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"Citizens in uniform" or "German warriors" – Innere Führung put to the test?

Innere Führung as a contribution to consolidating the crisis mode

In an interview, General (ret.) Hans-Lothar Domröse, most recently Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum and Chief of Staff of ISAF in Kabul from 2008 to 2009, described the end of the military engagement in Afghanistan with the admission “... we’re facing a shambles.” Domröse emphasized the major investment made in terms of time, money, material, weapons, personnel, advice and training, but also named reasons that led to the failure: on the one hand, the breakdown and flight of the Afghan state and military leadership, and on the other, the resulting collapse of all fighting morale, defense readiness and resistance by the Afghan armed and security forces. Domröse self-critically stated: “There was a lack of ‘what are you fighting for’, and we obviously didn’t train that.”1 Despite ambitious training, consultation and support, it has not been possible to break down the mentality patterns of the ethnocentric tribal culture, which is remote from the state. Afghanistan is therefore also a lesson in the importance of legitimacy, conveying meaning and leadership culture as important factors for building systemic and individual resilience. Soldiers obviously need role models and a “why” that’s worth fighting for. As the Bundeswehr’s leadership culture, Innere Führung, which literally means “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” and is officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”, can provide good answers to this question. The special role and relevance of Innere Führung is already evident in the fact that it often has to serve, almost reflexively, as a frame of reference and justification rationale for all kinds of crises. On the one hand, this can be lamented as a misjudgment of its scope and an overestimation of its reach. On the other, this claim shows that in times of dynamism and uncertainty, Innere Führung is sought as a source of expertise: it serves as a useful explanatory piece, conceptual corrective or robust cognitive model that offers discussable answers even to complex questions.

From the very beginning, Innere Führung was conceived and designed as a dynamic concept with a relatively static foundation of values. This combination does not represent a contradiction, but rather – like steel rebars in concrete – provides reinforcement that ensures a resilient combination of stability and flexibility. The set of values laid down by Germany’s Basic Law and the ethical foundations derived from them form the unchanging core of Innere Führung. In addition to these constants, however, Innere Führung also needs the necessary variables to be able to respond to changes. The constants form a fixed pole of rest, while the variables act as flexible alternating parameters, comparable to the aesthetic compositional principle established by contrapposto, where the engaged leg and the relaxed leg provide tension and balance. This is because mental steadfastness is not based on dogmatic rigidity, but arises from reflected agility. This agility also prevents any tendencies of exhaustion and thus contributes to the aforementioned building of resilience. However, this also means that the concept constantly requires a needs analysis and critical evaluation regarding the necessity for further development, updating and adaptation to new circumstances and requirements. This is especially true when disruptive changes and hybrid threat scenarios lead to uncertainties that, in turn, provide gateways for indoctrination, manipulation and counter-factual opinion-making. Today, we are faced with challenges whose contingency signatures can only be inadequately explained and controlled with previous continuity certainties. The example of Afghanistan points like a portent to future scenarios. Which answers can and do politics, society, the military leadership and also Innere Führung want to give to their soldiers, but especially to those among them who have been deployed in Afghanistan and elsewhere, who have served, suffered and fought there, who have borne injuries and wounds to their souls, minds and bodies, and who have also lost comrades? Do such impactful experiences change one’s own self-image as a soldier? Can the familiar model of the citizen in uniform continue to maintain its claim to validity, or is it in need of readjustment or even re-evaluation and change?

From “citizen in uniform” back to “German warrior”?

In 2020, Professor Dr. Sönke Neitzel, holder of the Chair of Military History and Cultural History of Violence in Potsdam, which is unique in Germany, wrote a book on German military history that has rightly received considerable attention and has been discussed intensively, sometimes even heatedly, in numerous reviews; he gave it the programmatic title German Warriors.2 Neitzel directs the focus of his historical account to the army, as it most clearly reflects the question of soldierly self-image as a whole in terms of its role relevance and continuity of tradition:

“So it’s not surprising that the major debates in the Federal Republic about the tradition and identity of the armed forces almost always started from the Army. In the end, it was always about how the Bundeswehr felt about fighting, killing and dying – a question that concerned the land forces in particular. The book title ‘Deutsche Krieger’ (German Warriors) describes this archaic side of being a soldier.”3

With the keyword “archaic”, Neitzel is recognizably alluding to the “archaic fighter” that, in 2004, the then Army Inspector Hans-Otto Budde had called for as the future type of soldier for the Bundeswehr. This robust requirement profile is still strongly criticized today, especially since the attribute “archaic” tends to evoke associations with movie images of human fighting machines from heroic mythology. However, Budde formulated his demand in a more differentiated way, saying that in addition to the archaic fighter, he also needed the modern, technology-savvy specialist: “We need the archaic fighter and the one who can fight the high-tech war.”4 These descriptions no longer had much to do with the cherished image of the well-behaved “citizen in uniform” from the earlier times of compulsory military service as part of a training army primarily aimed at national and alliance defense. The Bundeswehr’s deployments abroad had already opened up new horizons of experience and questions that expected adequate answers. Neitzel’s book places these questions in a broad historical and comparative framework. His central thesis is that the “German warriors” are, so to speak, part of an intergenerational tradition network that – despite all efforts at demarcation through tradition decrees with corresponding exclusion clauses – lines up combatants along a common line of continuity that stretches from the “wars of unification of the empire” (1864 to 1871) and frontline fighters in the First World War to members of the Reichswehr,Wehrmacht soldiers and ultimately today’s Bundeswehr soldiers (with deployment experience). Neitzel’s observations and critical assessments regarding Innere Führung are of particular importance in presenting soldierly identities in a historical context. First of all, Neitzel states that Bundeswehr soldiers also have a sui generis claim, which he justifies through the special ethical and sociological status of a fighter’s existence. This, according to his assessment, relies more or less consciously on Wehrmacht role models in the soldierly self-perception and, in the bias of their own military microcosm, at least partially hides the framework-forming macrocosm of state and society with its relativization mechanisms:

“This attitude becomes more understandable if one understands the military as a world with its own values and norms, which is shaped by society and politics, but still forms a special social cosmos. The real or potential experience of fighting, killing and dying fundamentally distinguishes the armed forces from other social groups. (...) Those who place fighting at the center of their professional identity look for special role models.”5

The concept of Innere Führung always emphasizes the primacy of politics as the “pre-eminence of the democratically legitimized political will”6 over the military. This pre-eminence is not so much a political privilege but a special responsibility towards the Bundeswehr as an executive organ of the Federal Republic of Germany. It carries out deployments mandated by parliament, and therefore particularly legitimized, as part of the national security provision. Article 87 of the Basic Law establishes the constitutional mission of the Bundeswehr. According to this understanding, it is referred to as a parliamentary army. Legitimizing the fulfillment of this mission is defined as an objective of Innere Führung with the intention of “answering the question as to the meaningfulness of serving, i.e. convey ethical, legal, political and social justifications for soldierly action and, in doing so, make the meaning of the military mission, especially in foreign deployments such as Afghanistan, understandable and comprehensible”.7 Neitzel considers this constant task of justifying, making sense of and conveying the meaning of military action to be insufficiently met by politics and the military leadership, especially for foreign deployments:

“The practice of Innere Führung, in which so much pride was taken, suffered massive harm because serving out of insight was hardly possible when the government, Bundestag and military leadership were unwilling to formulate realistic tasks and goals, instead taking refuge in empty words and sending the soldiers into action with a perceived legitimacy deficit. Were they really defending the values and norms of the Basic Law in the Hindu Kush, while at the same time supporting a corrupt government, cooperating with criminals and securing their drug deals? Cabinet and parliament have not answered these questions.”8

The “perceived legitimacy deficit” referred to by Neitzel is confirmed time and again by soldiers with deployment experience. Even members of the Bundestag who visit the deployment area apparently ask the troops on the ground what they are there for and what their mission is. Who would ask a previously hired handyman why he’s crouched under the sink in the bathroom with a pipe wrench in his hand? Insiders know that some MPs have not come close to grasping the substance of what they have sometimes voted on at very late hours when mandating deployments. But if even political decision-makers cannot or do not want to explain the rationale behind a particular deployment, it is once again the military leaders who have to give answers to the soldiers entrusted to their care. This is hardly conducive to instilling a sense of trust in politics, parliament and the military leadership. Neitzel also addresses the problem of conveying and implementing Innere Führung, which already existed during the time of the conscript army. His line of argumentation, however, is not cohesive and, in its sweeping exaggeration, does not quite do justice to the complex situation:

“The reality of the troops was by no means identical with the image conveyed to the outside world. It is true that the concepts of the citizen in uniform and Innere Führung described a desirable ideal state of the politically mature soldier and were by no means in opposition to combat-ready armed forces. However, in everyday life, these overly intellectual concepts were primarily the concern of staff officers. The soldiers as a whole did not really know where to begin with them. The piles of well-meaning concept papers about the Bundeswehr as a democratic institution could not change the fact that increasingly fewer young men were willing to defend democracy with a weapon in their hands.”9

That concept and reality, just like theory and practice, tend to diverge is a truism that applies to all areas of life. And the aloofness and supposed incomprehensibility of the concept of Innere Führung is still complained about today. This accusation, by the way, is mostly made by those who have obviously not yet seriously engaged with Innere Führung. The constructive question remains how much reduction in complexity is possible without risking too much loss of substance. The problem of conveying and accepting the concept of Innere Führung thus remains, especially since the attention spans of today’s recipients are increasingly narrowing into tiny slits of perception. Neitzel’s assessment that the increasing paper deluge of official pronouncements could not have changed the decreasing willingness to enlist misses the point, since prospective recruits were only first confronted with the topic of Innere Führung during their basic training. The demonstrative rejection of compulsory military service cannot be explained in a monocausal manner anyway, but had backgrounds, motives and aspects that have been dealt with in several research anthologies.10

Legitimacy and loyalty: The question of the “why”

Further historical derivations and references to Innere Führung in Neitzel’s book on military history can be found especially in those parts where he illuminates the so-called “internal structure” of the armed forces and repeatedly focuses on what he calls the “tribal cultures” of the troop genera – with their cohesion and transmission functions in horizontal and vertical orientations.11 In the rationale for the establishment of new German armed forces at the beginning of the Cold War, “in practice it necessarily came down to a compromise between internal military logic and domestic political reservations”.12 Although Neitzel does not mention Innere Führung here expressis verbis, he does describe it as a compromise model for mediating between two spheres, namely society and the military, which had become profoundly estranged with the German catastrophe after 1945 and were to be reunited through an aligning concept. This attempt was quite successfully undertaken with the “Himmeroder Denkschrift” from October 1950. As the core task of Innere Führung, which is embodied in the model of the citizen in uniform, and as it was understood in particular by Wolf Graf von Baudissin, Neitzel describes the nurturing of constitutional loyalty as a kind of surrogate for the disavowed, old-style patriotism:

“Since the Germans’ national sentiment remained wounded by partition, defeat and crime, the constitutional state offered a kind of substitute fatherland for Baudissin. He thus anticipated constitutional patriotism, which was first coined as a concept in 1970 by the political scientist Dolf Sternberger and established fifteen years later by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas as an unconditional alternative to national sentiment.”13

Heinz Karst, Baudissin’s colleague and later antipode, rightly doubted the attractiveness of this loyalty model. When constitutional patriotism is absolutized, it is perceived as an anemic, intellectual construct that at best reaches the cerebral ventricle, but misses the ventricle of the heart – perhaps the more decisive place for military motivation and fighting morale. Karst considered a thoroughly considered love of one’s country and a healthy sense of comradeship to be more substantial motives, and closely linked them to an uninhibited concept of tradition that can counteract the threat of lost meaning and increasing weakness of symbols.14 When it really comes down to it, the question of the “why” is not answered primarily with the Basic Law and constitutional patriotism, but rather with comradeship experienced as a “small fighting community” and as a community of fate in existential probation. Solidarity with your fellow human beings and taking responsibility for your comrades seem a thousand times more authentic than the noblest postulate derived from an abstract idea of humanity. This statement is not a rejection of the foundation of values, but rather an explanation of its very meaning. Especially in combat units and among soldiers with operational experience and a pronounced practical orientation, even well-intentioned derivations on a higher level of abstraction and self-referential reflections can often only achieve the opposite of what was intended: we do not speak to the people themselves, but merely of them, about them or past them. Today, politics, the media, churches, associations, academia, schools and also the Bundeswehr, to a comparable extent, are all faced with this communication challenge and authenticity problem.

The further development of Innere Führung

In his statements and assessments regarding Innere Führung, Neitzel once again proves that this concept has not abdicated, but continues to develop dynamism. As expected, the manifold criticisms of the concept itself remain unchanged, as well as of its textualization and communication. However, the disparity, inconsistency and under-complexity of some critics’ voices, which often display very little knowledge of the textual basis, make it difficult to engage in a constructive discourse on the notions, foundations, goals and features underpinning the concept. Suggestions for improvement are often limited to commonplaces and individual positions. A conceptually equivalent counter-model does not exist, and will not exist in future, as long as Innere Führung remains meaningful – and thus competitive – in its intellectual stringency and design dynamics. In the further development of Innere Führung, a number of considerations and recommendations arise for its conception, textualization, communication and implementation:

First: We should return to the core idea and essential objective of Innere Führung: integration of the Bundeswehr into the state and society as well as operational readiness on a common basis of values in order to be able to convincingly answer the question as to the “why”. Further development can also consist of avoiding aimless byways, backtracking when going astray, returning to the main path and firmly setting one’s sights on the actual goal again: Innere Führung must first and foremost serve the Bundeswehr’s operational readiness. Everything else must be subordinated to this goal. It is therefore not a comfort zone for saturated defense officials nor a cozy corner for niche existences. It is definitely not an instrument to enforce excessive minority demands, nor a vehicle to promote particular interests. As soon as Innere Führung engages in patronage politics on demand, it loses substance, contour and authenticity; it becomes arbitrary and interchangeable. Questionable external demands on Innere Führung impair its conceptual and applicational distinctiveness and, in addition, also regularly lead to a further overloading of training and teaching.

Second: We must not let opponents of Innere Führung drive us into a corner but should confidently point out the advantages and merits of our leadership culture. We must engage in a more productive dialog with constructive critics, accept justified points of criticism and look for joint improvements and solutions. This presupposes, of course, that our own knowledge of the concept, including the personal willingness to help shape Innere Führung as an exemplary leadership culture, are present to a convincing degree. As soon as theory and practice diverge, credibility suffers. Moreover, Innere Führung does not begin in the troops, but already applies to the ministerial leadership level. A leadership practice that demands horizontal implementation of conceptual goals and objectives, without ensuring vertical penetration from top to bottom, does not create a shared leadership culture, but a loss of trust.

Third: The constant demand for the “bite-sized” preparation and communication of Innere Führung is essentially justified, but distracts from the willingness to make one’s own contribution to understanding Innere Führung. This begins with the mere reading of the regulation and culminates in the educational claim of a job profile that defines its executives as “intellectual leaders”. Right from the beginning, Innere Führung has been a political educational concept based on an ethical and legal foundation. We should therefore finally give personality development with its essential facets the status it deserves in the Bundeswehr’s training system.15 In this context, the Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (character guidance training) of the military chaplaincy does not represent a competing concept, but rather an indispensable, complementary contribution to professional ethical training.

Fourth: The lessons learned from the military engagement in Afghanistan provide exemplary contributions to illustrate the effectiveness of Innere Führung in operations. However, this requires a comprehensive and honest reappraisal, analysis and evaluation by politics, society, academia and the military, starting with the rationale for deployment as a basis for legitimacy. The much-cited verdict by former German Minister of Defense Peter Struck, who stated that Germany’s security was also being defended in the Hindu Kush, must be put to the test. General (ret.) Domröse commented as follows: “Right at the time – today, it no longer counts.”16 So Afghanistan is not a blueprint for future scenarios, especially since there has now been a clear return to national and alliance defense. In Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr fulfilled its mission in the best possible way with the means at its disposal. Clear criteria should apply for future deployments, in particular a precise identification of national interests, a concrete exit strategy and co-responsibility in the “networked approach”, which, if necessary, have to be called for by setting supraministerial guidelines.

Fifth: Finally, current developments must also be taken into account, some of which are already being hotly debated. Examples of controversial issues include a shared Bundeswehr leadership culture and Europeanisation, digitalization and drone technology, artificial intelligence and human enhancement as challenges to the human image of Innere Führung. But this is yet another topic in its own right.

1 Interview in “heute journal up:date” broadcast by the German national public television network, ZDF, on 16 August 2021 (from approx. 6:50 minute), (accessed 15 November 2021). Translation from German.

2 Neitzel, Sönke (2020): Deutsche Krieger. Vom Kaiserreich zur Berliner Republik – eine Militärgeschichte. Berlin.

3 Ibid., p. 20 f. Translation from German.

4 cf. Winkel, Wolfgang (2004): Bundeswehr braucht archaische Kämpfer. In: Welt am Sonntag, 29 February 2004. Translation from German.

5 Neitzel (2020), p. 12. Translation from German.

6 Zentrale Dienstvorschrift (ZDv) A-2600/1 “Innere Führung. Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur der Bundeswehr”. Edited by the German Federal Ministry of defense – Armed Forces Joint Staff I 4 (now: FüSK III 3), Bonn 2008, para. 310). Translation from German.

7 ZDv A-2600/1 "Innere Führung", para 401 (first indent). Translation from German.

8 Neitzel (2020), p. 551. Translation from German.

9 Neitzel (2020), p. 590. Translation from German.

10 Three important publications are mentioned here which were not referred to by Sönke Neitzel:
Opitz, Eckardt and Rödiger, Frank S. (ed.) (1994): Allgemeine Wehrpflicht. Geschichte – Probleme – Perspektiven. Bremen.
Foerster, Roland G. (ed.) (1994): Die Wehrpflicht. Entstehung, Erscheinungsformen und politisch-militärische Wirkung. (Beiträge zur Militärgeschichte. Volume 43. Edited by the Military History Research Office of the Bundeswehr.) Munich.
Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline (ed.) (2004): Die Wehrpflicht und ihre Hintergründe. Sozialwissenschaftliche Beiträge zur aktuellen Debatte. (Publication series from the Social Science Institute of the German Armed Forces. Volume 2.) Wiesbaden.

11 Neitzel (2020), p. 17 and 19f. Translation from German.

12 Neitzel (2020), p. 15. Translation from German.

13 Neitzel (2020), p. 266. Translation from German.

14 Karst, Heinz (1964): Das Bild des Soldaten. Versuch eines Umrisses. Boppard am Rhein, p. 225 ff. as well as, for example (1994): Im Dienst am Vaterland. Beiträge aus vier Jahrzehnten. Edited in honor of the author by Klaus Hornung. Herford, Hamburg und Stuttgart.

15 cf. Janke, Reinhold (2020): Ethische Bildung in der Bundeswehr – ein neuer Baustein zur Persönlichkeitsbildung? In: Jahrbuch Innere Führung 2020. Edited by Uwe Hartmann, Reinhold Janke and Claus von Rosen. Berlin, pp. 304–321.

16 See endnote 1. Translation from German.


Reinhold Janke

Reinhold Janke, Colonel (ret.), 63, studied German, classical philology and history. After serving in command positions as a company commander and regimental commander, as well as a staff officer, ministerial advisor and department head in command staffs and at the office level, he is currently head of the Concept and Further Development of Innere Führung division at the Innere Führung Center in Koblenz. His main interests are philosophy, theology, art history, military history and leadership culture.

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All articles in this issue

Tribal cultures and Innere Führung – a contradiction?
Sönke Neitzel
"Citizens in uniform" or "German warriors" – Innere Führung put to the test?
Reinhold Janke
Innere Führung as an attempt to answer the question of (military) force: Theological and ethical remarks on the current debate
Markus Patenge
Military virtues for today
Peter Olsthoorn
"God, how I hate the 20th century" – On chivalry as a myth and as an ethical virtue
Bernhard Koch
Manhood rites – Violent rituals, sexual assault and right-wing extremism in the German armed forces
Rolf Pohl


Eva Högl Matthias Schwarzbauer Steve Thull, Erny Gillen Heinrich Dickerhoff