The war in Ukraine has shifted the focus of politics in every European state. In the case of Germany, this shift was almost a complete turnaround, or as Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his historic speech on February 27, “eine Zeitenwende”. Chancellor Scholz explained in his speech that this was the time to show, “whether power is allowed to prevail over the law. Whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century and the age of the great powers. Or, whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check.” The Chancellor described the consequences he would draw from that question. He acknowledged the necessity to increase the national budget for the German armed forces. He also confirmed a clear commitment to NATO criteria for the future. The corresponding bill to establish the increased funding for defence was adopted by the German Parliament on June 3rd, 2022.
But money alone will not make the German armed forces better.
This article will point out that the increased funding must be accompanied by an improvement of civil-military interaction between military leadership and political decision makers. In addition, the understanding of each soldier as an active player in civil-military relations on the level of society must be reinforced.
I will start with outlining the context of the German Zeitenwende. Secondly, I will analyse the constitutional framework of German armed forces in the state. Lastly, I will develop measures that must accompany financial investments in order to create more efficient armed forces in Germany and draw my conclusion. My findings focus on Germany, but this text might deliver some value for other democratic states and their armed forces as well.
German Defence Policy
Until February 2022, the Bundeswehr and NATO were rarely discussed in the German Parliament, and even less often in broader public or the media. A look through the official documentation of parliamentary debates shows that the keyword “Bundeswehr” has around 300 hits for the whole legislative period of 4 years. If one looks more closely into the discussed topics it becomes clear that the parliament only discussed Bundeswehr topics on the occasions of mandates, procurement decisions or in the case of (negative) media reports about the Bundeswehr. Neither Parliament nor the relevant committee found the time or the need to start a broad discussion about the tasks and function of armed forces in Germany during that period.
However, on the international level the commitment to NATO and the idea to form a strong European common security and defence policy was articulated very explicitly. For example, during the Munich Security Conference in 2014, the former German Federal President Joachim Gauck as well as the former Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen stated that Germany was ready to do more to contribute to European and international security.[i] At the NATO Warsaw Summit in July 2016, Germany confirmed its commitment to NATO and agreed to be one of the four leaders for the multinational battle groups in Eastern Europe.
In 2016, a strategic concept on German foreign and defence policy, the so called “Weißbuch 2016” was agreed by the German government after discussions with foreign and security policy experts and input from public discussions. This strategic document summarizes key elements and parameters of German security policy and also outlines what this means for Bundeswehr requirements.
Today, the Bundeswehr commands the multinational battle group in Lithuania with around 1,000 military personnel. Furthermore, the German Army has already begun providing military personnel for the NATO Response Force (NRF) 2022-2024. And, from next year , the German Armed Forces will assume the special role of lead element for the multinational land components of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). The German Navy supports the maritime part of the VJTF. Germany will also contribute with personnel and equipment to the New Force Model, which will follow the NRF. In 2022 the German Air Force contributes to NATO’s Air Policing; it is the 13th time German Air Force fighters take part in the mission in the Baltic region.[ii] The commitment to NATO is in line with the German Weißbuch 2016, which pronounces national and collective defence as the major task for Bundeswehr.
Still, the Chief of the German Army announced in February 2022 that the German Army was not ready to face future threats.[iii] This statement might be exaggerated in order to achieve the desired effect. However, the core message, that the German Armed Forces need to improve their efficiency, is confirmed also by the leadership of the Bundeswehr: The German Minister of Defence, Christine Lambrecht, declared in a joint statement with the German Chief of Defence, Eberhard Zorn, that further action is needed in order to achieve operational readiness of the Bundeswehr. [iv]
How could it happen, that German policy had the focus on a strong commitment to NATO and EU, and still in 2022, the German Bundeswehr is not able to fulfil that role?
In some degree, unsecure funding of procurement projects, with varying financial commitments over each year can be blamed. The budget needs to be approved by parliament for every year, and that makes the investment in expensive weapon systems with following year long commitments difficult.
But, it is important to note that the budget for the German armed forces actually increased every year since 2014. It follows, that more money alone will not make the German armed forces better.
To change an existing system requires good ideas and the political will to support those changes. This clear commitment should be formulated not only by the leadership of the Bundeswehr, but also monitored by Parliament. But in the years after 2016, there was no thorough discussion on how to make the Bundeswehr an efficient army to fulfil all the tasks that were attributed to national and collective defence. The reason for this is probably a reluctance to engage in a discussion about the tasks and functions of the Bundeswehr by the political leadership and in civil society.
Therefore, improvement of civil-military relations in Germany is a prerequisite to create the necessary support within civil society for the tasks the Bundeswehr has to fulfil and to agree on the accompanying costs.
Armed forces play a decisive role in the functioning of the state. They provide the ability to use military force to the security concept of the state, and therefore contribute to safeguard its existence. But, even if armed forces are established with the sole purpose of defending the state, one should not forget that armed forces can become too powerful and therefore be a threat to the state, if they do not recognize the elected government or its institutions. They have a unique set of equipment and fully trained personnel and could therefore also be dangerous to the persistence of the state.
A way to prevent the military from threatening its own state is to integrate armed forces in the structure of the state, so that they cannot endanger it.[v] In Germany, the civil and democratic command of the armed forces is laid down in the constitution. The German Basic Law contains several norms that ensure democratic control over the Bundeswehr. Article 87a Basic Law guarantees the establishment of the armed forces as well as limiting their area of responsibility. According to the German Basic Law, armed forces are only allowed to act in order to defend the country. The definition of defending the country also allows for missions that contribute to an alliance, for example a system of mutual collective security.[vi] The German Constitutional Court draws this conclusion from the overall perspective on the German Basic Law, which is open to international law and favours the accession to international organizations and treaties.
There is a strict separation of responsibilities regarding domestic and external security threads. The Minister of Defence has the uniform command and command power over the armed forces in peace time (Article 65 a Basic Law), and in time of war this will be transferred to the chancellor (Article 115 b Basic Law). Thus, the armed forces are directly subordinated to the political leadership at the government level and are fully subject to parliamentary control. The German Basic Law further installs a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, who shall safeguard basic rights and assist the Bundestag in exercising parliamentary oversight. It shows that resulting from historical experience, the regulations about armed forces in the German Basic Law are focused on establishing effective control.
The German Basic Law does not only define those institutions, but also creates rights and duties for each individual soldier. Soldiers must stand up for the values of the Basic Law, for example, democracy, freedom and equality and they are expected to actively promote those values, especially the core principles of democracy and human rights.[vii] On the other hand, the Basic Law allows a soldier to refuse a command, if this command contradicts his/her ethical beliefs.[viii] With their founding in the 1950s, the German Armed Forces have developed a concept of leadership (called Innere Führung) in order to ensure that those values are promoted also within the armed forces. Innere Führung establishes the idea of active engagement between each soldier and society, but also includes the aim to build a structure in the armed forces, that gives room for critical thinking. The concept of Innere Führung has designed the individual soldier as an equal member of society and encourages the adoption of possible social roles in addition to the military function.
Strengthen civil-military interaction
Existing institutions in Germany build a solid foundation for civil military relations. The constitutional structure in Germany gives armed forces and soldiers a certain role in the state and in society. In addition, the concept of Innere Führung which is an integral part of Bundeswehr gives the support to each soldier, to engage with society. But institutions, procedures and concepts depend on the people, who act within those institutions and give lifeto procedures and concepts. Organizations are run by people, who can also ignore, abandon, or change them.[ix] Institutions alone cannot achieve communication, as this depends on the humans that work in the relevant positions.
The development of strategic concepts and its implementation requires communication between armed forces and civilian political leaders. Armed forces must be able to ensure that their military contribution is in line with the politically defined aim. The analysis of Gray[x] shows that this is not as easy as it sounds, as usually politicians and soldiers have opposing values, skills, perspectives and responsibilities. On the other side, political decision makers must understand the military instrument that they intend to use and be aware of its abilities.
To increase effectiveness and secure stability of the state, the political side as well as the military side of that dialogue need to acquire the ability to communicate. The military side must be prepared to give advice that fits into the strategic concept of the state and develop ideas as how to use the military instrument of power in a way that serves the political strategic objective. The political side on the other hand must be willing to receive advice and to take it into account. Armed forces need to be aware of their function in the state and political decision makers must also know how to integrate military aspects in their decision-making procedures.
In Germany, the people within the relevant institutions do not contribute enough to enhance civil-military relations. The German Parliament rarely discusses topics related to the Bundeswehr, and if it does, it is mostly about procurement projects or international mandates. The overarching idea of what to expect from armed forces and what it means to defend the country is not discussed in parliament. To improve civil-military communication, the parliament should start interaction with armed forces and civil society. The interaction should include strategic discussions about how the armed forces see themselves and what the state wants from its armed forces. Armed forces can be used with varying degrees of destructiveness, ranging from influence over deterrence to defeat.[xi] It is necessary to define in which scenarios armed forces are meant to play a role, and to what degree. After all, the main task is the use of force, which means to kill and to bekilled. Even if it is hoped that this core military ability is not used regularly, it must be defined in which scenarios the use of military force is deemed necessary.
The discussion should also be about the core concepts of NATO: defence and deterrence. It should be clear that in order to fulfil German NATO obligations, sufficient funding must be guaranteed for future years. This funding will only be given by parliament, if there is an understanding of the strategic idea behind all that money. German Parliament needs to open up a debate about what Germany expects from NATO, but also what Germany can contribute to the alliance. There must be a debate in parliament and also within society about the role armed forces should play within NATO and what costs will come with this role.
Not only Parliament, but also the Minister of Defence can contribute to improve civil-military interaction. The Minister of Defence stands at the interface between the armed forces and parliament. The minister’s function is to facilitate a constructive debate between those two sides. There should be an awareness about the different approaches to discuss strategy, especially regarding civilian and military thinking[xii] and the need to include both ways into national strategic concepts. The minister has the responsibility to promote a better understanding of the soldier in the state, and to provide for strategic clarity within the armed forces.[xiii]
The armed forces must take up their responsibility and become a confident player within civil-military relations. German armed forces already have a concept that gives the background for this interaction: the concept of Innere Führung. The initiators of the concept of Innere Führung, Kielmansegg and Baudissin, understood that democratic understanding could not be taught in a classroom alone.[xiv] Words like democracy, equality and freedom are often connected to idealistic discussions and it requires some thought to understand what effects those words have on one’s own life. They created a concept that should ensure interaction between armed forces and civil society and give soldiers the experience of what it means to live in a democratic society. The concept of Innere Führung encourages each soldier, to take part in discussions about armed forces and their role in the state. Still, public statements of soldiers are rarely found and there seems to be no room yet for an open and maybe even conflicting debate about the role of the armed forces.
The decision to increase public funding for the German armed forces is an important step to strengthening European Security. In order to achieve long term commitment, one must learn from the mistakes of the past and accompany the increased defence spending with an additional effort for civil-military interaction. Parliament as well as armed forces and civil society must understand that statecraft, military institutions, soldiers, society, and culture form a whole that must work together in order to define strategic demands for the armed forces.[xv]
In regard to parliament, as well as the armed forces, interaction must be deliberately formed in order to create the conditions for honest and transparent debate that also includes the broader public. The need to improve civil-military relations also effects the role of each soldier, and it should be emphasized that all members of the armed forces can contribute to a better understanding of the armed forces and their role in the state. On the other side there should be awareness amongst the public for the tasks that armed forces fulfil. Constant interaction will create a relationship of trust between politics, armed forces and the democratic, pluralistic society they have sworn to protect.
This article was made possible by the Administrative and Professional Exchange Programme between the US Department of Defense and the German Federal Ministry of Defense.
I would like to thank Prof. Donald Abenheim for his support and for sharing his infinite knowledge about the Bundeswehr, German civil-military relations and the history of it, with me.
[i] Gauck, Joachim (2014). https://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Joachim-Gauck/Reden/2014/01/140131-Muenchner-Sicherheitskonferenz.html. Leyen, von der (2014).
[ii] Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (BMVg), retrieved August 2022 from https://www.bundeswehr.de/en/organization/army/news/german-army-ready-for-vjtf-as-part-of-nrf-2022-2024-5376246
[iii] Frank, D. (2022), Es herrscht Krieg in Europa und das Heer steht blank da. Retrieved August 22 from https://www.behoerden-spiegel.de/2022/02/24/es-herrscht-krieg-in-europa-und-das-heer-steht-blank-da/
[iv] Bundesministerium der Verteidigung (BMVg), retrieved August 2022 from https://www.bundeswehr.de/en/organization/army/news/german-army-ready-for-vjtf-as-part-of-nrf-2022-2024-5376246
[v] Cuntz, E. (1985). Verfassungstreue der Soldaten. Schriften zum oeffentlichen Recht. Duncker&Humblot.
[vi] Federal Constitutional Court, 1994: BVerfG 2 BvE 3/92, 2 BvE 5/93, 2 BvE 7/93, 2 BvE 8/93 (12.07.1994)
[vii] Federal Administrative Court, 2017: BVerwG 2 WD 16.16 (23.03.2017).
[viii] Federal Administrative Court, 2005: BVerwG 2 WD 12.04 (21.06.2005)
[ix] Hammond, P. Y. (1961). Organizing for Defense: The American Military Establishment in the 20th Century. Princeton University Press.
[x] Gray, C. (2012). War, Peace and International Relations: An introduction to strategic history. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203180952
[xi] Strachan. H., & Harris, R. (2020). The utility of military force and public understanding in today’s Britain. RAND.
[xii] Gray, C. (2012). War, Peace and International Relations: An introduction to strategic history. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203180952
Feaver, P. D. & Kohn, R. H. (2021). Civil-Military Relations in the United States: What Senior Leaders Need to Know (and Usually Don’t). Strategic Studies Quarterly: SSQ, 15(2), 12–37.
[xiii] von Bredow, W. (2020): Armee ohne Auftrag. Die Bundeswehr und die deutsche Sicherheitspolitik. Orell Füssli Verlag
[xiv] Baudissin, W. (2014). Grundwert: Frieden in Politik - Strategie - Führung von Streitkräften. Claus von Rosen (Editor). Carola Hartmann Miles Verlag.
[xv] Abenheim, D. & Halladay, C. (2017). Soldiers, war, knowledge and citizenship : German-American essays on civil-military relations. Carola Hartmann Miles Verlag.