Officer Training
Studying versus practical experience

Do German officers need more general education or more practical experience? Dieter H. Kollmer discusses why it is careless and possibly even dangerous to neglect the theory element and or general education of officer training, based on historical events. By DIETER H. KOLLMER

Translated by Stefanie Jaekel and Christine Crawford.

Sporadic derailments within the German Armed Forces1 have repeatedly shown that a German officer's level of general education and history knowledge, is not exactly the best. The underlying issue is to what extent an officer (especially on a foreign assignment), should receive general military training or state and public responsibility. The focus should be on a broad education, especially in history and politics. This article highlights this controversial issue, which has been ongoing within the military for 200 years. It shows how the German Armed Forces deal with this challenge nowadays.

Prussian-German officer training has always been a combination of practice and theory. In contrast to other nations' pure "cadet academy training", a trainee Prussian-German officer has always learned the practical elements at all military levels (in the ranks of teams, a non-commissioned officer) first. They built on this experience with theoretical knowledge gained on special officer courses. "The steady [...] back and forth movement between those two poles of science and practice"2 is a further "constant" in the ongoing struggle to achieve the best education for the younger generation of officers. In most cases, officer training reforms were often slower in comparison to politics, society, economy and science.3 The German Army has been a pioneer in this area. The younger branches of the German Armed Forces, i.e. the Navy and the Air Force, have adapted officer training to their needs, but adhered to the principles of military training.

Education instead of noble roots – Officer training reform following the 1808 Prussian Army reform
In 1806, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst was commissioned by the King of Prussia, to reform the Royal Prussian Army officer training, following their crushing defeat by Napoleon's armed forces. Scharnhorst presumed that the failure of many Prussian officers during the war against France, was largely due to their poor training and inadequate mental flexibility. Therefore, the mental abilities and judgement of officers should be strengthened in the future, to meet the requirements of modern war. The requirements for Prussian officers were accordingly adjusted: Their education level, not their noble roots – should be the deciding factor for their career.4 The constant struggle to strengthen the humanistic education within the Prussian (-German) officer training began here.5

Constant changes within Prussian officer training during the 19th century
The fundamentally reformed officer training contradicted the ideas of the Prussian officer corporals, which are anchored in their traditions.6 There were still plenty of officers who opposed a curbing of general education within officer training. These mostly well educated officers, did not want a "scientification" of their training, but rather to use the latest scientific military research findings in order to keep up with changes in state and society. In 1844, the King of Prussia issued a directive, making the bourgeois ideal of education, the basis for Prussian officer training. Since 1871, proof of the baccalaureate was required from each officer candidate. Exceptions were only made for candidates who had previously completed cadet school. This ensured there was still a need for officer candidates from the so-called "desired circles" (sons of nobles, officers and high officials).

Failed officer training within the German Empire 1871-1918
After the uniting wars (1864-1871), Prussian officer corporals took on a leading role within the German Empire. This was in direct contradiction to the social and academic development during this time. Education was considered to be a bourgeois achievement, which is why mainly noble officers believed it was incompatible with the "practical" aspects of the military. Prussian Army training focused on character and mind development, rather than on intensive knowledge transfer.7 Officer training reform in 1907 intensified this development, which amongst other things, stopped social policy issues being addressed during classes. During the industrial age, most officers were inadequately prepared for the complexity of war. Mental agility, initiative, foresight and the ability to 'think outside the box' within a leadership role, remained an exception. This dramatic aberration turned out to be disastrous for the Imperial Army during the First World War.

"Non-political" officer training in the Weimar Republic 1921-1933
Awareness gained, during the First World War, should have led to drastic changes in officer training, within the armed forces of the Weimar Republic. However, since the regulations of the Treaty of Versailles were based on a purely military, weapon technical and craft training for future army officers, the Conservative Head of the Army Command, General Hans von Seeckt, used the imperial educational concept: "character goes over power", as his principle for training troop officers. Consequently, military specific training reached a very high level.8 In complete contradiction to this, political and general education were reduced to a minimum. Von Seeckt's goal was to keep the armed forces out of current political affairs, so that they could not be dragged into party conflicts or decisions, as they were during the early years of the Weimar Republic. Unfortunately, this resulted in many young officers being unable to properly understand and assess the political development of the German Reich in the early 1930s.

Decomposition of traditional Prussian officer corps during the Third Reich
Forced integration of the armed forces into society, via the "national-socialist movement", resulted in a shake-up of how officers were recruited and trained?9 The national-socialist leaders wanted the "fittest", without snobbery based on intellect or status, to hold key roles within society. Responsibility, commitment, superior skills, relentless perseverance, character and performance were the deciding criteria for future Wermacht officers, not education or professional qualifications. During the Second World War, the authorities tried to implement the so-called "selection of the best", meaning that 'qualities of character and heart were more important than the mind". From this point onwards, "proof of military probation" was the deciding criteria. Training was praxis-orientated and mainly carried out by officers with front line experience. Due to the national-socialist ideology and high losses during the Second World War, the class-oriented, value-based, political and social elite, turned into a functionary elite.

Studying for officers – Development of officer training in the early years of the German Armed Forces
In 1955, just 10 years after the end of the Second World War, the Federal Republic of Germany received permission to set up their own armed forces. Given the particular circumstances, staff officers and sergeant ranks, exclusively consisted of former members of the Wehrmacht. Due to the high pace of recruitment (the original goal was 600,000 men in five years), the first German Armed Forces' officer candidates only received a very short period of training and had to learn many important issues themselves, during the course of their service. This changed in the mid-1960s, when it was agreed that officer training had to adapt to social and scientific progress.10 The baccalaureate became mandatory for all German Armed Forces' officer candidates. A "three-step plan", introduced between 1965 and 1971, encompassed the expected social and intellectual developmental stages of an officer. The core of this concept was an appropriate combination of theory and practical, general education and military-based knowledge.

An officer could only meet the comprehensive intellectual requirements of his profession, if he had been trained to a reasonably high level. Following this, the Defence Department established the German Armed Forces' universities in Hamburg and Munich on October 1, 1973. Since then, the vast majority of officers have studied there. The academic degree increases the attractiveness of the profession and offers an officer a civil, professional and quality education.11

Officer training today
Prior to academic training, future officers of the German Armed Forces received the specific military education, taught in military academies around the world. "traditional" topics such as tactics and internal leadership/pedagogy form a central component. Military law and political education, illustrate the values of a free democratic society. Unfortunately, these values are often inadequately taught in school. The same is true for the historic educational background of officer candidates. This is why, the basics of European history from 1648 until the German reunification, are explained first in military history. In this context, the traditional understanding of the German Armed Forces is mediated and the responsibility of the (Prussian-) German military for special developments in Germany's history is highlighted.12

In response to new threats since the beginning of the 21st century, additional skills are in demand.13 The mission of the German Armed Forces was and is always outlined by a political mandate and subject to the applicable national and international law. However, friend and foe are not always clearly distinguished from one another. Consistent and clear rules of conduct do not exist for many – very complex situations. In order to make appropriate decisions, future officers learn basic beliefs based on the constitution, as a solid ethical and value-based foundation. New, application-oriented training should prepare officers for a comprehensive assessment of complex situations. Thinking in and acting on a larger context, also far beyond actual military tasks, should be a basic requirement.14

 An officer in the German Armed Forces has to be an educator, a trainer and a leader, all at the same time.

Complex operations require well-trained leadership
In particular, within the context of missions abroad, an increasing number of voices demand a much stronger practical orientation of officer training.15 This is a difficult ask, due to the increasing complexity of our environment. An officer in the German Armed Forces has to be an educator, a trainer and a leader, all at the same time. To meet these high demands, an officer needs to understand complex issues and act in the interests of superior leadership. The comprehensive theoretical instruction in the officer schools and universities, are essential preparation, for leadership roles in the armed forces of a highly industrialised service economy. An individual has to be responsible for and manage the consequences of his actions, and understand that their sphere of duty, is one part of an overall structure. The majority of officers during the two world wars were not effective leaders.

This article is based on a speech relating to an occasion marking the 175th anniversary of the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands Armed Forces, in Breda - summer 2003. The main theses were subsequently published in multiple journals. Nevertheless, the subject remains a desirable scientific topic.

[1] The so-called "Roeder affair" at the leadership academy of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg or the published theses of the retired General Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof.- Cf. e.g. URL:
[2] Cf. Bald, Detlef: Der deutsche Offizier. Sozial- und Bildungsgeschichte des deutschen Offizierkorps im 20. Jahrhundert, München 1982, p. 101.
[3] Cf. Kurz, Martin: Reform und Restauration der Offizierausbildung der Bundeswehr. Strukturen und Konzeptionen der Offizierausbildung im Widerstreit militärischer und politischer Interessen, Baden-Baden 1982, p. 13.
[4] For the concept of officer training reform under Scharnhorst cf. e.g.: Hoppe, Marie-Nicolette: Scharnhorsts Gedanken zur Reform der Offizierausbildung, Bonn 1990.
[5] Cf. Hartmann, Uwe: Erziehung von Erwachsenen als Problem pädagogischer Theorie und Praxis. Eine historisch-systematische Analyse des pädagogischen Feldes "Bundeswehr" mit dem Ziel einer pädagogischen Explikation des Erziehungsbegriffes im Hinblick auf erwachsenenpädagogisches Handeln, Frankfurt a. M. 1994, pp. 146ff.
[6] Cf. Demeter, Karl: Das Deutsche Offizierkorps in Gesellschaft und Staat 1650-1945, 2nd edition, Frankfurt a. M. 1962, pp. 76ff.- This is the standard reference regarding German officer training, until 1945.
[7] Cf. Ostertag, Heiger: Bildung, Ausbildung und Erziehung des Offizierkorps im deutschen Kaiserreich zwischen 1871 und 1918. Eliteideal, Anspruch und Wirklichkeit, Frankfurt a. M. 1990, pp. 305f.
[8] For officer training in the Imperial Army cf. above all: Bald, Detlef: Der deutsche Offizier. Sozial- und Bildungsgeschichte des deutschen Offizierkorps im 20. Jahrhundert, München 1982; Demeter 1962.
[9] Cf. Kroener, Bernhard R.: Strukturelle Veränderungen in der militärischen Gesellschaft des Dritten Reiches, in: Prinz, Michael; Zitelmann, Rainer: Nationalsozialismus und Modernisierung, Darmstadt 1991, p. 280.- Kroener illustrates very interesting points, within his contribution to the development of the Officer Corps in the "Third Reich" and discusses the resulting consequences for the German Armed Forces.
[10] Cf. Kurz, Martin: Reform als Weg aus der Katastrophe, in: Linnenkamp, Hilmar; Lutz, Dieter S. (eds.): Innere Führung. Zum Gedenken an Wolf Graf von Baudissin, Baden-Baden 1995, pp. 71-94.
[11] Cf. Klein, Paul; Lippert, Ekkehard: Die Bedeutung und Ziele der akademischen Anteile in der Offizierausbildung, in: Soldat - ein Berufsbild im Wandel, Vol. 2: Offiziere, Bonn 1993, pp. 191-200.
[12] Cf. Hauptmann, Jörg: Militärgeschichte in der Offiziersausbildung, Dresden 2006.
[13] Cf. e.g. Warburg, Jens: Paradoxe Anforderungen an Soldaten im (Kriegs-) Einsatz, in: Dörffler-Dierken, Angelika; Kümmel Gerhard (eds.): Identität, Selbstverständnis, Berufsbild. Implikationen der neuen Einsatzrealität für die Bundeswehr, Wiesbaden 2010, pp. 57-76.
[14] On the issue as a whole cf. e.g.: Hartmann, Uwe; von Rosen, Claus; Walther, Christian (eds.): Jahrbuch Innere Führung 2012: Der Soldatenberuf im Spagat zwischen gesellschaftlicher Integration und suis generis-Ansprüchen, Berlin 2012.
[15] Cf. e.g. the partially unworldly theses by: Trull, Christian: Ausbildung, Führung und Erziehung unseres Nachwuchses, in: Der Panzergrenadier. Zeitschrift des Freundeskreises der Panzergrenadiertruppe e.V., Munster 2002, No. 11, p. 9.


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