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Civil Courage in the Military – Not a Contradiction in Terms!

“Soldiers in the Bundeswehr accomplish their mission when, out of personal conviction, they actively defend human dignity, freedom, peace, justice, equality, solidarity and democracy as the guiding values of our country.”

The Bundeswehr derives these basic values, which are laid down in Central Service Regulation A-2600/1 entitled “Innere Führung – Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur” (“Innere Führung – Self-Image and Leadership Culture”), from the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. These are intended to serve as a basis for soldiers in all decisions of conscience that they have to make during their daily duties or when on deployment. In the final analysis, this may mean the decision to kill in combat. The Bundeswehr therefore places high demands on the personal character of its soldiers. Their self-image should be guided by the principles embraced by the concept of “Innere Führung” (officially translated as leadership development and civic education).

Despite this high ethical and moral standard, reports of right-wing extremist activities have recently impacted on the public image of the Bundeswehr. At the end of April 2017, the case of Franco A. shook the armed forces. The first lieutenant allegedly posed as a refugee and planned an attack on politicians and other members of the public. In the course of the ensuing investigations, suspicions even arose that there was a right-wing network within the Bundeswehr. Parallel to this, in August 2017, the public learned about the farewell party for a company commander from the Special Forces Command (KSK), at which right-wing rock music was played and the Hitler salute was allegedly given. Since then, the KSK has come under the watchful eyes of the Military Counter-Intelligence Service. In May 2020, investigations conducted within this context led to the discovery of a veritable cache of ammunition and explosives as well as Nazi memorabilia at the home of a KSK soldier. Most recently, in the spring of 2021, the public learned of excesses in an armoured infantry platoon in Rukla, Lithuania, in which soldiers from the platoon allegedly sang right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic songs as well as a “birthday serenade” for Adolf Hitler on 20 April. These cases are highly worrying. How could it have come to this? Did the soldiers really manage to conceal their inner convictions from their immediate environment until then? Was no one bothered by it? Why did no one do anything about it?

These questions are first and foremost directed at the comrades and their immediate commanding officers. They are responsible for overseeing the soldiers under their command, keeping an eye on them, and closely following their personal and character development. Ultimately, it is also the senior officers who have a decisive influence on the career paths that soldiers can take when appraising their service. For some time now, their efforts to conscientiously meet this considerable responsibility have faced ever greater hurdles. Numerous bureaucratic obligations tie up senior officers and increasingly deprive them of time with their troops. Additionally, there is an increasing loss of opportunities to sit down together, share ideas and talk to one another when not on duty, as increasingly fewer soldiers have the opportunity to live within the barracks. Separating the accommodation from other facilities also has an effect, as it diminishes the sense of community and cohesion as well as the possibilities for informal social control, especially among the younger soldiers who are obliged to stay in barracks. Finally, the hierarchical difference between senior officers and subordinates can be an obstacle to fully opening up and trusting one another, although it does not preclude friendly interaction.

Whereas a certain detachment is normal towards senior officers, there is often a much closer relationship between comrades. The shared affiliation to a unit creates a bond, people spend a lot of time together and also talk about personal problems or opinions. This raises even more the question of how comrades experienced and perceived the soldiers under suspicion. Did they not notice their way of thinking and views? Should they have noticed? Or maybe they did not want to notice? Perhaps because it was a comrade with whom they got on well or were even friends. Especially in such cases, it’s natural to gloss over things at first by surmising that the good friend is maybe somewhat more conservative, that the comment was perhaps a slip, that he couldn’t possibly be a right-wing extremist. It’s human to use such suppression tactics to justify to yourself why you’re keeping the matter to yourself and remaining passive.

Such passivity therefore needs limits – a threshold from which you feel compelled to act, from which you can no longer look away but must look and report the alarm signs. Social values and norms generally provide a good framework here. Often it’s useful to listen to your own gut feeling, whether the inner voice says: “You shouldn’t do that!” However, the exact boundaries are determined by each individual’s own moral concepts. The more solid and concrete these are, the more precisely the tolerance limit is defined, the easier it is to justify why a threshold has been crossed, and the better you can stand up for your own convictions and defend your values against others. Senior officers must provide assistance here and show their soldiers which differences they can and should settle among themselves – and those they should not. There is a fine line, which senior officers need to define and make tangible, between uncomradely accusations and snitching on the one hand, and the necessary clarification of dubious behaviour or ideas on the other.

If this line is crossed, however, it must also be ensured that complaints about comrades are not dismissed or fall on deaf ears, but are taken seriously and investigated. There are still cases where, for instance, senior officers fail to treat reports of sexual harassment with the necessary respect and therefore do not investigate. They trivialise sexually motivated touching as merely “accidental” and dismiss derogatory remarks as just a bit of “fun”. In this way, however, they give the complaining male or female soldier the feeling that he or she is not the victim but perpetrator, and thus achieve the exact opposite to what Innere Führung is trying to achieve: namely to develop one’s own set of values, stand up for them and act accordingly.

Especially among comrades, it can be very difficult to depart from established views and argue against them. For younger soldiers in particular, it can require a considerable show of strength to distance themselves from the rest and express their own individual opinion in the face of group pressure. As long as this induces nothing more than teasing or banter, it remains unproblematic and bearable. The situation is quite different, however, when such behaviour leads to derogatory remarks, hostility or even exclusion from the community. In comments marking the 65th anniversary of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier succinctly summed up the motivation to endure such reactions because of one’s own convictions when he said: “It’s right to participate in exposing extremist activities. It’s not treason and it’s not an affront to honour, but exactly the opposite.”

As the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, I see this as a form of bravery. It’s an expression of what is commonly called civil courage – an expression that has military roots. 16th century soldiering language borrowed the term “courage” from the French language as a term to describe bravery, stout-heartedness and determination. To enable it to be also used in a non-military context, the modification “civil courage” was derived later. The German dictionary Duden defines it as “courage that someone demonstrates by representing humane and democratic values (for example, human dignity, justice) without regard to possible consequences in public, towards authorities, seniors, etc.”. In Germany, civil courage in the military is therefore not a contradiction in terms, but rather a synonym for the concept of the citizen in uniform.

As a consequence of this principle, there is no blind obedience in the Bundeswehr. Instead, soldiers’ duty of obedience even includes the state’s expectation that they should refuse an order that contradicts the rules of law or violates human dignity. In his 2010 address marking the anniversary of the 20 July plot in 1944, historian Fritz Stern summed this up when he ascertained that: “The idea of the citizen in uniform is the guiding figure of the Bundeswehr; the cautionary note that even soldiers must follow their conscience – even to the point of disobedience – is the legacy of the resistance.” The resistance fighters, according to Stern, were supported and justified by their deep faith in God. They all had “a pervasive sense of responsibility – a sense of duty out of tradition, in the spirit of humanity, convinced by the imperatives of humanity”.

After the suspension of compulsory military service, such a sense of responsibility and civil courage on the part of the soldiers has gained in importance. For decades, the armed forces had been characterised by the involvement of conscripts, and therefore mirrored society. Many of the young men who completed their military service would probably never have chosen the path to the Bundeswehr without this obligation. However, their very presence in the armed forces had a decisive advantage. The very fact that they were not there voluntarily meant that they kept a critical eye on the armed forces and the service activities, as evidenced by many of the submissions sent to Parliamentary Commissioners for the Armed Forces during that period. At the same time, this did not preclude them from appreciating the challenges of military service and enlisting as soldiers for a fixed term. In general, conscripts constituted a not inconsiderable part of the next generation of military personnel. In today’s Bundeswehr, as a de facto professional army, this broad social spectrum is missing. Those forced to do their military service involuntarily in the past would hardly find their way into the armed forces voluntarily today. This population group is therefore no longer represented among the troops, which means that the military consequently lacks the self-criticism previously guaranteed within its own ranks. This gap can be filled, in particular, by those who bring with them common sense and a strong moral understanding, or develop them in the Bundeswehr.

The fact that civil courage in the Bundeswehr is not a mere theoretical construct, but is actually embraced by the troops on a daily basis, is demonstrated by the numerous reports of soldiers providing assistance in traffic accidents or emergency situations in everyday life. They have also responded appropriately and decisively when required to provide official assistance, for example in helping to combat the Covid-19 pandemic or elevate the flood disasters in western Germany. Time and again, their courageous intervention has enabled people to be rescued from dangerous situations and survive only because members of the armed forces have drawn on their knowledge without hesitation and provided first aid. This is largely thanks to the excellent medical and ethical training in the armed forces. In many areas, senior officers demonstrate to soldiers under their command, through their exemplary conduct, how the guiding Innere Führung principles should be embraced. They exemplify how soldiers can make conscientious decisions, even when forced to react responsibly within a split second.

Just as they apply their acquired knowledge almost automatically in the event of an accident, soldiers should also be able to recognise extremist tendencies in comrades and react to them adequately. Here, the German Federal Ministry of Defence and the command authorities are called upon to create the appropriate framework. It’s essential that sufficient time is set aside for political, historical and ethical education, and that teaching modules are actually provided. Moreover, senior officers must have sufficient opportunities to engage and talk with their soldiers. After all, conversations and discussions are a crucial part of the supervision and enable officers to guide and direct their troops. Ideally, this leads to personal interaction that is not burdened by hierarchical differences, but is characterised by mutual trust and openness towards one another. In this way, the Bundeswehr could ensure that civil courage in the military is also not a contradiction in terms in the future.