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Innere Führung as an attempt to answer the question of (military) force: Theological and ethical remarks on the current debate

The concept of Innere Führung, with its guiding principle of the citizen in uniform, provides the linchpin of the German Bundeswehr’s organizational philosophy and leadership culture. Literally meaning “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” and officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”, Innere Führung aims to tie the self-image of German soldiers, and thus also their decisions and actions in military service, to certain values – precisely those values that the German Basic Law also seeks to protect, promote and realize: human dignity, freedom, peace, justice, equality, solidarity and democracy. This inextricable link between the constitutional values and the military ethos of the Bundeswehr as a whole illustrates first and foremost that the soldierly self-image should not be fed by a special military ethos, but must be anchored in the center of society. Innere Führung thus represents a practical military philosophy that distinguishes the Bundeswehr from many other armies worldwide.

With this concept, the Bundeswehr has radically turned away from a command-and-obey type of soldiering. Soldiers are taken seriously and challenged as moral subjects, i.e. they bear direct responsibility for their own actions in military service. Within the framework of legal provisions, it is therefore not orders but the soldiers’ own conscience that guides their actions. However, it would be insufficient to reduce Innere Führung to just its individual ethical implications. It also has an important systemic value for Germany’s military structure. This is because Innere Führung is supposed to ensure that pure military logic is not the only yardstick for operational practice within the Bundeswehr. The actions required of soldiers in specific military situations must not be determined solely by what is militarily necessary; rather, military practice should ultimately be guided by a peace logic based on human rights. In this sense, the Bundeswehr – especially in its missions – must always see itself as an army for peace and guide its actions towards enabling, implementing and preserving this peace. Through Innere Führung, the Bundeswehr has thus not only committed itself to implementing these values within its own organizational culture – as far as the special military duties allow – but also to promoting their enforcement externally.

But even this does not fully encapsulate the function of Innere Führung. After all, it is also supposed to ensure that there is no alienation between the military and society. As citizens in uniform, soldiers should continue to be an integral part of the civic community by adopting its values, representing them and, if necessary, defending them by military means.

Encouragingly, the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan, which has come to an end, has now shown that the theory of Innere Führung also finds practical military expression in the troops: “There have been no reports of excesses or transgressions [...] among the German armed forces. The ethical and moral compass of values, adjusted by the primacy of civilians, evidently habitualized a greater restraint in the use of force and thus prevented such events on a larger scale. German soldiers were apparently socialized in such a way that excessive brutality was contained, a certain moderation in combat was ensured and complete disinhibition was countered. As responsible citizens, they apparently do reflect on and examine their actions in accordance with the principles of Innere Führung, not only from a military but also from a humanistic and moral point of view.”1

Thus, Innere Führung would actually be an ethical success story for Germany’s Bundeswehr if it were not also subject to profound criticism within the armed forces.

The debate about Innere Führung

Although the positive effects of Innere Führung could certainly be experienced during the Afghanistan mission, it has also fueled arguments about the merits or failures of this concept. However, one should not overlook the fact that this debate is by no means new. On the contrary, it can be seen as part of a critical tradition that has constantly accompanied Innere Führung since its inception. Nevertheless, the Bundeswehr’s transformation from a defensive to an operational army has given this discussion a new dramatic quality: the involvement of German soldiers in combat operations far from home has now become reality. If the worst comes to the worst, they have to kill and face a real risk of being killed themselves. This development has brought home what the soldier’s profession means, not only to the German public but also to the Bundeswehr itself. The soldier’s craft cannot be reinterpreted as uniformed development cooperation; it essentially includes mastering and applying the tools of war.

In view of this changed situation, there is increasing criticism that Innere Führung propagates a soldiery self-image that is outdated and fails to do justice to the new challenges facing the Bundeswehr. In its moderate form, this criticism is aimed at further developing Innere Führung, while more radical proponents of this view demand that Innere Führung be consigned to the Bundeswehr’s history books.

Paradigmatically, two camps oppose each other in this discussion, for which the labels “Athenian” and “Spartan” have become established in literature.2 The Athenian model propagates a military ethos in the sense of Innere Führung. Here, military life is characterized by an enlightened and considered understanding of the values mentioned, which soldiers are prepared to defend as the last resort, even by military means. In contrast, the Spartan image places the aspect of combat at the center of military life and demands from soldiers what can be called traditional military virtues: bravery, obedience, devotion to duty, loyalty, determination and military professionalism. This debate, which Sönke Neitzel also addresses in his book Deutsche Krieger. Vom Kaiserreich zur Berliner Republik – eine Militärgeschichte,3 can be distilled down to the following question: Do soldiers find an ethical concept in Innere Führung that also enables them to deal successfully in military terms with combat situations? Or, to put it another way: in view of the changed operational reality of the Bundeswehr, do we need more Spartan soldiers and fewer Athenian ones?

In the following discussion it will be shown that the concept of Innere Führung is justified from a theological and ethical perspective, especially in real operations, and must not be abandoned in favor of a pure combat ethos. Despite this clear positioning, there should be no misunderstanding: the debates on Innere Führung are important and must be conducted openly. It is precisely because soldiers are supposed to be at the center of society that we need constant reassurance about the ethical and normative foundations of our society. It is a great achievement of the Bundeswehr’s leadership to have described Innere Führung as a dynamic concept. Although the core essence of Innere Führung is regarded as unchangeable, the concept should at the same time be open enough to keep pace with societal changes. The serious dialog on Innere Führung must therefore be anchored within a broad societal debate and must under no circumstances be narrowed down to a discourse within the Bundeswehr. Such a development would undermine Innere Führung from within and contradict its objectives. One of the most important statements from the Central Service Regulations on Innere Führung therefore reads: “Moreover, in view of global political, economic and social changes, it [Innere Führung] is subject to an ongoing need for further development. This is promoted by a lively dialog among the soldiers themselves and with individuals and institutions outside the Bundeswehr.”4

This dialog is, however, by no means a one-way street. Although it is initially the Bundeswehr’s task, as a component of our society, to follow its constantly changing ideas, society must also engage in a continuous learning process. It is evident, for example, that large sections of society are still struggling with the changed role of the Bundeswehr, despite the fact that the Bundeswehr’s first combat deployment in the Kosovo War dates back to 1999 – more than 20 years ago. Against this backdrop, it is legitimate to ask whether society’s wariness of the new Bundeswehr also promotes those tendencies that want to establish a sui generis ethos within the German Armed Forces.

The aspect of force as the raison d'être of Innere Führung

The concept of Innere Führung is the result of a process that reconsidered Germany’s military tradition up to the Second World War. Like Germany’s Basic Law, however, it grew primarily out of the experiences of the Nazi era and the Second World War. Just as the Basic Law represents a radical departure from National Socialist ideology and its concept of the state, Innere Führung, through its commitment to values, clearly distances itself from the soldierly self-image that contributed to the disaster of the Second World War.

As important as Innere Führung’s commitment to constitutional and human rights-based values is, its actual raison d'être is much more deep-seated. For these values are also answers to the universal human experience of violence. Thus, Innere Führung is also an instrument for controlling and minimizing (military) force. In their pastoral letter “Soldiers as Servants of Peace”, the German bishops therefore write: “Understanding the specific dilemmas in using military instruments is, however, of central importance for a responsible use of force. After all, the use of force fundamentally entails the risk that those who use force will become entangled in the violence, thus becoming part of the violence themselves and also harming themselves as individuals or their social and political contexts in a most sensitive way. A critical relationship to violence and its dynamics is a necessary prerequisite in order to resist the evils that are inevitably founded in the use of force.”5 Interestingly, this ecclesiastical view also coincides with statements from the military. Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Bohnert from the General Staff, for example, states: “Innere Führung is designed to help contain and control the use of military force through the military’s social integration and proximity to the state.”6 It is therefore essential to examine the aspect of force in the context of Innere Führung.

Violence – in whatever form it may occur – is always a grave evil from the point of view of theological ethics. As a rule, it seriously contravenes the human rights of victims of violence by blatantly violating their right to physical integrity or even right to life.

However, this does not adequately characterize the phenomenon of violence. Violence is not a single, self-contained act; rather, it has a temporal dimension that in turn affects different groups of people. Thus, violence initially has a future dimension that continues to have an effect long after the actual act of violence has occurred. This future power of violence becomes immediately evident once we take a look at the victims of violent acts. For they continue to suffer the mental and physical consequences of violent acts for a very long time, often for the rest of their lives. We know that such experiences take hold of their everyday lives in myriad ways: be it through physical limitations, psychological consequences such as insecurity, fear and depression, or social consequences such as the stigmatization of victims, their exclusion from social life and much more.

As the bishops have written, it is not only the victims of violence who suffer the consequences. Violence can also have serious consequences for those who perpetrate it. Especially the repeated use of force can dull sensibilities, dangerously lowering inhibitions for conducting further acts of violence. There is a risk that perpetrators of violence acquire a habitus that, as a result of becoming inured to violence, makes them emotionally numb to the consequences of their actions. However, this can also destroy them inwardly, forcing them to live with the burden of their actions from then onwards.

At first glance, violence occurs between perpetrators and victims. But violence can also have an enormous impact on bystanders. They can also be traumatized, experience feelings of powerlessness and horror, perhaps even feel satisfaction or approval – often they also become inured to it.

It is therefore not surprising that this complex situation often results in new violence in response, which leads to a seemingly never-ending, steadily increasing spiral of violence. Precisely because the long shadow of violence hangs over all those involved, it is a dangerous diminution to regard violence as a purely individual event. Its toxic effect is only fully grasped when also considered in terms of its social impacts. Experiences of violence – whether active or passive – can preoccupy entire societies to such an extent that they become a central focal point in crystallizing their identity. One need only think of the responsibility that Germany still bears today for the Second World War, or of how strongly the experience of being colonized is rooted in the consciousness of many countries and societies of the global South.

Given the impact of violence on the future, which is only briefly outlined here, it becomes immediately clear that violence also has a past. Acts of violence rarely occur out of nowhere. They usually have a history, without which current violence can neither be understood nor overcome. A deeper analysis of current – but also past – acts of violence shows that their histories are extremely complex and often go far back into the past. In addition, the various groups involved in the conflict often have different narratives regarding the prevailing violence. The Israeli-Palestine conflict serves as an example for the many histories of violence. The search for an objective truth in these stories is likely to be doomed to failure from the outset.

This brief treatise on violence is enough to show that violence seriously disturbs human coexistence. In light of this, it may therefore come as a surprise that neither Catholic theology nor the Catholic Church ethically prohibit the use of force in principle. The Church’s teaching on peace, which has grown over centuries, is close enough to people’s lives to know that there are situations in which intervention by means of force can be ethically justified. But because of the seriously negative consequences of violence, there must at least be a realistic prospect that correspondingly important assets and values can be protected by acts of force. The prime example of this is self-defense, in which it may be permissible, according to the principle of proportionality, to forcibly disarm the attacker or – as a last resort – to kill him. This is justified if, for example, one’s own life is in serious jeopardy. However, the right to self-defense can also be extended. For example, someone can also act in self-defense on behalf of others if the victims are unable to protect or defend themselves. Societies as a whole also have a right to self-defense, which – one cannot emphasize this often enough: as a last resort – may justify a defensive war.

However, it is precisely when third parties are threatened by acts of violence that the right to self-defense takes an important ethical turn. The right to self-defense can become a duty to help, namely if one can help to avert the dire situation experienced by the other person. The German Penal Code has even codified this duty in law – admittedly in a different context – in that Section 323c StGB makes the failure to render assistance a punishable offence. Taken from this changed perspective, it is therefore by no means wrong to say that a state has an ethical duty to ensure the protection of its citizens. As a consequence, this ethically legitimizes the Responsibility to Protect principle, which has unjustly disappeared from the consciousness of international politics. If the most serious human rights violations are committed against individuals or entire population groups, then the international community has a duty to intervene. However, recent experiences of this kind of mission have painfully shown that mere military intervention is not enough. Rather, a long-term process of conflict transformation and reconciliation must be initiated to enhance the prospect of lasting peace.

Within theological ethics, force is therefore not fundamentally forbidden. Even if it is basically evil, it can be permitted or even called for if its use secures essential assets, ends serious human rights violations and serves lasting peace.

Impulses for debating Innere Führung’s further development

Innere Führung’s commitment to constitutional values will continue to be indispensable in future. It ensures that military force does not become an end in itself or is used for evil motives. Innere Führung is only legitimate, however, if it proves to be an effective instrument for safeguarding or enforcing these values, especially human dignity. Therefore, an Innere Führung maxim is that the overarching goal of military force must always be peace. Only within the framework set by Innere Führung can the Bundeswehr – despite or even through its missions – prove to be an army for peace. This is why the following statement by the German bishops also holds lasting significance: “For as soon as the demanding ethical prerequisites for using force are no longer conscious or are in doubt, the appropriate use of this force can also no longer be expected with certainty – with far-reaching consequences for all concerned.”7

It would therefore virtually caricature this approach if it were to be abandoned in the face of the Bundeswehr’s missions. They represent the experimentum crucis for the seriousness of Innere Führung.

This high ethical standard must not be allowed, however, to obscure the reality of soldiers’ lives. Even as servants of peace, preparing for and proving oneself in combat is an integral part of this profession. Soldiers are trained to be able to use military force. The last decades have shown that this is not just an abstract theory but a real scenario. In order to meet these challenges, the Innere Führung approach should offer the possibility to also integrate elements of the so-called Spartan ethos. However, this must be done within the framework of the values already mentioned. For this reason, the Bundeswehr’s leadership would be well advised to actively lead the way here and develop such an ethos in a constructive dialog with the soldiers and civil society. Only in this way can it be possible to counteract, right from the outset, those tendencies that want to establish a special ethos within individual military units that neither accords with Innere Führung’s values nor can hope for a consensus within society. Even in combat, soldiers should be citizens in uniform and understand peace as the primacy of their mission.

1 Bohnert. Marcel (2017): Innere Führung auf dem Prüfstand. Lehren aus dem Afghanistan-Einsatz der Bundeswehr. Norderstedt, p. 80. Translation from German.

2 As in, for example, Wiesendahl, Elmar (2016): Bundeswehr without Cohesion. Negative Developments in Innere Führung. In: Ethik und Militär. Kontroversen der Militärethik und Sicherheitskultur 01/2016, p. 43–47, p. 45. (accessed 12 November 2021).

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

4 German Federal Ministry of Defense (ed.) (2008): Zentrale Dienstvorschrift A-2600/1 “Innere Führung. Selbstverständnis und Führungskultur.”, p. 108. (Accessed 31 August 2021). Translation from German.

5 Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (ed.) (2005): Soldaten als Diener des Friedens. Erklärung zur Stellung und Aufgabe der Bundeswehr. Bonn, p. 6. Translation from German.

6 Bohnert (2017), p. 94. Translation from German.

7 Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (ed.) (2005), p. 15. Translation from German.


Markus Patenge

Markus Patenge holds a doctorate in Catholic Theology with a focus on theological ethics. On completing his studies at the Catholic University of Mainz and the Philosophical-Theological University of Sankt Georgen, he became a research assistant at Sankt Georgen and at the University of Würzburg. After holding positions at the Center for Ethical Education in the Armed Forces and the Institute for World Church and Mission, he has been an advisor for the Peace Unit at the German Commission for Justice and Peace since 2019.

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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
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