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date: 25 June 2024

Germany: An Army in a Democracy in an Epoch of Extremeslocked

Germany: An Army in a Democracy in an Epoch of Extremeslocked

  • Donald AbenheimDonald AbenheimDepartment of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School
  •  and Carolyn HalladayCarolyn HalladayDepartment of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School


The German soldier and German politics in the second decade of the 21st century face the challenges of a deteriorating international system as well as the reappearance of integral nationalism at home and abroad. The security-building roles and missions of the German armed forces in the three decades since unity are being reoriented to alliance collective defense as well as security building amid great friction with sources near and far. These phenomena in their variety threaten the civic and multilateral tenets of German statecraft as well as fundamental military standards and defense organization since 1949, and in particular, since unification in 1990. Specifically, the constants of postwar German democratic civil–military relations—the citizen in uniform, both bound and empowered by Innere Führung, serving in arms in a force firmly located in European and alliance structures but with a low profile at home, undergirded by both legal and social preferences—have had to withstand multiple blows of late. Some of these blows have been a result of unintended consequences of various policies or nonpolicies articulated without sufficient regard for current context; some as a result of unforced errors by leaders relying on outdated assumptions; and some as intentional provocations amid a fraying political consensus. While the German defense establishment—civilian and uniformed—has thus far mostly mastered these circumstances, the strain on German democratic civil–military relations is unmistakable. Thus, Germany’s civil–military relations face the test that they have well surmounted in the past, that is, to have a good democracy and a good army at the same time. The Bundeswehr’s 2020 deployment amid the coronavirus crisis, alongside discussions about a corona dividend in times of exploding state deficits, seems to have boosted soldiers’ popularity, and thus has opened a new facet of civil–military relations. However, the Bundeswehr must be careful not to foster a self-image of camouflaged civilian service or to create an identity crisis of its Afghanistan veterans serving for months as attendants in retirement homes. The public debate and official reflection manifest at best a mediocre comprehension of the needs of the soldier and the imperative to find a usable past for soldiers asked to defend democracy against its many enemies, without falling prey to militarism and integral nationalism. Innere Führung remains the valid heritage of the German soldier, even—or perhaps especially—for those who are asked by duty and fate to risk their lives in combat.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • World Politics

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