quickly stirred up and then, just as quickly, dies down again): they are rituals of a militarized masculinity whose warlike-heroic component is not held in check and overcome by performed rituals, as many assume, but rather is specifically engendered and reinforced.
The logic of male initiation
But how far can we take the comparison made here – comparing military socialization and humiliating Bundeswehr rituals with traditional male initiation rites? In all male-dominated societies, initiation or an analogous, more or less organized transition of status is the most important way to produce and secure culturally desired masculinity. According to Arnold van Gennep’s fundamental model of “rites de passage”, male rites of passage follow a basic three-phase scheme, consisting of a phase of separation (la séparation), a phase of exclusion (la marge) and a phase of reintegration (l’agrégation):10 After a radical, often violent separation from the feminine world, initiands are subjected to complex stagings and often painful tests, to drive out all trace of the female from their minds and bodies, and to overcome the fears henceforth associated with the image of a threatening femininity. Only after the staging of a symbolic death and a subsequent second birth – a social rebirth in the exclusive group of adult men – is a return to the female world possible, now as a “real”, “potent” and usually also warlike man.12
However, the findings of recent relevant ethnological research show that immunization against the supposed dangers emanating from women, and especially their sexuality, which is perceived to be threatening, is never completely successful.13 Masculinity, acquired through initiation or, as in our societies, through initiation-like paths, remains fundamentally a fragile and permanently threatened state. As pointed out earlier, the greatest dangers, even after the virile rebirth (and then perhaps all the more so) appear to come from women, female sexuality and all those relationships and conditions that are perceived as weakening, debilitating, as a loss of the integrity and autonomy associated with one’s own sex. This is why working on and with the male body – as it were, the most important bearer of the initiating rituals – is so important. Rituals cannot exist without this reference to the body.
Applying this to the self-staged rites of passage in the military, we see with regard to the role of the body and sexuality that soldiers experience a dilemma: sexuality is elemental to the ideal of male virility and strength, but of course this means exclusively heterosexuality. Homosexuality is still deeply frowned upon, and this is reinforced by the rituals. In the case of the Gebirgsjäger in Mittenwald, this sexual dimension is put on physical display: the climbing exercises, performed naked, demonstrate that the soldiers’ bodies belong to the whole group. Not only for the purpose of hardening, but also to control possible sexual temptations, which – as if playing with fire – are simultaneously incited and kept at bay in voyeuristic form. The posing of members of the Gebirgsjäger with skulls next to their exposed and erect genitals during their deployment in Afghanistan in 2003 serves a similar purpose. There is a striking proximity of sexuality, death and potency in a soldierly masculinity exposed to existential fears under conditions of war.
But where specifically does this leave the soldiers’ sexuality, which is constantly mobilized, regarded and used as a means of demonstrating potency and superiority? The theme of sexuality is constantly present in the military, but at the same time it is subject to taboos. Part of the soldier’s self-image is a rugged heterosexuality that is regarded as part of the “natural order” and tolerates no deferral. This should not be misunderstood as a “sexual need” that builds up; rather it is a “needed” proof of manhood for reasons of prestige and camaraderie, which is often expressed in the demonstratively increased, group-stabilizing consumption of pornography and prostitution. Here the bodily dimension comes into play again, because from this perspective, which determines male patterns of perception, attitude and action, the principle applies: the man has a body that he can control, manipulate, and use as an instrument, if necessary as a weapon. The woman, by contrast, is a body and therefore potentially an object to be grabbed. Sexual harassment and even assaults against female colleagues find their (psycho)logical core and their unconscious legitimization here.
Of course these reflections are not aimed sweepingly at the entire Bundeswehr culture. But the boundary-transgressing manhood rites as well as the sexist and right-wing extremist incidents associated with them cannot be adequately understood and effectively combated without a systematic consideration of the gender perspective touched on here. What does this imply for practice? While it is difficult to derive specific, prescriptive suggestions from what has been said, some basic conclusions can at least be outlined. First, there is the need for an independent “up-to-date and unreserved analysis of the situation that goes beyond listing ‘incidents’”, as the historian Klaus Naumann has called for. The establishment of a coordination office for suspected extremist incidents in the German Ministry of Defense is probably not enough. Such an investigation would include questions “about the structural affinities between the military and the far right, the self-reinforcing mechanisms of military-political socialization, and the significance of subcultural milieus for the shaping of political attitudes and their radicalization.”14 Again, this can only succeed if the gender dimension is included in the investigation of these three fields. In view of the fact that more than every second female member of the Bundeswehr experiences at least one form of sexual harassment in her everyday life with the troops15, this especially applies to day-to-day educational work and to the focus of political education. However, the fight against right-wing extremism and against all forms of sexism as well as the associated militarized ideas of masculinity is not a task exclusively for the Bundeswehr but one for society as a whole.
In the Bundeswehr, this necessary sanctioning and preventive work is made considerably more difficult by the fundamental contradiction that was pointed out at the beginning: the deep gulf between the ideal of civically and morally responsible military personnel, and ritual bonding to form a camaraderie that is ready to defend and fight, with – since the experiences of overseas deployments – an increasing renaissance of the archaic model of warlike masculinity. In view of this gulf, Graf von Baudissin’s dictum of a “demilitarization of the soldierly self-image” is a noble ideal, but in practice it can only be implemented approximately. Yet precisely because this ideal is not fully achievable in the spirit of Innere Führung, all measures that strengthen this approximation must be applied and intensified. In contrast to a still widespread culture of denial, concealment and trivialization, it is important that everyone involved has a firmly established awareness of this contradiction. The esprit de corps built on male camaraderie suggests a continuum of a contradiction-free community that in reality does not exist. This gulf and the accompanying typical crises and conflicts must be accepted, embraced and endured. This also requires an openly reflective and self-reflective way of dealing with those emotions and feelings that are repeatedly denounced as unmanly, weak, and therefore, according to military logic, unfit. In particular, it is necessary to deal with personal fears before they are transformed into a potential of hostility and hatred through bonding drills and ritual tests of toughness. With a certain pathos, to borrow an aphorism from Theodor W. Adorno that was intended for a different context, it is a matter of creating and permitting conditions, especially for the soldier, “where you [too] may show yourself weak without provoking strength”.16
1 German Federal Ministry of Defense (2017): Zentrale Dienstvorschrift – Innere Führung. Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur. https://www.bmvg.de/resource/blob/13998/01082632986ceeb2c82c36c61785fec9/b-01-02-01-download1-data.pdf (accessed October 29, 2021). (Translation from German.)
2 Kühl, Stefan (2017): Über Kameradschaft in der Bundeswehr – und ihre Erosion. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/die-gegenwart/bundeswehr-stefan-kuehl-ueber-erosion-von-kameradschaft-15181715-p2.html (accessed October 29, 2021). (Translation from German.)
3 Cf. Pohl, Rolf and Roock, Marco (2011): Sozialpsychologie des Krieges: Der Krieg als Massenpsychose und die Rolle der militärisch-männlichen Kampfbereitschaft. In: Jäger, Thomas and Beckmann, Rasmus (eds.): Handbuch Kriegstheorien. Wiesbaden, pp. 45−53, p. 51. (Translation from German.)
4 Cf. Naumann, Klaus (2020): Nicht ganz dicht am rechten Rand? Rechtsextremismus und Rechtspopulismus als Probleme der Bundeswehr. In: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (ed.): Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte: Militär. Vol. 16−17, pp. 25−30.
5 Scholz, Sylka (2004): „Hegemoniale Männlichkeit“ – Innovatives Konzept oder Leerformel? In: Hertzfeldt, Hella, Schäfgen, Katrin and Veth, Silke (eds.): GeschlechterVerhältnisse. Analysen aus Wissenschaft, Politik und Praxis. Berlin, pp. 33−45, p. 41. (Translation from German.)
6 Cf. Pohl, Rolf (2012): Die Zerstörung der Frau als Subjekt: Macht und Sexualität als Antriebskräfte männlicher Vergewaltigungsstrategien im Krieg. In: Gender Initiativkolleg (ed.): Gewalt und Handlungsmacht. Queer Feministische Perspektiven. Frankfurt am Main, pp. 113−124.
7 Apelt, Maja and Dittmer, Cordula (2007): “Under pressure” – Militärische Männlichkeiten im Zeichen Neuer Kriege und veränderter Geschlechterverhältnisse. In: Bereswill, Mechthild, Meuser, Michael and Scholz, Sylka (eds.): Dimensionen der Kategorie Geschlecht: Der Fall Männlichkeit. Münster, p. 68. (Translation from German).
8 van Creveld, Martin (2001): Frauen und Krieg. Munich, pp. 182−190. (Translation from German.)
9 Kreisky, Eva (2003): Fragmente zum Verständnis des Geschlechts des Krieges. https://docplayer.org/35071022-Fragmente-zum-verstaendnis-des-geschlechts-des-krieges.html (accessed October 31, 2021), p. 7. (Translation from German.)
10 Euskirchen, Markus (2005): Das Zeremoniell der Bundeswehr: Banalisierung von Staatsgewalt durch Militärrituale. In: Thomas, Tanja und Virchow, Fabian (eds.): Banal Militarism. Zur Veralltäglichung des Militärischen im Zivilen. Bielefeld, pp. 193. (Translation from German.)
11 Gennep, Arnold van (1909): Übergangsriten (Les rites de passage). Frankfurt a. M. (1999).
12 Cf. Pohl, Rolf (2004/2019): Feindbild Frau. Männliche Sexualität, Gewalt und die Abwehr des Weiblichen. Hannover, pp. 37−97.
13 Particularly compelling in Godelier, Maurice (1986): The Making of Great Men. Male Domination and Power among the New Guinea Baruya. Cambridge.
14 Naumann, Klaus (2020), p. 25. (Translation from German.)
15 www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2014-01/bundeswehr-frauen-sexuelle-belaestigung (accessed 23 November 2021).
16 Adorno, Theodor W. (1951): Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben. Frankfurt a. M. (1971), p. 255. (Translation from German.)
Rolf Pohl studied history, political science, sociology and psychology. Until 2017, he was Professor of Social Psychology at Leibniz University Hannover. He is one of the founding members and coordinators of the Working Group on Political Psychology; he is also a member of the Society for Psychoanalytic Social Psychology (GfpS), and a member of the advisory board of medica mondiale e.V. His work focuses on topics in the fields of political psychology and gender research. His major publication is the book “Feindbild Frau. Männliche Sexualität, Gewalt und die Abwehr des Weiblichen” (new edition 2019).