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While still upheld in official statements as the leadership philosophy of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr), in public opinion and off the record Innere Führung is not infrequently dismissed as an outdated model. Does it face the same fate as compulsory military service? 

Innere Führung – or “leadership development and civic education” – has been widely regarded as the trademark of the Bundeswehr during its 60-year history. After German reunification, Innere Führung was even spoken of as a global export hit. And yet, itwas never the universally beloved child of the armed forces. There was often fierce controversy over its principles and what they mean with regard to troops’ readiness for duty. 

What is the situation today? Many soldiers have heard about Innere Führung at some point; some are familiar with it; many have no idea what it is. It should really be expected of the next generation of leaders that they would take a lively interest in the leadership philosophy of the Bundeswehr. However, sharp criticism has come from the ranks of younger officers, culminating in the verdict that this philosophy has become obsolete. In the best case, they say, it is a relict from times long past. 

How did it happen that a leadership philosophy which regards itself as a dynamic concept now sparks hardly any interest in its continued development? Did the guardians of Innere Führung take their task too seriously, making it an inviolable but ultimately ever less convincing ideology? Is it even perhaps an instance of politically correct hyper-morality with no relevance to soldiers’ real environment? These are questions that hit the core of Innere Führung hard. First of all, it is therefore worth clarifying a few fundamental points.

Organizations need a leadership philosophy

It is indisputable that the Bundeswehr needs a leadership philosophy. Organizations have a leadership (or management) culture and they expect their members to have a self-image that satisfies the desired values and norms. As the scandal over car emissions tampering (“Dieselgate”) demonstrated, human misconduct can inflict considerable harm on an organization. There have been scandals in the German armed forces, too, such as the pictures of skulls from Afghanistan or the pretend rapes in the Coesfeld. Armed forces, like businesses, usually respond to such incidents with changes in their leadership culture and an increased focus on ethical education.

While they share some common features, there are differences between armed forces and civilian organizations which are reflected in the respective leadership philosophies. Owing to the nature of war, soldiers must be prepared to use force as part of their politically legitimized mandate. The demands placed on their sense of responsibility are correspondingly high. To ensure constant control by policy-makers as well as the execution of orders even in dangerous and uncertain situations, the principle of command and obedience applies. This produces tensions which individuals experience in their various roles as soldier, citizen, or family member. Further potential for conflict arises from civil-military relations, the integration of soldiers into post-heroic civil societies, and the leadership behavior of superiors. This is true of all armies in the Western world.

What is special about Innere Führung?

Like the leadership philosophies in other armies, Innere Führung is also characterized by specific national features. Some of its principles can only be understood in light of German history prior to 1945 as well as German politics and society in the aftermath of the Second World War.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the concept of Innere Führung was devised for the new armed forces which the young Federal Republic of Germany assembled to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union. The team in charge, headed by Wolf Graf von Baudissin, was in search for a dialogue with the public. At the time, the majority of Germans were against rearmament. Former soldiers of the Wehrmacht had to be motivated to help establish the new armed forces. A willingness to communicate, both internally and externally, remains a key characteristic of Innere Führung to this day. In this case, talks are not subject to the principle of command and obedience. Instead, discussions should take place in a spirit of partnership and on an equal basis, regardless of the rank and status of dialog partners. When it comes to questions about their self-image, soldiers in a sense enter an area of freedom that lies beyond the realm of the military hierarchy. All dialog partners are encouraged to participate with informed opinions, i.e. opinions based on scientific evidence and political education. Neither idle talk nor political correctness satisfies these requirements. 

Leadership philosophies also draw lessons from history. In Germany after 1945, this learning resulted in a radical break. The Reichswehr as a state within a state and the Wehrmacht as the instrument of a criminal regime were insufficient as models for an army in a democracy. The impact on the Bundeswehr’s sense of tradition was particularly severe as broad periods and numerous actors in German history were excluded because they were part of an inappropriate heritage. In contrast, the armies of many allies could look back on an unbroken tradition. 

Another key difference when comparing Innere Führung to the leadership philosophies of allies consists in the primacy of conscience. The trauma of the Wehrmacht’s ensnarement in a war of extermination explains why a legal obligation was placed on soldiers of the Bundeswehr  to consider whether orders and instructions are legal and lawful, and whether they are compatible with their conscience. This sets a high moral standard for every individual. By recognizing resistance against Nazism as a line of tradition, this standard was entrenched in the centre of the soldier’s self-image and also communicated externally as a moral commitment. 

Moreover, the way in which superiors treated the soldiers under their command had to be different than the leadership behavior that was reflected in caricatures of Prussian-German armies prior to 1945. Degrading and inhumane treatment is just as impermissible as moral cowardice. Education in responsibility and the encouragement of thoughtful obedience became the foremost task of every superior. Mission-type tactics (Auftragstaktik), or as it is called today, leading by mission (Führen mit Auftrag), was therefore an integral part of Innere Führung from the beginning. This leadership principle, which was introduced back in the 19th century, meant carrying out orders independently, solely on the basis of defined objectives and with the resources provided. Independence required deviating from orders if the situation had fundamentally changed and it was not possible to consult with superiors. However, this handed-down leadership principle was expanded by Innere Führung in that leading by mission was understood not just purely in military terms but also politically. It was supposed to be not simply a matter of carrying out a military order in the most effective way possible, but also of considering beforehand whether the likely outcome of one’s action in fact served the political purpose. In this way, the soldier came to share responsibility for the political objectives that were to be achieved. The concept of leading by mission or mission-type tactics was therefore expanded to become leading with a politically justified mission, a “mission strategy.” Politics is therefore an indispensable element of soldierly professionalism. Herein lies the actual, deeper meaning of the concept of the “citizen in uniform.” Innere Führung therefore places extremely high demands on the intellect and character of soldiers of all ranks. 

The historical justification for Innere Führung based on the experiences of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi dictatorship is becoming much less relevant, especially for younger generations. They tend to look ahead to the new challenges. Hence greater attention focuses on the concept of conflict or war which incidentally played an extremely important role in the development phase of Innere Führung

The concept of war in Innere Führung

Baudissin and his staff observed that modern wars are not a continuation of the Second World War. They developed a more complex understanding of conflict, for which they used the term “permanent war of world citizens” (permanenter Weltbürgerkrieg). This concept of war emphasized the temporally and regionally unbounded political and ideological character of modern conflicts whose objectives could be found in the hearts and minds of citizens in and out of uniform. Battles and skirmishes are, according to Baudissin, “... now only one part of an intellectual warfare that attacks all territories, which knows no fundamental differences between war and peace.” 

Not only the democratic system of the still-young Federal Republic of Germany and the lessons from history, but also the concept of war demanded a clear political justification for the Bundeswehr’s mission, the deep integration of society and the armed forces, and dignified treatment of people. This was intended as a way of increasing the resilience of politics, society and the armed forces for the ideological confrontation with the Soviet communism at the time. Only through political strength, social cohesion, and political education of all citizens, among whom soldiers form the “spearhead,” would it be possible in the long run to preserve peace and motivate the opponent in the competition of systems to change his views.  

Thus, Innere Führung also placed an emphasis on “soft power” because the concept of war required this as a compliment to purely military strike power. Accordingly, the 1957 Innere Führung manual states: “In our situation of rebuilding the armed forces, the only legitimate question is: how can the German armed forces in the middle of the 20th century be organized as an instrument of maximum effectiveness?” Military effectiveness, however, was based on (socio-)political and ethical conditions which needed to be created and made permanent via Innere Führung in light of the (also intellectual) warfare being perpetrated by the former Soviet Union. 

Given the new challenges, especially those resulting from hybrid warfare, this concept is more current than ever. Actors who operate in a hybrid manner use complex hybrid military forms which they orchestrate, for example, by means of propaganda and economic pressure, by stirring up social tensions, and by prompting refugee movements. To fend off their attacks requires self-confident advocacy of the liberal values of an open, enlightened society, the solidarity of citizens in and out of uniform, and policies which justify the strategies to defend against threats, and which, for this purpose, seek a dialogue with the people. In this way, a country’s overall resilience increases and its resilience towards hybrid threats as well.

Innere Führung reloaded

Critics of Innere Führung often focus their arguments on survival in war and combat. They use simple concepts of war. Yet a return to pure military professionalism would be a capitulation before the complexity of new types of conflicts. 

Some critical statements are characterized more by prejudices than by extensive consideration of the numerous issues in the wide field of Innere Führung. There is a persistent prejudice which says that Innere Führung means making soldiers soft and weakening their discipline. However, reading just a few pages of the Innere Führung manual shows what enormous demands it places on soldiers. Given the complex security-policy challenges which could lead to a crisis with the character of a global catastrophe, it says that soldiers should continue with their development on a permanent basis. Anyone who travels this hard road sets their inner compass. This allows them to act professionally with confidence and self-assurance even if there is ambiguity and uncertainty in the political and military realm. 

As a construct, Innere Führung is not easy to understand. However, this has to do with the nature of its subject, namely armed force. Reading, reflection, and discussions in the spirit of partnership are essential for a comprehensive understanding of Innere Führung and for its continued creative development. Suitable conditions should be put in place for this purpose in education and training facilities and among the troops. 

Innere Führung is close to the reality of war and deployment as it draws on conclusions from the analysis of the nature of conflict. This has a direct impact on the effectiveness of the troops. At the same time, it looks not only to the Bundes­wehr for input but also to politics and society. Innere Führung is therefore most certainly a critical leadership philosophy. In return, however, soldiers of all ranks are required to show more civil courage. Here it becomes clear that Innere Führung is not an autonomously acting matrix in the background. It is that what we are and what we as individuals make of it.

Establishing a more robust framework for military service requires a concerted effort on the part of the state, society, and the armed forces. Ongoing underfunding, legitimation deficits, disinterest, and excessive regulations geared towards establishing peace conditions  all impair the reaction speed and flexibility of the armed forces in complex conflicts. Innere Führung forms an overarching platform for critical, constructive debates and holistic solutions. This requires a new culture of dialogue which fosters trust and committed interest. Questions of self-image also require clarification: does the concept of civil society imply an exclusion of the soldier? Why does the citizen in uniform, despite the desire for esteem, find it so difficult to talk about their profession in public? The primacy of politics should also find expression through politicians explaining the political dimension of the soldier’s profession. Superiors should take care not to exaggerate their personal understanding of Innere Führung as a general moral standard, making it immune from criticism. To foster understanding, to strive to find shared beliefs, to think through alternatives – all of this would be much truer to the spirit of Innere Führung.