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Ethical Education – A Central Component of Training and ­Development in the ­German Armed Forces

Ethics and ethical competence

When we ask about the aims, relevance and methods of ethical education in the German armed forces (Bundeswehr), then on a basic level we first need to be clear what we are talking about. So what is ethics, exactly? Over millennia of human history, many definitions of ethics have been put forward. I would like to start with a definition taken from a recent introduction to ethics written by the Danish theologian Svend Andersen: “Ethics is a critical reflection on our ideas about the right or good ways for humans to act or conduct their lives.”1

Ethics is therefore about human action and life, from the perspective of what is good and right. Ethics is a normative discipline that makes judgments about what is right and good. All of us frequently make value judgements of this kind in our everyday lives. Do I choose sustainable products when I shop? Do I park in a disabled bay to save time? Is it a good thing that the German government is taking part in the sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean? We also make longer-term decisions, such as career choices, by weighing up different values. In this sense, we all have moral ideas about how we should live our lives. Individual and collective, simple and complex decisions – morality is part of everyday life. The special feature of ethics is that it examines these moral ideas in and of themselves, in their own right. So ethics is a reflective science, and this reflection takes place with critical intent: Is what I consider to be morally right still right when considered in a wider context? All human beings have moral intuitions that shape their thoughts and actions, but these do not always stand up to critical scrutiny. The criterion most central to ethical reflection is that of generalizability. To take one of the above examples: If I were a disabled person, how important would it be to me to have an accessible parking space? Can I cite good reasons that give me the right to take that person’s parking place? Does my own conscience accept these reasons, and would I be able to defend them in conversation with people close to me, or even before the general public? The “Koblenz Decision Check” (Koblenzer Entscheidungs-Check) developed at the Center for Leadership Development and Civic Education (Zentrum Innere Führung) of the German armed forces talks about the “fire of public opinion” through which every reflection and decision has to pass before it becomes an ethically legitimate act.2

Throughout its history, ethics has developed norms and values that usually pass this test. Ethical competence consists in (1) knowing, (2) internalizing (“embracing”) and (3) practicing ethically preferable ideas about the good life. The second point deserves particular attention, because those who have to think long and hard about their own ethical compass in every situation will tend to act unwittingly against moral norms in some situations. Moreover, ethical rules which have not been internalized tend to be violated out of opportunism. Someone whose only deterrent against theft is the fear of punishment is more likely to risk stealing as soon as no-one is looking than someone whose inner conviction tells them that stealing is wrong.

Aristotle spoke of attitudes practiced through habit as being that which constitutes the morally good life. This means that for the development of an ethical personality, it is the internalized ideas of the good life that matter – in other words, the values that give the persons as a whole their character and their “vision of life”. Ethical competence in this sense also means becoming aware that in many situations, ethically relevant norms and values may conflict with one another. Thus the moral duty to assist others in danger may challenge the principle of avoiding harming others wherever possible. Or the duty of obedience to one’s superiors may conflict with the principle of abiding by the law, if soldiers have been ordered to act unlawfully. Ethics cannot completely solve such moral dilemmas. But those who possess ethical competence will not be surprised to encounter these dilemmas in their work and everyday life, and will be better able to cope with them than those who rely solely on their moral impulses.

Ethical education

In light of the above, we now have a fairly clear idea of what ethical education is, how it should happen, and why it is a central aspect of human personality development.

The term “education”, in contrast to “training”, implies aptitudes and dispositions that already exist and “only” have to be formed or developed. Humans have moral intuitions, and this seems to be the case across cultures. Ethical education starts with these intuitions, but does not stop there. As already mentioned, ethics also involves a critical exploration of generalizability and possible contradictions in that which we intuitively consider to be morally right. Ethical education therefore involves a strongly cognitive aspect. Ethical knowledge (What are the moral standards that have emerged throughout human history?) and knowledge of reality (What are the expected consequences in a typical scenario of choosing this or that course of action?) undergo a synthesis. It is only through such reflection that a moral impulse becomes a solid moral attitude.

Together with knowledge and reflection, however, the element of practice mentioned above is also important. Ethical education is aimed at human action in practice, and should therefore always refer to concrete action situations. This situational aspect of education becomes more obvious if we consider a more general insight from social psychology: affectively based attitudes are best influenced at the emotional level, whereas cognitively based attitudes are best influenced at the cognitive level.3 Since many moral ideas are originally affect-based, ethical education in the classroom also includes practice and exploration through the conscious creation of morally relevant situations in which the moral emotions come into play – whether through watching a film or through direct experiences in the sense of experiential education.

Ethical education therefore takes place both in the realm of emotions (affectively) and in the realm of knowledge (cognitively), in the form of criticism, confirmation and the further development of given moral intuitions. In this way, affects can be consolidated into values.

Relevance of ethical education in the German armed forces

The Bundeswehr has declared that the ethical competence of its members, in line with the values of the Basic Law, is a central part of its self-image. It aims to realize these values through the concept of Innere Führung (officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”): “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, out of inner conviction.”4 Thus even at the time of the Himmerod memorandum, the greatest importance was attached to the teaching of ethics in the planned new institution. “The training of military personnel in the political and ethical sense should be given the greatest attention from the outset as part of their general service training. It must not be limited to purely military aspects.”5

As to the reasons why ethics should be relevant in this way, two lines of reasoning can be distinguished. The first reason for the importance of ethical education in the Bundeswehr is that it is where fundamental reflection on the Bundeswehr’s self-image and sense of purpose takes place. For this reason, education in the ethical field is prioritized over other educational efforts in specific areas. Ethical, historical and political education form a package and should not have to be played off against each other. Nevertheless, historical and political education rest on a foundation of ethical education. For example, if historical education is oriented toward an idea of tradition that we consider to be valuable, then it is oriented toward ethical standards. Explaining these standards is first and foremost the task of ethics teaching. One could almost regard historical and political education as examples of the situational form of ethical education mentioned above: in both forms of education, concrete scenarios are presented in which the Bundeswehr’s foundation of values and self-image are debated. Emotional engagement rather than a mere transfer of knowledge is an important learning goal, including in historical and political education.6 Ethical education also utilizes specific illustrative material.

The Bundeswehr is committed to certain values. Indeed, in keeping with the idea of “democracy able to defend itself” (wehrhafte Demokratie), it even sees the defense of these values as a justification for its existence. The Bundeswehr exists, and military personnel risk their health and their lives, because the democracy of the Basic Law and its binding values are subject to threats and have to be defended in and against foreign countries. It is the task of ethical education to explore this foundation of values and expose others to its persuasive force. In an important 1954 radio address on the concept of Innere Führung, Wolf Graf von Baudissin spoke of a “spirit [...] which is in full harmony with the moral foundations and essential forms of the free order of life.”7 Only those who have internalized these values – assisted by appropriate affective and cognitive educational efforts – can act on a sustained basis and “out of inner conviction” in accordance with the Bundes­wehr’s self-image.

In this context, the Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv A-2620/3 on Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (or “character guidance training”) speaks of an “ethical justification” of service in the Bundeswehr as being a crucial task for professional ethics education.8 In other words, it is about the reasons one has for serving in the military and the meaning one attaches to this service. Obtaining clarity in one’s own mind about this meaning is the essential basis which allows every soldier to fulfil their mission in the right way with motivation and conviction. From time to time, in military circles, one hears a critical dig made against ethics teaching, to the effect that it teaches soldiers to think too much and gets in the way of their mission. This idea should be vigorously refuted. Reflecting on the valuable foundations of one’s own professional existence is a prerequisite for gaining the inner conviction for correct, assured and motivated action in accordance with Innere Führung. There may be occasional cases where soldiers reflecting together on the core values of the Bundeswehr actually begin to doubt their own choice of career, as they feel unable to embrace the “ethical justification” of serving in the Bundeswehr. Yet in such cases it is good that these doubts surface as early as possible in ethics classes.

This brings us to the second line of reasoning for the relevance of ethical education in the Bundeswehr: the ethical competence of military personnel is crucially important for the quality of military mission fulfillment. In his review of the Bundeswehr’s Afghanistan mission, Rainer Glatz expressed this point as follows: “A high moral standard is thus – rightly – applied to the actions of military personnel. Misconduct by individual soldiers can be critical for the overall mission and lead to casualties.”9 In this context, he quotes from a memorandum that General Allen had written in response to the desecration of the bodies of Taliban fighters by U.S. soldiers: “We are guests in Afghanistan and partners of the Afghans. It is extremely important that we continue to gain their trust and understanding. It is paramount that we demonstrate the highest standards of professionalism, morality and ethics – at all times, in all our actions and in all places. There must be no exceptions.”10

Intercultural competence is particularly important in this regard. It is a sub-component of ethical competence in that it goes far beyond the kind of intercultural knowledge that can be learned in crash courses. Intercultural competence implies an integral attitude of the entire personality that is bound to moral values such as respect and tolerance.11 Its increased relevance can be seen not only in overseas deployments, but also in multinational contingents, and even within the Bundeswehr itself, which is also a mirror of German society in as much as it reflects diversity of different cultures and ways of life.12 Social scientists Sven Bernhard Gareis and Ulrich vom Hagen studied the Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC NE) in Szczecin, Poland, and reached the following conclusion: “One of the essential tasks for the political and military leadership therefore is to recognize and act upon the fact that investing in so-called soft skills to facilitate multinational interaction proves to be extremely valuable for achieving hard military goals.”13 Similar sentiments can be found in an essay by the psychologist Stefan Kammhuber: “Compared to spending on (failed) military technology developments, investment in a sustained institutionalization of intercultural expertise is negligible. Ignoring intercultural expertise in the long run will result in losses – financial, and – much worse – human.”14

On an even more fundamental level, and before any intercultural component, the relevance of ethical education can be seen in individual cases of misconduct at Bundeswehr sites. The annual reports by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragter des Deutschen Bundestages) show how what is often referred to as the “morale of the troops” is undermined by individual morally reprehensible actions and a lack of moral leadership responsibility on the part of superiors: “Readers of the [Parliamentary Commissioner’s] report wonder why it is still [...] necessary to monitor the implementation of Innere Führung so closely and, above all, why it is still necessary, by means of the report, each year anew to impress the principles of Innere Führung on our military personnel. Yet it should also be asked what these and similar problematic behaviors by superiors and fellow soldiers mean for the people serving in uniform in the German armed forces. Their trust in the institution to which they voluntarily belong may be harmed, or they may even be traumatized by their experiences.”15

Ethical reflection might sometimes result in slower decisions and actions.16 But who would not want to pay this price, if it meant that mistakes and trauma could be avoided?

A passage from the 2006 White Paper provides a neat summary for this section: “New tasks demand new capabilities. Particularly in stabilization operations, a resolute and confident manner and assertiveness must be accompanied by a sense of ethical responsibility as well as social, intercultural and foreign-language skills.”17 The latest White Paper does not contain any such passage emphasizing an ethical sense of responsibility on the part of military personnel. Regrettably, overall it focuses more on the small details of specific current security policy scenarios rather than setting out more far-reaching statements.

Thus there are good practical reasons for ascribing central importance to ethical education in the Bundeswehr. In the narrower sense, however, these reasons are just considerations of usefulness. They do not touch on the question raised at the outset about the right and good way of life, so they can only be asserted in an accompanying capacity. Ethics, meanwhile, is about inner convictions whose validity is independent of the immediate practical benefit and may even contradict a strict functional logic. Nevertheless, in view of the previously mentioned critical digs at ethical reflection made in military circles, the purely functional rationale for ethical education is very important. Inner conviction cannot arise where practicability is called into question. If it is credibly demonstrated that the ethical education of military personnel is conducive to long-term mission fulfillment within the framework of values of the Basic Law, then the argument for ethical education is only strengthened.

Focus and dimensions of ethical education in the German armed forces

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, out of inner conviction.” This sentence quoted earlier from the Joint Service Regulation on Innere Führung names the core content of ethical education in the Bundeswehr. It can be summarized under the keyword of human rights education, since with human dignity as the starting point, we can arrive at the other six terms via the idea of human rights and its three dimensions – civil, political and economic-social-cultural. The idea of human rights is incorporated into the Basic Law via its section on “Fundamental Rights”; in addition, we should also recall the various supranational human rights conventions, agreements and declarations to which the Federal Republic of Germany is committed. Citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany are responsible, mature adults endowed with rights. The idea of the “citizen in uniform” expressly embodies this notion of maturity and responsibility while characterizing the concept of Innere Führung.

Therefore, in addition to the values mentioned in the quotation, ethical education in the Bundeswehr will have to address human rights and specific human rights issues. It will need to consider their reciprocity – as rights to which one is entitled, but also as rights which one has to concede to others, even military enemies. The relevant declarations, including the agreements of international humanitarian law, should form a compulsory component of the ethical curriculum in the Bundeswehr.

To this we can add classes on the most important theories of ethics (virtue ethics, deontological ethics, teleological ethics), which should cover the more cognitive elements of ethics teaching in the Bundeswehr.

When it comes to ethical education specifically for soldiers (bear in mind that the Bundeswehr also has civilian staff), then we can also include education concerning particular ethical challenges in the military profession. Aspects that play a role here include weapons systems and ethical rules for their use, the responsible structuring of the hierarchy of superiors and subordinates, and, above all, ways of dealing with the existential burdens that can arise during deployment – and ultimately the question of killing and being killed. This is precisely where the affective dimension of ethics teaching comes into its own.18 Harsh deployment scenarios and the dilemmas often encountered in them can only ever be imperfectly imagined in the classroom – ideally with the aid of video presentations or reports by returnees. It is important to counter the banalization of violence, which is not uncommon in military jargon (e.g. “eliminate the target”), and to impress on soldiers the ethical and legal need to limit violence and protect human rights, even in an armed conflict. Even in a “fight for survival”,19 potentially deadly force and lethal weapons should never be used without inhibition but rather only if there is no other option for self-defense and mission fulfillment.

It is particularly when such “hard cases” are considered that the close relationship between ethical teaching in the Bundeswehr and Lebens­kundlicher Unterricht becomes apparent. In the latter, military professional ethics has always been taught with at least a connection to pastoral care and skills for coping with distressing experiences during deployment. These should not be left out in the classroom. However, it would be wrong to make deployment dilemma situations the main element of ethical education in the Bundeswehr, or even to infer from these situations a special ethics based on “hardness” required in deployment as the essential characteristic of military ethics.20 Starting with the Battle of Solferino and culminating in the Geneva Conventions after the Second World War with their later Additional Protocols, the development of international humanitarian law shows the protection of human rights gaining ever greater relevance for the legal containment of action in armed conflict.21 Concrete “rules of engagement” are an attempt to comply with these legal requirements. An internalized ethical compass prevents violations of the law. Ethical education as general human rights education in the spirit of Innere Führung is therefore an essential facilitator of morally right military conduct, also with regard to the realities of deployment.

1 (Translated from German). Andersen, Svend (2000): Einführung in die Ethik. Berlin and New York, p. 2.

2 Elßner, Thomas R. (2013): “Berufsethische Aspekte in der gegenwärtigen Ausbildung der Bundeswehr.” In: Bohrmann, Thomas/Lather, Karl-Heinz/Lohmann, Friedrich (eds.): Handbuch Militärische Berufsethik. Vol. 1: Grundlagen. Wiesbaden, pp. 313–331, pp. 324–325.

3 Cf. Aronson, Elliot/Wilson, Timothy D./Akert, Robin M. (2014): Social Psychology. 6th edition. Boston, p. 214.

4 (Translated from German). Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv A-2600/1: Innere Führung. Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur der Bundeswehr. Bonn, no. 106 (emphasis in original).

5 (Translated from German). Timmermann, Heiner (ed.) (2013): Die Himmeroder Denkschrift vom 9. Oktober 1950. Nonnweiler, section V, D.

6 Besand, Anja (2015): “Gefühle über Gefühle. Zum Verhältnis von Emotionalität und Rationalität in der politischen Bildung.” In: Korte, Karl-Rudolf (ed.): Emotionen und Politik. Begründungen, Konzeptionen und Praxisfelder einer politikwissenschaftlichen Emotionsforschung. Baden-Baden, pp. 213-223.

7 (Translated from German). Baudissin, Wolf Graf von (2006): “Innere Führung verbindet Soldaten und Staatsbürger”. In: Angelika Dörfler-Dierken (ed.): Graf von Baudissin. Als Mensch hinter den Waffen. Göttingen, pp. 116-121, p. 117.

8 (Translated from German). Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv A-2620/3: Lebenskundlicher Unterricht. Bonn, no. 105.

9 (Translated from German). Glatz, Rainer L. (2015): “Führen im Einsatz – Verantwortung über Leben und Tod – eine berufsethische Annäherung.” In: Glatz, Rainer L./ Tophoven, Rolf (eds.): Am Hindukusch – und weiter? Die Bundeswehr im Auslandseinsatz: Erfahrungen, Bilanzen, Ausblicke. Bonn, pp. 187–202, p. 192.

10 (Translated from German). Quoted in Glatz, op. cit., p. 192.

11 Lohmann, Friedrich (2014): “Interkulturelle Kompetenz inner- und außerhalb militärischer Strukturen.” In: Bohrmann, Thomas/Lather, Karl-Heinz/Lohmann, Friedrich (eds.): Handbuch Militärische Berufsethik. Vol. 2: Anwendungsfelder. Wiesbaden, pp. 93–118, particularly pp. 106–108.

12 Kümmel, Gerhard (ed.) (2012): Die Truppe wird bunter. Streitkräfte und Minderheiten. Baden-Baden.

13 (Translated from German). Gareis, Sven Bernhard, and Ulrich vom Hagen (2004): Militärkulturen und Multinationalität. Das Multinationale Korps Nordost in Stettin. Opladen, p. 127.

14 (Translated from German). Kammhuber, Stefan (2011): “Sicherheitspolitik und interkulturelle Expertise.” In: Dreyer, Wilfried/Hößler, Ulrich (ed.): Perspektiven interkultureller Kompetenz. Göttingen, pp. 365–379, p. 378.

15 (Translated from German). Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika (2019): “Einführung.” In: Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika (ed.): Hinschauen! Geschlecht, Rechtspopulismus, Rituale. Systemische Probleme oder individuelles Fehlverhalten? Hamburg, pp. 15–21, p. 18.

16 Kahneman, Daniel (2012): Thinking, Fast and Slow. London. 

17 (Translated from German). German Federal Ministry of Defense (ed.) (2016): Weißbuch 2016 zur Sicherheitspolitik und zur Zukunft der Bundeswehr. (White Paper on German Secu­rity Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr). Berlin, p. 103.

18 Verweij, Desiree (2016): “Why Address the ‘E’-Word in Military Ethics Education? The Role of Emotions in Moral Judgment and Decision-Making.” In: Elßner, Thomas R./ Janke, Reinhold/Oesterle, Antonia C. (eds.): Didactics of Military Ethics. From Theory to Practice. Leiden, pp. 27–44.

19 Ungerer, Dietrich (2011): “Auf dem Weg zu einer Einsatzethik”. In: Hartmann, Uwe/Rosen, Claus von/ Walther, Christian (eds.): Jahrbuch Innere Führung 2011. Ethik als geistige Rüstung für Soldaten. Berlin, pp. 201–210.

20 Hamdorf-Ruddies, Hildegard (2019): “Erziehung zur Härte? Reflexionen über ein zweifelhaftes Erziehungsideal.” In: Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika (ed.): Hinschauen! Geschlecht, Rechtspopulismus, Rituale. Systemische Probleme oder individuelles Fehlverhalten? Hamburg, pp. 59–70.

21 Jäger, Sarah, and Stefan Oeter (ed.) (2019): Menschenrechte und humanitäres Völkerrecht – eine Verhältnisbestimmung. Wiesbaden.


Friedrich Lohmann has been Professor of Protestant Theology with a focus on Applied Ethics at the Bundes­wehr University in Munich since 2011. Prior to that, from 2008 to 2011, he was Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University Berlin. He co-publishes the magazine “zur sache bw” and a two-volume manual on military professional ethics. From 2016 to 2019, he was a member of the academic advisory committee for the recently completed consultation project “Orientational Knowledge for Just Peace” at FEST Heidelberg.

All articles by Friedrich Lohmann

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All articles in this issue

The Relationship between Peace Ethics, Military Ethics and Security Policy
Bernhard Koch
Values and Norms: Don’t "Teach", Encourage Independent Acquisition!
Gerhard Kruip
Ethical Education – A Central Component of Training and ­Development in the ­German Armed Forces
Friedrich Lohmann
Ethical Education in the German Armed Forces: Embraced Values and Moral Judgement
Matthias Gillner
Military Practice Between Ethics and Tragedy: Moral Dilemmas in the Context of Peace Education for Armed Forces
Fred van Iersel
Innere Führung – Normative Basis of Personality Development in the German Armed Forces
Angelika Dörfler-Dierken, Markus Thurau
Medical Ethics in the Military Context – a Challenge for Research and Teaching
Rupert Dirk Fischer
The Military Chaplaincy as a Discussion and Cooperation Partner in Personality Development Training for Military Personnel
Dirck Ackermann


Martin Jürgens Bernward Mezger Jens Pröve