John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

The German Officer: Commitments Old and New

John Wilkins
February 26, 1968

Fellowship Year


Federal Republic Of Germany

February 23, 1968


Mr. Wilkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from THE TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE, Tacoma, Washington. This article may be published without special permission.

“Whom, then, should the young officer take as a model? Field Marshal von Manstein, who received great acclaim recently on his 80th birthday? Or Guderian? Perhaps Rommel? But how about Jodl, who said in his memorable 1943 review of the military situation that The Reich would achieve final victory because ethical and moral right were on Germany’s side, because Germany had a leader who was a political and military genius, and because Germany had to win?”

That question was addressed last December in Munich to some 20 West German officers of field rank, 100 or so junior officers, and about 200 people from education, government, politics and the intellectual community. The speaker, a member of a five-man panel was Dr. Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, assistant professor of political science at the University of Bonn.

Since then I have asked basically the same question — without the barbed reference to Jodl — of five German officers with World War II backgrounds.

Almost all officers above the rank of captain have such a background. When I asked the question of one of them, he happily went into comparisons of various commanders, leaning considerably toward Field Marshal Model, under whom lie had served, and minimizing Rommel:

**Dr. Jacobsen asks a difficult question.

“ln Britain and America they want to know all about Rommel. He was a good leader in the field, but in Africa he didn’t command even a full corps. He didn’t have the ability of a real field marshal, responsible for entire corps and armies on a vast front.”

Well, that hadn’t been exactly in mind when I asked him about appropriate models for today’s young officers. I was thinking not of tactical or strategic brilliance alone, though admittedly I hadn’t made this clear.

What I did have in mind was what Dr. Jacobsen had in mind at the Munich conference.

Jacobsen is tall, energetic, in his mid-forties. He served on the Russian front as a lieutenant and spent five post-war years (as did a vast number of German officers) as a prisoner in Russia. Believing that West Germans should become increasingly democratic in spirit and manner to match their republican political structure, he sees, for instance, a need for a less formal stance by university faculty. And in the armed forces he sees a special problem — not so much of manner in itself but of commitment.

Topic of the conference, sponsored by the Hans Seidel Foundation, was “The Bundeswehr: Mission and Structure of The Modern Army.” The other panelists, including a general, emphasized from the perspective of their responsibilities that the Army is part of society: a technological society, a society closely bound to its Atlantic Alliance partners.

And, commented Jacobsen, democracy is that society’s ideology — so whom should the models be for a democratic Bundeswehr?

Earlier, Jacobsen had categorized to me the types of World War II commanders along these lines:

**Above: Dr. Richard Jaeger (2nd left), vice president of the bundestag, grins at tart remark from Dr. Jacobsen (right). Jacobsen had asked what the government was doing to educate Germans about democracy. Jaeger had replied by citing the federal press and information office.

**Below: Former school administrator comments, “If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the Federal Republic has already lost the next war.”

  1. The “purely military type” of von Manstein and Guderian, brilliant commanders who, according to Jacobsen, in a military sense were admirable but who avoided the moral challenge of Nazi atrocities with an attitude of “Orders are orders.”
  2. Commanders who chose suicide because they could neither bring themselves to follow Nazi orders nor to revolt.
  3. Commanders such as von Leeb, who on religious grounds said they could not follow orders, and were fired by Hitler.
  4. The Jodl type, who were dazzled by Hitler and became fanatics, with ideology overpowering moral scruples and warping military judgment.
  5. Those such as Rommel who went, through the “Saul to Paul” experience, eagerly following Hitler in the beginning but finally arriving at the point that they were willing to attempt to overthrow him for the good of Germany.
  6. Officers like Klaus von Stauffenberg and Ludwig Beck who plotted to overthrow Hitler from the time they learned of his war plans.

Jacobsen’s question at the conference was rhetorical. He could hardly expect government officials and senior officers to debate the precise point at which General so-and-so should have done such-and-such. It would also be unrealistic to expect that at such a meeting junior officers would exercise themselves in projecting the behavior of a model World War II commander against a theoretical future challenge to their values. Nevertheless, Jacobsen told me at the conference that he felt the Defense Ministry should give some kind of guidance in this matter, in view of recent German history. Though an American may view his own nation’s history with a casually critical eye and have little regard for some of his past generals, especially political ones, the facts are that we won our wars and that our military tradition is a continuous one. But the German military tradition received a terrible wound in 1918 and a worse one in 1945. The Bundeswehr is 12 years old, and German democracy, reincarnated after the death of the Weimar Republic, is not much older.

Nevertheless, Jacobsen now says that he has the answer to the problem of models. He got it from a large group of the junior officers at the end of the conference. It is simply this:

Young officers choose their models from the commanders who now lead them: commanders who inspire respect by professional competence and by dedication and discipline that are tempered by “human” qualities and general intelligence. Past models just don’t apply, as they did in former German armies. Young officers should imitate those of their present leaders who seem to be good defenders of a democratic society and good members of it.

However, the specter of World War Il can not be forced to bow out of the picture quite as nicely as all that. The present commanders were in that war as captains or majors or above. A junior officer assesses his superior to some degree, at least, on knowledge or hearsay or intuition regarding the older man’s wartime role. Allcontinuity in the military tradition is not broken. But more and more the newcomers are moving up.

A New Breed

In 1956, 64 per cent of the officers were veterans. Now it is 50 percent, and by 1980 only a very few, at the very top, will be veterans.

Today all officer candidates must have an “abitur,” the matriculation certificate that qualifies a German for university entrance. The abitur is usually won at the age of 19 or 20 after a study program which, in American terms, is roughly equivalent to graduation from a top high school plus a year or more at a good coll6ge It is striking that all the new junior officers and 90 per cent of the generals have abiturs as compared with only 50 per cent of majors and lieutenant-colonels, whose education was interrupted by the war.

So there is a considerable gap between the lieutenant and the major who leads his unit: a wide gap in age; a gap between the conditioning of a good, generally liberal education and the conditioning of wartime “on-the-job” training; a gap between, on one side, being two years old in 1950 and growing up with a generation that largely rejected “the old German ways” and scorned the Nazis in documentary films — and, on the other side, returning from a Russian prison camp in 1950, bitterly trying to build a new life, and, in 1956, finding in the Bundeswehr a thread of continuity as well as a kind of vindication in still being in “the front line against Communism.”

In 1930, half the German officers were from families of the nobility. Today fewer than three per cent have such roots (with the generals at 9.2 per cent).

Today about 12 per cent of officer candidates are sons of officers. About 30 per cent are from families connected with non-military branches of government service.

The greatest number are from non-governmental white-collar backgrounds. Only four per cent are from blue-collar — a partial reflection of the slowness with which the “lower classes” are reaching abitur level.

In the opinion of or. Jacobsen, the motivation of the new officers is far different from previous ones. Little of family tradition or pride in wearing the uniform. A cool assessment of a career in the Luftwaffe as against Lufthansa, military communications as against Siemens, in purely professional terms: challenge, opportunity, pay.

Yet it cannot be as simple as that. There must be some further commitment for most men choosing a military career: patriotism, a concept of a possible enemy. In their basic attitude toward the partition of Germany they cannot be too distant from their commanders. The difference is of perspective and emphasis. And in view of West Germany’s “front ‘Line” position and the hot-house nature of her political life, the young officers’ sophistication in regard to their own democracy and the various Communisms to the East may prove to be extremely important.

Democratic Ideology

West Germany is democratic. In some ways, some Germans are frightfully democratic.

You hear the word “democratic” much more frequently than in The States. Such and such a thing is “not democratic,” a German declares, wagging his finger under someone’s nose. You get the impression that many Germans would like to have a perfect democracy; this is good to know, though you are left feeling uncomfortable because no democracy is pure.

From two German officers in their early fifties I got the same earnest message: freedom’s front lines are in two places, Germany and Vietnam, and Communism must not be allowed to advance in either place. It is obvious that that generation of officers has accepted the democratic day-to-day society that exists in their nation.

They are not autocratic types. By going along with the Nazis they did accept the “socialist” part of National Socialism. They will tolerate continuing domestic social change — but eyes glint and jaws tighten at any suggestion of “softness toward Communism.” To these officers — and to a great many Germans — the recent anti-Vietnam demonstrations were an indirect assault on West Germany.

An American may deplore the rigid anti-Communism that categorizes American anti-Vietnam demonstrators as traitors — but it is hard to split hairs with Germans who are particularly chagrined about such demonstrations in Berlin. That is one place where it can really be said, “Why don’t you demonstrate against the Communists, too?” The prison wall is right there.

And right there is the basic German problem: sometime the wall dividing these people must go, but when and how?

And what if it should go in a manner somewhat like the following bad dream?

…The 1972 elections have just been held. The Christian Democratic-Christian Social Union alliance remains the biggest party but doesn’t have a working majority so forms a new coalition. The Grand Coalition is finished. The new partner is the nationalistic National Democratic Party, which has received 10 per cent of the vote.

Immediately The Soviet Union and the East German regime mount tremendous propaganda campaigns against Bonn’s “neo-Nazism,” propaganda that is motivated partly by the desire to keep other Eastern European nations afraid of the Germans.

In 1974 a strong economic recession begins. The Social Democrats say it would be eased by a normal flow of trade between West and East Germany. And indeed, the Social Democrats have been advocating a compromise with the East. They say that if elected they will recognize the East German regime and agree to cut the strength of the Bundeswehr in return for closer economic ties and an embryo confederation.

By the 1976 elections, the economy has not improved; red flags fly, especially in the Ruhr, and the nation has been experiencing its first massive, sustained strikes since before the Nazi period. The dissidents who had given protest votes to the National Democrats in 1972 now swing to the Communist Party (which had been made legal again in 1969). The rightist and moderate wings of the CDU/CSU are divided on what measures to take against the crippling strikes.

When the votes are counted in 1976, the Social Democrats and Communists have a bare majority. They form a coalition, and the new government orders a cutback in the Bundeswehr, partly for economic reasons and partly as part of the compromise with East Germany. Rumors fly that the next step will be withdrawal from NATO, though the government denies it. Anti-Communist riots break out, led by “defense echelons” of the National Democrats . . . And throughout the land, people ask, “What will the Army do?”

The above picture most likely will remain a bad dream. But the dream contains reflections of the latent pressures on West German democracy, pressures that exist because West Germany is a democracy, because she is also a product of her history, and because she is walled off from the rest of Germany.

If these pressures do come fully into play, the officers who are now beginning their careers will have to be their own models.

Received in New York February 26, 1968