If you ask Bundeswehr soldiers, many of them feel that they are not appreciated enough. A look at other countries shows how soldiers in uniform are sometimes treated very favourably. The German population is rather reserved. What is that all about?
The Centre for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBw) has conducted a study on the German population’s appreciation of the Bundeswehr and found something surprising.Germans do indeed stand by their army. But there is a lack of ways to express this.
A guest article.
Guest article by Dr Meike Wanner and Dr Timo Graf (both ZMSBw)
h1.Only a valued Bundeswehr can be successful.
From the Bundeswehr’s point of view, the issue of social esteem is particularly relevant, because both the legitimisation of the tasks by the population and the integration of the armed forces into society represent central objectives of the Bundeswehr’s self-image, Innere Führung. Another central objective of Innere Führung, which can be influenced by the first two aspects mentioned, is motivation, i.e. the willingness of soldiers to perform their duty, to assume responsibility and to maintain discipline and cohesion in the force. As a 2016 armed forces survey by the Centre for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBw) on the attractiveness of the Bundeswehr as an employer found, the everyday positive experience of an employer who is respected and regarded by the public is the second most important reason for the temporary soldiers surveyed to decide to renew their contract or apply to become a professional soldier, after the desire to be able to identify with the goals of the Bundeswehr.
What is the prevailing perception among soldiers of the Bundeswehr’s social standing?
The empirical findings of the internal Bundeswehr surveys conducted by the ZMSBw in 2009 and 2013 on this topic are clear: only 20 per cent of the soldiers surveyed are satisfied with the Bundeswehr’s standing in society, 35 per cent have a divided opinion and 45 per cent are dissatisfied with the Bundeswehr’s social standing. The situation is similar with regard to the reputation of the soldier’s profession in society as well as the social recognition for the services of soldiers on foreign missions. Only 18 and 14 percent of the Bundeswehr members surveyed were satisfied with these aspects, 45 and 58 percent respectively were dissatisfied. For the aspect of “promoting recognition and respect for service in the Bundeswehr by fellow citizens”, 82 per cent of the soldiers surveyed see a need for action, 13 per cent say partly/partly and only 5 per cent see no need for action here. Consequently, the people in the Bundeswehr feel little respect for themselves and their profession. Moreover, the perception prevails within the Bundeswehr that the military in Germany lacks prestige and substantial support.
Results of the long-term sociological monitoring of the 22nd contingent of the ISAF mission also illustrate the importance of perceived social acceptance and support, especially for the soldiers on deployment abroad. 92 per cent of the respondents agreed that the support of the German population for the Bundeswehr’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan is important.However, only 8 per cent of the soldiers surveyed feel that they are appreciated by the German population, 27 per cent say partly and 65 per cent feel that their service abroad is not appreciated by the population.This is unfortunate because perceived social recognition and appreciation have a demonstrable effect on soldier motivation.All in all, the empirical study results presented here make it clear that the perception that they and the Bundeswehr lack prestige and substantial support in Germany is evidently prevalent among a large proportion of Bundeswehr soldiers.h3.What is the public’s opinion of the Bundeswehr and its soldiers?
This assessment is surprising, because the representative population survey conducted by the ZMSBw since 1996 paints a completely different picture of public opinion, which is also reflected in the results of the current survey from 2021:The vast majority of the German population trusts the Bundeswehr (85 per cent), considers it an important part of society (74 per cent) and holds both the Bundeswehr and the soldiers in high personal regard (59 and 60 per cent respectively).Since 2000, at least three quarters of the citizens have stated that they have a positive attitude towards the Bundeswehr (cf. Figure 1).
The performance of the Bundeswehr in its missions at home (79 per cent) and abroad (61 per cent) will also be viewed positively by a clear majority of citizens in 2021 (and also in previous years).Contrary to the opinion of many soldiers, the Bundeswehr as a state organisation and social institution is appreciated by the vast majority of Germans.
The German population’s high regard for its armed forces is also expressed in the fact that the majority supports a variety of measures to support veterans of the Bundeswehr (cf. Figure 2).By far the greatest approval is for practical support measures for veterans who have suffered physical or psychological damage in service: 85 percent of respondents are in favour of special medical care and 84 percent are in favour of lifelong social security.Special care services for veterans’ families also receive a lot of public support (74 percent).The invitation of veterans to public events with symbolic character (67 percent) and the public awarding of veterans’ badges, orders or medals (65 percent) are also welcomed by the majority. Overall, therefore, a clear majority of citizens are in favour of giving more public recognition and practical support to veterans of the Bundeswehr.
The representative population surveys paint a positive picture of opinion: the Bundeswehr is socially recognised.Nevertheless, many soldiers perceive public opinion about the Bundeswehr as rather critical and miss social recognition.How can this discrepancy be explained?
In her theory of public opinion, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann postulates that people continuously observe their environment in order to become aware of which opinions can be expressed without problems and with which opinions they run the risk of social isolation. In this conception, public opinion functions as a form of social control or “social skin”. In this context, the perceived majorities and minorities of certain opinions do not necessarily have to correspond to the actual distributions. The different visibility of the opinion camps involved is also relevant for the perception of the climate of opinion. This can lead to a majority opinion on a certain topic being wrongly perceived as a minority opinion and vice versa. This is a phenomenon that Noelle-Neumann examines in the context of her theory of public opinion with the silence spiral hypothesis. This states that people fall into silence when they believe that their opinion does not correspond to the social majority opinion.
In order to find out what the public’s willingness to speak out or even profess their opinion on the topic of the Bundeswehr is, the most recent survey in 2018 asked citizens whether they had carried out various activities related to the Bundeswehr in the last 12 months. It shows that citizens are more likely to express their support for the Bundeswehr when it is in a small public setting, such as in a conversational situation (Disagreed when someone talked badly about the Bundeswehr: 22 percent; Encouraged someone who wanted to become a soldier in the Bundeswehr in their desire: 20 percent). On the other hand, with increasing publicity and thus increasing visibility of one’s own actions, the willingness to carry out Bundeswehr-related activities also dwindles (participation in Bundeswehr events: 4 percent; wearing pins or affixing stickers in support of the Bundeswehr: 2 percent). All in all, the fundamentally positive attitude towards the Bundeswehr that prevails on a personal level is only translated by a maximum of one fifth of German citizens into supportive and publicly visible actions that could also be experienced by the soldiers.
No measures need to be taken to influence the public’s attitude towards the armed forces in the long term. Instead, work should be done to ensure that the public and Bundeswehr personnel also perceive how positively the majority of Germans have viewed the Bundeswehr for many years.The “good figures” on public opinion of the Bundeswehr have been available for a long time, but they must also be communicated effectively – in the armed forces and in society.In this respect, more importance should be attached to active knowledge transfer in the future than has been the case so far.Events such as the Invictus Games and the annual Bundeswehr Day certainly represent another step in the right direction, bringing the Bundeswehr and society closer together and at the same time impressively conveying to individuals, whether citizens or soldiers, that they are not alone in their positive attitude towards the German armed forces.The positive attitude of the “silent majority” towards the Bundeswehr needs to be more personally experienced and less communicated through the media.It is to be hoped that such events will contribute to encouraging both citizens and soldiers to profess their positive attitude towards the Bundeswehr more frequently in public as well.
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Seiffert, Anja/Heß, Julius (2020): Leben nach Afghanistan. Die Soldaten und Veteranen der Generation Einsatz der Bundeswehr. Forschungsbericht 119. Potsdam: Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr
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