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Manhood rites – Violent rituals, sexual assault and right-wing extremism in the German armed forces

By Rolf Pohl

Recent scandals occurred in the Bundeswehr include offensive, boundary-transgressing rituals that are intended to create and consolidate a sense of belonging, camaraderie and dependability. It is particularly striking that these rituals of initiation and toughness have often been accompanied by sexual assaults and right-wing extremist incidents.

Humiliating for the initiation candidates, violent and often illegal, these staged rituals are fundamentally at odds with the guiding principles of Innere Führung. However, the ideal of a military personality who is ready for battle and war – which finds a special kind of expression here – has always been part of the military self-image and the goal of military socialization in the Bundeswehr. Therefore, we are dealing with the extreme, perverted tip of an iceberg, as these are not just regrettable isolated cases that, at most, should be punished under disciplinary law but have nothing to do with the structure of the Bundeswehr.

This essay explores, from a social psychology and gender theory perspective, the deeper causes of these rituals and their similarity to initiation rites in so-called “tribal societies”. It argues that these rituals can be understood as an attempt at a hypervirile, exaggeratedly masculine self-initiation, which stems from the more or less unconscious desire to produce and strengthen a group masculinity that is ready to fight, kill and make sacrifices. This imprinting of toughness is to be achieved through the bodily overcoming of a civility that is considered to be non-masculine, weak and feminine. Together with sexist and right-wing extremist incidents, these ritual excesses indicate a certain renaissance of an archaic model of the warrior, and hence highlight the limits of applicability of a civic-minded soldierly ethos in the Bundeswehr.

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