Germany’s Uniquely Moral Army

The German military, the Bundeswehr  (“Federal Defence”) is officially forbidden to do anything other than defend the country (although there is some limited participation in humanitarian and NATO coalition missions, wherein they usually operate under incredibly strict rules of engagement).

But beyond this constraint — which in theory are is shared by many counterparts across the world that otherwise circumvent them — Germany’s armed forces are exceptional in one incredible way: it prohibits “unconditional obedience” and requires soldiers of any rank to disobey an order if it violates human rights or “denies human dignity”. German troops are trained in the practice of Innere Führung (roughly translatable to “inner guidance” or “inner leadership”) in which the final decision-making process should be the “conscience of each individual” as informed by historical, political, and ethical education provided by the military.

…the central obligation of every soldier of the Federal Armed Forces to carry out orders conscientiously does not demand unconditional obedience, but an obedience which is thinking and which, in particular, takes into consideration the consequences of carrying out the order.

Moreover, German soldiers can refuse a combat assignment, or disobey an order, even during the heat of battle or when given by a high-ranking official. Both the German government and the civil courts have repeatedly upheld this right (Germany has no military courts), and in 2007 the federal government went even further in decreeing that unconditional authority or unquestioned loyalty is anathema to German law and society.

To further emphasize these values, the swearing in ceremony for some new units of German soldiers traditionally takes place in Bendlerblock, a building in Berlin where attempted assassins of Hitler were executed, and which now serves as a museum dedicated to the German resistance. Indeed, it is also the headquarters of Germany’s defense ministry.


The south facade of Bendlerblock

Needless to say, the brutal legacy of the world wars and the Holocaust – which included oaths of unconditional loyalty to the state – have contributed to Germany’s exceptional approach to both civilian and military authority.


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