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Innere Führung – Normative Basis of Personality Development in the German Armed Forces

Since it became known that the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesminsterium der Verteidigung, BMVg) is working on a new Joint Service Regulation on ethical education in the Bundeswehr (German armed forces),1 the spotlight has focused on the various existing personality development offerings for military personnel. It is precisely the relationship of Innere Führung (officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”) and Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (LKU, “character guidance training”) to the sense and purpose of ethical education in the German armed forces that the planned new regulation has called into question. This relationship therefore deserves special attention. Under these circumstances, it seems appropriate to recall the binding nature of Innere Führung for every form of personality development in the Bundeswehr.

Innere Führung and the ­“mistakes of the past”

Since 1872, the Military Penal Code of the German Reich had held a soldier accountable for his actions even if he “considered his conduct to be necessary according to his conscience or the rules of his religion” (section 48 Militärstrafgesetzbuch, MilStrGB).2 In swearing its soldiers to the National Socialist ideology with an obligation of unconditional obedience, the “Third Reich” bent military penal law in extremis, including the cited paragraph. Deliberately misrepresenting human conflict situations and intentionally negating human dignity, the Nazi military judiciary praised this paragraph for ruling out any possible “conflict of duties” between personal conscience and military obedience, since the law “unconditionally prioritizes military duty”.3 However, the many death sentences handed out by the Wehrmacht judiciary for disobedience, refusal to carry out orders and resistance on grounds of conscience show only too clearly that a person’s conscience cannot be deactivated by statute. The crimes against humanity committed by the Wehrmacht show what happens when people reject responsible, conscience-led decision-making, suppress moral action by force, and reduce military service to compliant machine-like functioning.

Future German armed forces had to learn from the culpable involvement of the Wehrmacht in the crimes of the National Socialist regime, which are “unique in history in their extent, horror and degree of state organization”.4 To prevent the danger of any repetition of these crimes, the special historical and political situation in which the Bundeswehr was founded had to be given serious consideration, and the relationship between state and armed forces redefined. This could only be achieved through a reformist concept. Called “Innere Führung”, it tied the military to the values and norms of the Basic Law. Thus the central idea in a security policy bound by values, to which the Federal Republic of Germany has been committed since its foundation, is human dignity. This applies not only to the German people, but to all people in the world. The free democratic order is protected by the “citizen in uniform”, who emerged from the military reform program. Human dignity is the highest priority for him or her too – and this includes the basic right to freedom of conscience. Not only do soldiers protect this value, but the value also protects soldiers in the event of a conflict. This was established beyond doubt by the German Federal Administrative Court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht, BVerwG) in 2005, confirming the ethical principles of Innere Führung.5 Conscience places limits on the duty of obedience.

“The values and norms of the Basic Law are realized in the Bundeswehr through the active shaping and observance of the principles of Innere Führung.6 After human dignity, which is mentioned first and foremost, freedom, peace, justice, equality, solidarity and democracy are also mentioned as values and norms of the Basic Law. Innere Führung is therefore guided by values, and the ethical dimension of military conduct is immanent in it. Ethical education, also in the form of historical and political education and Lebens­kundlicher Unterricht, is a key factor in the transmission of these values. In other words, Innere Führung is about military personnel experiencing the armed forces as a place where democracy is put into practice. Freedom and peace for the German people can only be protected and defended externally by those who wear the uniform if the actors in uniform experience themselves as being citizens of a free country. No-one will risk life and limb to defend something that does not correspond with their own experience. This is what distinguishes the citizen-soldier from the mercenary. When supporting the foundation of the Bundeswehr, Wolf Graf von Baudissin contributed his idea of defending the value of the worth of life, and helped to find ways to prevent a relapse into the spirit of the Wehrmacht.7 Freedom and self-commitment, command and obedience stand in complex and tense relationships that have to be individually balanced. It is the goal of Innere Führung to make sure free citizens should not have to bend their morals or put on an act when they get into uniform.

Inspector General Eberhard Zorn recently highlighted the importance of this connection between the lessons of Germany’s past and the ethical values laid down in the Basic Law. Innere Führung gives military personnel “the intellectual armor for deployment and the inner readiness to fulfill the mission with insight and conviction”. But, he continues, such an endowment of meaning cannot be achieved without “fundamental historical knowledge”. Therefore, it is historical education in particular (in accordance with Innere Führung) that protects against “repeating the mistakes of the past and following bad examples”8. From history one can thus gain an ethical stance for the present.

Innere Führung is not a German “Sonderweg”

To recognize that Innere Führung is “a German concept that is only understandable in light of German history”9 in no way means that it is a historical chance occurrence that is neither binding nor generalizable. The concept of Innere Führung has proven to be surprisingly resilient and virtually without alternative, even as society has undergone many changes. It is now by no means any longer an organizational philosophy that holds primarily officers accountable. Rather, its letter and spirit should have an effect on all soldiers across all hierarchical levels.10 After the end of the Cold War, new questions arose. Under the conditions of overseas deployments, for example, requirements emerged that were still unknown to the early Bundeswehr: military personnel should no longer be able to fight only in the case of necessary national defense, but should also want to fight in a distant country to which they are sent for humanitarian reasons, to enforce order and peace. The criticism that Innere Führung with its ethical concept was no longer in keeping with the times11 was answered with more instead of less Innere Führung. This is demonstrated by the increased efforts concerning personality development for military personnel, as well as the speech by the German defense minister, Dr. Ursula von der Leyen, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Bundeswehr on November 11, 2015. Both the political leadership and the military leadership resisted the temptation to define the soldier, who now also has combat experience, in terms of killing and being killed. Instead, the idea that the citizen in uniform is responsible for peace and freedom should prove its worth under combat conditions, too. According to the normative statement in the Joint Service Regulation currently in force, which enables a reference to the new experiences of overseas deployments, Innere Führung “remains applicable in every situation, from office duty to mortal combat”12.

Back in the year 2000, the German bishops pointed out that the principles of Innere Führung remain valid even as contextual conditions change (in this case: multinationality and overseas deployments): “They bind military action to the values of the Basic Law and orient the internal order of the armed forces to principles of the rule of law and the protection of human dignity.”13 The limits placed on command authority and the duty of obedience guaranteed by Innere Führung are still of paramount importance. Innere Führung, the bishops wrote in 2005, was therefore not a “German Sonderweg”14 or “special path” that could be neglected in international collaboration, but a pioneering way to come to a morally responsible decision in military contexts – also in dialog with other countries’ armed forces.

Innere Führung means that the Bundeswehr is firmly rooted in the free democratic basic order, and shares the foundation of values on which German foreign and security policy are built. The Protestant Church expressed a view similar to that of the German bishops: “Respecting and protecting human dignity […] are the starting point and goal of all military conduct. Through their service, military personnel take responsibility for human life and death. That is why they have to justify their actions ‘before God and man’”.15 This statement is in agreement with other various memoranda, statements and papers at the level of the church as a whole. The Protestant Church in Germany, in its committees, with its peace commissioner (Friedensbeauftragter) and the Protestant Military Bishop, is grounded in the peace principle of the Basic Law, which coincides religiously with the peace principle of Jesus. In ecumenical solidarity, both large churches in Germany are in agreement in recognizing that whoever wants peace should prepare the ground for it.

Human dignity, peace, freedom and conscience, responsibility – these terms, with the associated content of ideas, are deeply rooted in the European tradition. This makes it clear that numerous overlaps exist between the various educational formats in the Bundeswehr and Innere Führung and, above all, that a clear goal exists for them: since the formation of the Bundeswehr, it has been the prime concern of Innere Führung to educate military personnel in politics, history and ethics. This is because it must be ensured that the armed forces do not develop into a state within a state, and that no other ethos prevails in the armed forces than that which prevails in the surrounding free, democratic, pluralistic and individualistic society. The ethos of the Basic Law becomes the ethos of the soldier through Innere Führung. Here the basic right to freedom of conscience is extraordinarily important. As the German bishops have stated, the norms of international humanitarian law and military law are not enough. In addition, soldiers of the Bundeswehr should “have a sufficient overview of the effects of their own actions, and be able to evaluate those effects based on the ethical standards of an educated conscience. The legal standard achieved to date on its own cannot sufficiently protect the victims of armed conflicts. Accordingly, legal scope is required that enables the recipient of the order also in practical respects to oppose orders that violate legal or ethical boundaries.”16

Ethical education is at the core of Innere Führung

At its core, Innere Führung is a complex organizational ethics, intended to establish a value-driven leadership culture.17 It is rightly called complex because the self-reflection and self-responsibility it demands are not always easy to implement. For this reason, great importance is attached to personality development measures for military personnel. Political, historical and ethical education in the Bundeswehr are derivatives and fields of influence of Innere Führung, and the reasons for them cannot be understood without it. Accordingly, the new Joint Service Regulation on ethical education in the German armed forces states that ethical education is an integral part of Innere Führung and contributes to the realization of the model of the citizen in uniform, “who protects the free democratic order and who is committed to the law and to humanity.”18

As the “result of a critical examination of moral principles and behavior as well as their teaching and application”, ethical education is “part of personality development and enables members of the Bundeswehr to orient their actions toward values and norms, morally justify those actions and take responsibility for them.”19 The “great responsibility” they assume as bearers of arms must be impressed upon every individual uniform-wearer, since the “need to make decisions even under stress and in moral predicaments” characterizes their profession. Ethical education must therefore “highlight the ethical dimension of action or omission” and contribute to the “development of action competence”.20 The goal of all educational efforts is the “person who is guided by conscience, committed to their task and takes responsibility for their own actions”, who is encouraged to “develop an inner attitude that leads to moral action and enables responsible command and obedience”.21 In other words, even under the conditions of command and obedience, decisions must be made in accordance with one’s own conscience. Ethical education aims to sharpen this conscience. For this is what makes it possible to assume responsibility and conditionally obey military orders. Franz-Josef Overbeck, in his capacity as Catholic military bishop, recently reminded us that the conscience is the first place to deal with the conflicts that can arise for military personnel in the exercise of their profession.“ Even if the conditions under which they have to form a moral judgement about their actions and omissions have become more difficult, this certainly does not mean that they can dispense with this task. On the contrary! Military personnel must not avoid the question of what is right or wrong. Their actions must be guided by their conscience.”22 If they do not do this, they run the danger of losing their “moral self-determination”, or even destroying their “moral identity”. To preserve and protect this identity is an expression of respect for human dignity. Similarly, in 2014 the Protestant military chaplaincy referred to the need for military conduct to be guided by conscience. While society thinks itself deeply at peace, members of the armed forces have very different experiences, which they call war. In these challenging situations, German military personnel should distinguish themselves by showing that they have a conscience, that they are aware of their responsibility, and that they want to take responsibility for others.

The linking of military service to the values and norms of the Basic Law produces a consequence that is logical, but not always understood. It is therefore specifically emphasized in the new Joint Service Regulation: “Military professional ethics is not a special ethics for members of the Bundeswehr that seeks to justify military patterns of behavior by referring to structures that supposedly follow their own laws, practical constraints or unique features of the profession.”23 Thus, at most, it is a field of applied ethics with which the principles and foundations of general ethics are transmitted into the Bundeswehr and implemented. Ethical education aims above all at strengthening the personalities of military personnel. It fulfils the educational objective in a special way by imparting basic ethical knowledge, practicing the application of moral principles, and training personal moral judgment. Members of the Bundeswehr should be able to morally justify and ethically legitimize their actions and omissions. To this end, they should be encouraged and empowered to develop ethical consideration and decision-making competencies so that they can reflect independently on their tasks and do the right and appropriate thing in every situation. Now, it is true that nobody knows whether the ethically trained soldier actually acts morally in every situation. However, uniform-wearers who are prepared for dilemma situations and familiar with strategies of self-discipline and de-escalation will probably be less anxiety-driven and more stress-resistant in their actions than their unprepared colleagues. Ideally, they will be more confident in their judgment and in their military actions.

Military personnel are ordered to take part in the mentioned educational measures. This conflicts to a certain extent with the reason why military personnel are allowed to take part in such classes, namely to study ethical issues on their own initiative, i.e. to want to educate themselves. Therefore it needs to be made clear that self-education cannot be commanded, since it is about an inner and inward examination of one’s own thoughts and actions. Despite it being an order, the Bundes­wehr wants to encourage soldiers to engage in self-education. That is why it has prepared a broad educational offering and also set hourly rates for it. That is why it deliberately talks about education (Bildung) instead of instruction (Erziehung).

No ethical education without Lebenskundlicher Unterricht

Despite its special position, Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (LKU) enjoys a good reputation among soldiers who are convinced that it helps them come to grips with the ethical questions of their profession.24 This special position results mainly from the appointment of the LKU teachers – military chaplains are Christians from the two denominations, and soon also rabbis and imams. Thus, within the military system, an element alien to the military is implemented in the education system of the Bundeswehr, since the military chaplains are not subject to the military leadership, and are not integrated into the military chain of command. Instead, they are subject to the Military Chaplaincy Agreement (Militärseelsorgevertrag) that was concluded with the churches. Because of their special position, they are able to open a “window into the civilian realm”25 within the Bundeswehr (Military Bishop Dr. Sigurd Rink), and can approach the military superiors directly in all matters of Innere Führung.

LKU is compulsory for military personnel. Military chaplains provide the classes in consultation and cooperation with the military superiors, and are given the necessary infrastructure, but they are free to decide how to teach the curriculum. The focus is on questions of conscience and personality, the individual’s conduct of life, and then also the soldierly identity. That LKU forms part of ethical education in the Bundeswehr can be seen from the fact that it is not religious instruction, but rather a professional ethics skills development program. As the new Joint Service Regulation on ethical education states, LKU contributes “in a special way to character formation and personality development among military personnel”26. Constitutive elements for this are the establishment of a “hierarchy-free space of open and trusting discussion”, the integrated and action-oriented approach, and the fact that LKU is “not appraisal-relevant”, meaning there are no exams or grades.27 This is where its importance as an educational measure becomes apparent: any freely developing personality who is to make an active contribution in these classes, is most likely to do so under these conditions. The problems related to the responsibilty of conscience play a large part in the work of military chaplains, both within and beyond the LKU context. Only in this way, therefore, can these problems be adequately addressed and the goal of a sharpened ethical awareness achieved.

The Joint Service Regulation on Lebens­kundlicher Unterricht mentions a “military canon of values”. Strikingly, however, it does not list values such as camaraderie or bravery, which one associates prima facie with the military. Instead, it borrows this canon from the Joint Service Regulation on Innere Führung. This means that the “moral guiding principle of responsible conduct and action”28 for military personnel has a civilian orientation; instead of the concept of war, which soldiers have focused on time and again in recent years when describing the reality of their lives and their mental orientation. Here, we find explict mention of the concept of peace. In other words, military personnel can find their canon of values in the values of the German Basic Law! These values “should” be internalized by uniform-wearers. However, internalization in the proper sense cannot be demanded – it is a consequence of self-education and self-commitment. The classes and educational events offered invite an inner examination of the professional ethics issues in military service. As responsible individuals, soldiers must draw their own conclusions for their personal lives and for the fulfillment of their duties.

When the Bundeswehr was formed, the intention was to thoroughly vanquish the spirit of the Wehrmacht. This is why a military chaplaincy was established outside of the military hierarchy. The churches had – at least in parts – formed a counterweight against the unjust state.29 For the state to desire the service of churches and religious communities, and to design this service around cooperation with the military leadership, is unique in the world. It promotes the “self-commitment in freedom” of military personnel and encourages their orientation toward peace – also and especially when they have to use lethal force. In this context, military chaplains are regarded as having a good understanding of military life and its special challenges, because they share in it and belong to it as outstanding insiders. In addition, it should be noted that the way soldiers deal and come to terms with questions of meaning and with death and injury is inseparably bound up with beliefs. One may expect military personnel to be more strongly affected by questions of death and dying than many other people, owing to their professional experiences. Bundeswehr psychologists report that experiences in overseas deployments can not only trigger post-traumatic stress disorders, but also give rise to powerful feelings of shame and guilt (keyword: moral injuries). The most effective help here is provided not so much by medications and therapy, as by military chaplains.

A brief summary

The goal of all educational measures is to develop the ideal soldier, who is educated in every respect and acts out of inner conviction based on the values of the Basic Law and in accordance with his conscience. Even when their service places them in difficult situations, the “soldierly personality” should act for peace in the spirit of the Basic Law, and respect the human dignity of fellow soldiers, civilians and even the enemy. This requires ethical education. But ethical education faces great challenges. The scenarios in which soldiers are deployed have reached a high degree of complexity, which is likely to increase still further. In a pluralistic society that respects diversity, generally binding fundamental ethical values are constantly exposed to questioning and have to be renegotiated. In addition, religious ties are weakening. The first edition of the Innere Führung manual saw soldiers as necessarily having transcendental ties. Its very first chapter began with the “highest and final authority”, which solely and alone deserved “total obedience”, before which the soldier’s actions ultimately had to be answered for.30 In contrast, the Basic Law emphasizes the freedom to commit oneself to a denomination or religious community. Increasingly, however, this freedom also means the autonomously declared renunciation of any such bond. Thus the social consensus on fundamental value orientations is not necessarily being lost, but it has by no means become easier to establish and maintain.

1 Elßner, Thomas R. (2018): “Ethische Bildung in der Bundeswehr. Mit einem Workshop im Bendlerblock startete das Vorhaben.” In: Kompass. Die Zeitschrift des Katholischen Militärbischofs für die deutsche Bundeswehr 2018, no. 12, pp. 16 f.

2 (Translated from German).

3 (Translated from German). Schwinge, Erich (1944): Militärstrafgesetzbuch nebst Kriegssonderstrafrechtsverordnung [Kommentare zum Deutschen Strafrecht. vol. 1]. 6th ed. Berlin, p. 122.

4 (Translated from German). German Federal Ministry of Defense (2018): Die Tradition der Bundeswehr. Richtlinien zum Traditionsverständnis und zur Traditions­pflege. Berlin, p. 4.

5 BVerwG, ruling of June 21, 2005 – 2 WD 12.04.

6 (Translated from German). Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv A-2600/1: Innere Führung – Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur, no. 107.

7 Rosen, Claus von (2014): “Baudissins dreifache politisch-militärische Konzeption für den Frieden.” In: Baudissin, Wolf Graf von: Grundwert: Frieden in Politik –
Strategie – Führung von Streitkräften.
Berlin, pp. 9–36.

8 (Translated from German). Letter from the Inspector General on historical education, of November 14, 2018.

9 (Translated from German). German Federal Ministry of Defense. Presse­ und Informationsstab (2010):
Innere Führung. Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur der Bundeswehr. Berlin, p. 5.

10 ZDv A-2600/1, no. 102.

11 Bohnert, Marcel/Reitstetter, Lukas J. (2014):
Armee im Aufbruch. Zur Gedankenwelt junger Offiziere in den Kampftruppen der Bundeswehr. Berlin.

12 (Translated from German). ZDv A-2600/1, no. 107.

13 (Translated from German). Die Deutschen Bischöfe (2000): Gerechter Friede. Bonn, pp. 110 f.

14 (Translated from German). Die Deutschen Bischöfe (2005): Soldaten als Diener des Friedens. Erklärung zur Stellung und Aufgabe der Bundeswehr. Bonn, pp. 16 f.

15 (Translated from German). Evangelische Seelsorge in der Bundeswehr (2013): Soldatinnen und Soldaten in christlicher Perspektive. 20 Thesen im Anschluss an das Leitbild des Gerechten Friedens. Arbeitskreis für ethische Bildung in den Streitkräften. Berlin, pp. 5 f.

16 (Translated from German). Die Deutschen Bischöfe (2000): Gerechter Friede. pp. 111.

17 Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika (2005): Ethische Fundamente der Inneren Führung. Baudissins Leitgedanken: Gewissensgeleitetes Individuum – Verantwortlicher Gehorsam – Konflikt- und friedensfähige Mitmenschlichkeit. Strausberg.

18 (Translated from German). Joint Service Regulation (Zentrale Dienstvorschrift) ZDv A-2620/6: Ethische Bildung in der Bundeswehr, no. 102; quoted from the draft version of July 7, 2019.

19 (Translated from German). Ibid., no. 102.

20 (Translated from German). Ibid., no. 103.

21 (Translated from German). Ibid., no. 208.

22 (Translated from German). Overbeck, Franz-Josef (2019): Konstruktive Konfliktkultur. Friedensethische Standortbestimmung des Katholischen Militärbischofs für die Deutsche Bundeswehr. Freiburg im Breisgau, pp. 98f.

23 (Translated from German). ZDv A-2620/6, no. 208.

24 Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika/Ebeling, Klaus/Fiebig, Rüdiger (2010): Evaluierung des Lebenskundlichen Unterrichts in der Truppenpraxis. Strausberg, p. 5; Biehl, Heiko/Fiebig, Rüdiger (2011): Evaluierung des Lebenskundlichen Unterrichts in der Truppenpraxis. Ergebnisse der Befragung von Dozentinnen und Dozenten. Strausberg.

25 (Translated from German).

26 (Translated from German).

27 (Quotations translated from German).

28 (Translated from German).

29 Dörfler-Dierken, Angelika (2008): Zur Entstehung
der Militärseelsorge und zur Aufgabe der Militärgeistlichen
in der Bundeswehr.

30 (Quotations translated from German). German ­Federal Ministry of Defense. Führungsstab der Bundeswehr (1957): Handbuch Innere Führung. Hilfen
zur Klärung der Begriffe.
Bonn, pp. 9-13.


Angelika Dörfler-Dierken

Prof. Dr. Angelika Dörfler-Dierken is Project Area Leader for the topic “Innere Führung – Ethics – Military Chaplaincy” in Research Area IV “Security Policy and Armed Forces” at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr. Out of ethical, historical and sociological perspectives she deals with current issues that are troubling soldiers – in terms of their professional self-image, their involvement in society, their implemen­tation of the role-model “Citizen in uniform” in a democratic society and culture. Furthermore she examines those questions that arise from the contradiction between the order for German soldiers, to serve peace in the world, and the use of follow military means of violence. Prof. Dr. Dörfler-Dierken teaches at the University of Hamburg and published numerous publications.

All articles by Angelika Dörfler-Dierken

Markus Thurau

Markus Thurau studied Catholic theology, philosophy and sociology at Halle, Berlin, Linz and Innsbruck. He was a research fellow at the Department of Catholic Theology at Freie Universität Berlin, received a doctorate (Dr. phil) from Berlin and a licentiate (Lic. theol) from Innsbruck. Since 2015 he has worked as a Catholic theologian at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr) in Potsdam. He researches and publishes on Catholicism and modernity, historical peace and conflict studies, religion and violence, Catholic military pastoral care, and the history and theology of Jewish-Christian relations.

All articles by Markus Thurau

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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