The Changing Culture and Mission of The German Armed Forces

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About this sample


Words: 2883 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Feb 9, 2022

Words: 2883|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Feb 9, 2022

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Pre World-War Era and the Beginning of German Military Culture
    Post World War German Military Culture: Rearmament
    Post Unification and Dawn of A New Era
  3. Conclusion


Germany has been the stage that many seismic events occurred in the 20th and 21st century. From World War I and World War II to the Cold War and the modern era, the German people have had their fair share of momentous shifts in culture and identity. Likewise, the culture of the German Armed Forces has changed with each subsequent era. From Hitler’s Wehrmacht to demilitarization to remilitarization of East Germany and West Germany, and then to unification, each version of the German Armed Forces has had its own distinct culture, ethos and history that is linked to the historical context and political climate of the Germany of that time.

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This paper will explore the changes in the culture of the German Armed Forces since the German War of Unification and answer how the German military transitioned from an imperial power to a defensive force and is now regaining an expeditionary character.

According to Austin Long in “Culture, Doctrine and Military Professionalization,” organizational culture is defined as “a shared set of beliefs about the organization and the mission” (Long 15). He argues that these beliefs shape the response of organizations and its members to their environment, challenges, opportunities and constraints relating to their environment and mission. Furthermore, culture serves as a filter for information that is received by an individual or organization, thereby allowing them to process information faster. This is much more pronounced in the professional military of various countries. As a military must process a large amount of information and intelligence quickly in order to decide it’s next strike, counterattack, or retreat, how this information is filtered and how a response is generated can be considered a function of the culture of that military.

Pre World-War Era and the Beginning of German Military Culture

Long explores the development of military culture and argues that the culture of a military begins with its “first war” (Long 25). Long describes a nation’s “first war” as “the major conflict that the organization takes as its template for developing professional education, and takes place in the period leading to and during the establishment of professional school…” (Long 25). In the case of Germany, Long considers the Wars of German Unification as the Prussion/German Army’s “first war” (Long 25). The Wars of German Unification led to the establishment of an officer corps where uneducated aristocrats dominated over educated officers (Long 25). These two blocs jockeying for power and the right to develop German military culture and doctrine would continue to struggle against each other until the late nineteenth-century when Helmuth von Moltke became the field marshal of the German Army (Long 25). Molke, who was a pro-education aristocrat, drew on the lessons learned from the Unification Wars to build the concepts and organizational culture of the German military. The cultural elements that were ingrained into the German military psyche were the need “for a mass mobilization army led by technocratic officer corps, the utility of directive command rather than detailed orders,and the importance of rapid maneuver to achieve decisive battles of encirclement and annihilation” (Long 25). These militarily important cultural precepts could be seen in subsequent German operations. For example, the idea of rapid maneuver was the foundation of the hugely successful Blitzkrieg (Long 25).

Isabel V. Hull argues in “National Politics and Military Culture “ that the unique position of the German Army in Germany’s constitution was the greatest factor in shaping its culture at the time (Hull 103). Hull argues that this unique position arose due to the German Army’s primary task to protect the monarchy from internal dissent instead of protecting the nation (Hull 103). The German Army’s relationship to the monarch was cemented when Prussion War Minister Albrecht von Roon lobbied the monarch to appoint the military’s candidate for Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (Hull 103). Bismarck then went on to use the military to unify Germany through bloodshed. The unification of Germany by the army lent the institution of the military and Bismarck an air of credibility and heroism, thereby allowing Bismarck to frame a constitution that solidly emplaced the military subordinate to the monarch. Therefore, unlike many western militaries today, the German Army was not a tool of the civilian government nor accountable to it. The Reichstag had limited budgetary powers over the military and the Prussian War Minister was generally kept out of the loop of military affairs (Hull 104). At the same time, relations between the monarchy and the military continued to prosper. High ranking military officials gained the right to meet with the monarch in the absence of the chancellor, thus allowing for the development of military policy and doctrine without civilian oversight (Hull 104).

The adoration of the military within Germany and the belief that the German Armed Forces could further German ambitions abroad fueled the rise of agitation societies such as the Pan-German League, Navy League and Army League (Hull 107). These groups sought to lobby the government to use military force to push an aggressive and expansionist foreign policy, one that they believed befitted Germany’s standing as a world power. The activities of these groups further inflated the military’s significance to German national identity and it soon became impossible to separate the military as a symbol of national identity from the actions of the institution itself (Hull 108). The symbolic nature of the military had serious effects on military culture according to Hull. She argues that the two most serious effects were the stereotyping of the military and the military’s need to succeed at all costs (Hull 108). The military was associated with grand values such as courage, strength, patriotism, brotherhood, etc. which could be seen in the media of the time. This literature had serious effects on the young men who would join the Army in search of those values. Likewise, the belief that the military could not fail were so strong and prevalent that once Germany had lost the First World War, many German did not see it as a defeat due to the superiority of the enemy or the mistakes of the Army, but a result of being “stabbed in the back at home” by the political class (Hull 109). As is well documented in history, this disenchantment with the political class by the German people and the military allowed for the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

Post World War German Military Culture: Rearmament

The crushing defeat of Germany by the Allies in 1945 was a low point for not only the German Army, but for the German people in general. It took an enormous toll on the German economy as there were acute shortages in basic necessities and millions had been killed, imprisoned or transported to the Soviet Union as laborers. Germany also lost its sovereignty, with its territory divided into four occupation zones by the victors. This eventually would lead to the creation of East and West Germany. The Potsdam Agreement of August 2nd, 1945 decided upon the complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany, so that a militaristic and aggressive German state would never rise up again and threaten Europe (Nielsen 24). Thus, within the span of a year, a proud military culture and organization that had been developed since the nineteenth century dissolved into nothing. In West Germany, the Allies undertook a massive task inculcating pro-Western, anti-militaristic precepts into the German people through schools, written press, churches, etc (Nielsen 24). The Nuremberg Trials were broadcast extensively and the leaders of the military were publicly indicted. The utter defeat of the German military, which had been the premier institution that embodied the spirit and culture of Germany, led to intense soul searching by the political class for the next couple decades (Niesen 25). Groups across the political spectrum came to different conclusions as to why Germany was defeated. Leftist groups began to champion a “never again war” warcry that informed their decisions and policy toward rearmament. On the right, the idea of “never again alone” emerged (Nielsen 25). The right saw the need to integrate Germany and German culture with the West, thereby ensuring that the security of Germany from future threats. The clashes between these two groups led to a new military and strategic culture for the future Bundeswehr, one that sought to “seek partnership and cooperation, emphasis on creating trust between Germany and its partners and neighbors, a defence posture that eschewed offensive strategies, and general restraint in security and military matters” (Nielsen 26). This new culture severely contrasted from the culture of the Prussian Army and the Wehrmacht, which emphasized quick and decisive offensive strategies, and which did not place much trust in the capabilities of allies due to the belief in German military superiority. Additionally, the attitudes of the “never again war” and “never alone again” groups significantly differed from the ideas and ambitions of the Navy Society, Army Society and Pan-German League of the nineteenth century, who sought aggressive German intervention abroad.

As stated previously, the idea of German rearmament was controversial within Germany due to fears of a repeat of 1945. It was also extremely controversial to Germany’s neighbors, who had suffered from past German territorial ambitions and feared future German aggression. Thus when Germany requested admittance to NATO, other European countries resisted. Konrad Adenauer, who was elected chancellor of the first post-war German government, saw rearmament and admittance to NATO as critical to his goal of integrating with the West. He also realized that West Germany would have to appease the fears of her neighbors in light of recent history (Nielson 26). Changing geopolitical calculus eventually allowed West Germany to overcome the opposition to her admittance to NATO as the West began to focus on the rising threat of the Soviet Union and a communist China. In 1954, nine years after the end of World War II, Germany was invited to join NATO and begin the process of rearmament.

Thus Adenauer began the onerous task of rebuilding a military that would not pose a threat to Germany’s neighbors or to the German democracy (Nielsen 29). Nielsen describes how Adenauer summoned to Himmerod Abbey in the Eifel Mountains the founding fathers of the Bundeswehr, a group of former Wehrmacht officers, and tasked them with building a democratic and defensive military (Nielsen 29). In order to reassure critics at home and abroad, the German military had many safeguards placed on its operation. It relied on NATO for critical command and control assets in addition to the deterrence provided by nuclear weapons of other NATO members (Nielsen 29). The military chain of command structure was made weak, and the highest ranking officers of the army, navy and air force all reported directly to the civilian Minister of Defence (Nielsen 29). The highest ranking military member of the Bundeswehr, notably named the Inspector General instead of “commander” did not have any command authority (Nielsen 29). All active duty German forces were subordinate to the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. Additionally, Germany renounced any intention to develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapon or build long range strategic bombers or large warships (Nielsen 29). Thus, the military was constrained from taking any aggressive action, and was strictly subordinate and accountable to the civilian government and western powers. Moreover, the character of the ideal soldier changed. Whereas the values of manliness, courage and bravado were empasized and venerated within the Prussian and Nazi Army, the concept of “well-informed and well-educated citizen soldiers” was emphasized in the ranks of new German soldiers (Nielsen 30). The education and indoctrination of soldiers emphasized the Bundeswehr’s subordination to the civilian government. These programmes “aimed on creating politically informed soldiers, capable of distinguishing between legitimate and criminal orders, between democracy and repression” (Nielson 30), thereby hopefully preventing a repeat of the war atrocities of World War II. Thus, the newly founded Bundeswehr had a significantly different culture and purpose than its predecessors. Within the new German Armed Forces, “the ethos had been civilized, the civic rights of the soldiers secured to an extent unmatched in German history, the social diversity of the officer corps increased, and the variety of political attitudes and allegiances within the armed forces broadened” (Nielson 30). The introduction of conscription in 1956 ensured that the military would benefit from a wide variety of opinions, cultures and voices within itself.

Post Unification and Dawn of A New Era

After rearmament, there was a topic that politicians across the spectrum agreed upon, and that was that Germany would not deploy her troops outside Europe to participate in interventions (Nielsen 39). Thus Germany shied away from the proxy wars that occurred during the Cold War. When the US requested that Germany provide assistance in Vietnam, Germany politely declined stating that the newly formed Bundeswehr was not ready to fight abroad (Nielsen 39). Similarly, when West Germany joined the UN in 1973, she refused to participate in UN peacekeeping missions (Nielsen 39). This reluctance to participate in combat operations outside of Europe can be seen as a direct result of the post war perception and culture of the German military. Firstly, many of the political class pointed to a supposed constitutional prohibition against deployment of troops outside of Europe (Niesen 39). Germany’s political class, especially on the left, also felt that in light of recent history, Germany had no right to intervene abroad (Niesen 39). The right was worried that the diversion of NATO resources away from Europe would leave West Germany vulnerable to the Soviet Union and therefore advocated against sending troops abroad (Nielsen 39). Furthermore, a more activist Germany which deployed troops abroad would breed distrust in the neighboring European countries still wary of German aggression. But with the winding down of the Cold War in the 1980s, the probability of war in Europe drastically reduced (Nielsen 40). This led to a slow but sure cultural shift within Germany on the role of the military in global affairs. In order to allow the Bundeswehr to operate outside of Europe, a number of legal and political obstacles had to be overcome. But the German political class saw this a necessary if Germany were to remain relevant in the new world order that was emerging following the end of the Cold War (Noetzel & Schreer 212). The most important step towards this goal was in 1994 when the federal constitutional court ruled that it was legal to deploy troops abroad. Thus Germany began to take part in numerous multinational operations in the late 1990s. A notable example would be the Bundeswehr’s participation in NATO’s intervention in Serbia. Yet despite the new legal standing for the use of military force abroad, it still remained a controversial topic for the German public (Noetzal & Schreer 213). Germany’s appetite for foreign wars would be severely tested at the beginning of the 21st century with the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2019 on US soil and the subsequent War on Terror (Noetzel & Schreer 213).

The War on Terror and insurgency created new realities that forced the Bundeswehr to rethink its culture, priorities and strategy. The Bundeswehr, in order to satisfy public and constitutional demand that it remain a defensive force was ill equipped to become the expeditionary force that it needed to become in order to deploy and fight abroad in the 21st century. Furthermore, while the concept of German troops deploying abroad became slowly normalized, the German public expected the Bundeswehr to avoid participating in combat operations and mainly focus on reconstruction and stability operations (Noetzel & Schreer 219). This can be seen in Germany’s participation in Afghanistan. Despite providing a large share of troops to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, Germany had deployed them in the relatively calm northern region of the country in support of reconstruction efforts there (Noetzel & Schreer 212). Thus German troops did not participate alongside other NATO allies in combat operations against insurgents (Noetzel & Schreer 212).

Additionally, government studies have found that the Bundeswehr is chronically deficient in the types of units required for a counter insurgency expeditionary force, such as highly trained regular combat infantry, combat support units and special forces (Noetzel & Schreer 217). Also notable is that the Bundeswehr lacks combat experience post World War II, unlike the United States, Britain and France. Thus, the Bundeswehr does not have a “first war” as described earlier to draw lessons and build doctrine and culture from. This inhibits the ability of German troops to respond to rapidly changing insurgency threat even if the German public approved the use of German troops in combat operations.

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The military of the Germany has undergone significant shifts in culture and purpose since the nineteenth century. Once a tool of the monarch and the epitome of all good things German, the character of the German Armed Forces today is significantly different. Grounded in a culture of defense and subordination to the civilian government, the Bundeswehr successfully navigated the ebbs and flows of the Cold War. But with the emergence of a new world order which requires the Bundeswehr to take on a more expeditionary nature, the Bundeswehr is woefully unprepared. A new culture will need to be forged, one that respects the need for an active German military to support Germany’s allies while still living up to the expectations of the German people as a force whose primary goal is to protect Germany under the oversight of the civilian government.

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The Changing Culture and Mission of the German Armed Forces. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“The Changing Culture and Mission of the German Armed Forces.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
The Changing Culture and Mission of the German Armed Forces. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
The Changing Culture and Mission of the German Armed Forces [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Feb 10 [cited 2024 May 30]. Available from:
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