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40 years of the Bundeswehr University - now established after initial skepticism?

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An interview with Prof. Wolfgang Gessenharter in the NDR series "Armed Forces and Strategies" *


Andreas Flocken (moderation):
40 years ago, in October 1973, the first soldiers began their studies at universities of the Bundeswehr in Hamburg and Munich. The armed forces were thus breaking new ground. The founding of the universities was not entirely undisputed.
At that time, Wolfgang Gessenharter was one of the first professors at today's Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg. In 2007 he retired. I talked to him about the early years of the Bundeswehr universities. First of all, I asked Professor Gessenharter how they started founding universities owned by the Federal Armed Forces in the troops:


Interview Andreas Flocken / Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Gessenharter

Gessenharter: The enthusiasm was originally not at all great because a theory / practice problem was immediately built up from different sides. Universities could only offer theory, but for a real officer and for a real military leader, practice is all that predominates.

Flakes: How was this skepticism expressed by the military?

Gessenharter: This was expressed by the fact that the young soldiers who started with us often said that this is exactly why they would have liked to join the armed forces in order to rise to higher ranks without having to study paralyzing or boring. And with the older officers, they said: a good officer, he has to be able to lead people over the gutter, that's what it was often said. And he doesn't have to have too many theoretical things in mind. And sometimes there was a rather negative interpretation of this new university, and not just in the open.

Flakes: The universities of the Bundeswehr were introduced under the then Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt. What did the political leadership of the Defense Ministry actually hope for from the establishment of the universities of the Bundeswehr? What was the motivation?

Gessenharter: So a very important motivation was that at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s the number of young people in the Bundeswehr decreased very, very strongly. One therefore wanted to make the officer's profession more attractive. That was an important thing. The second important point was that it was established that there was a tendency in the Bundeswehr to oppose social developments or not to comply with them. And that simply includes a scientification. And a third point was that they wanted to strengthen the inner leadership, that is, that the Bundeswehr proceed according to a certain concept. It was said that a new spirit simply had to come into the Bundeswehr here.

Flakes: Wasn't the establishment of the Bundeswehr University also an admission that there were deficits in officer training?

Gessenharter: For sure. I have heard time and again that when the Bundeswehr worked with many other agencies, it was often noticed that the officers were weak in self-confidence. You actually spoke nonstop to other colleagues, e.g. employees in the armaments industry who had all studied. Just not yourself. That was a point that Ellwein, the founding rector at the time, repeatedly mentioned to me, which led to a bad image in the Bundeswehr and the Bundeswehr in society.

Flakes: The founding president of what was then the Bundeswehr University in Hamburg was Prof. Thomas Ellwein, who died in 1998. He had previously also headed the responsible commission that worked out the conceptual basis for the Bundeswehr universities. During the tenure of Prof. Ellwein in Hamburg, there were tensions between the troop leadership and the university management. How was that expressed? Can you give us a few examples?

Gessenharter: This expressed itself in the fact that between the military and the scientific area, between which there is always a certain tension, the military area should definitely be subordinate - not necessarily subordinate. At that time we spoke of the head of the military department, at least with the rank of colonel, of the so-called hostel father. The only thing he should really care about is that the students study there calmly, sensibly and efficiently. But that went so far that after a very short time it was said: No, there would have to be more military “drive”. Suddenly they said that uniform should be compulsory and that the military chief should be given an educational assignment. And this educational mandate should actually, one could almost say, be the culmination of this whole educational and training situation at the universities. We all opposed this immediately. And at that time it took a great deal to push these ideas back to the point where the military sector did not become what it would have liked, namely that it would actually have been the most important structure there.

Flakes: Did the military leadership try to influence the educational content at the university?

Gessenharter: Yes always again. But then they immediately encountered resistance from everyone, whether the most conservative colleague or the most progressive, of course.

Flakes: Can you give an example?

Gessenharter: For example, it was said that in all subjects, in all specialist areas, one should only do things that were directly related to the Bundeswehr. And then of course it was particularly special with the so-called educational and social science parts of the course. Before they were called tutoring. From a social science point of view, only something should be done there that was directly related to the Bundeswehr. We resisted that. We said that you need the basics and it is not primarily about the content, but rather about methodical learning, making decisions, and, and, and.

Flakes: Thomes Ellwein, the founding president, was also against arms research at the Bundeswehr University. The Bundeswehr saw it a little differently. What did you do then in the end?

Gessenharter: It was the case that some technology colleagues said armaments research, that is actually a matter of course for this university. We, Thomas Ellwein and I, were very closely involved in this debate at the time. We said from the start: this university must on no account get into a ghetto situation. And if we have a department here where confidentiality rules play a role, then that can't be good for this university. It is thereby shifted into a twilight overall, which of course also the departments that have nothing to do with armaments, of course, did not like to see at all.

Flakes: In 1973 two Bundeswehr universities were founded, one in Hamburg and one in Munich. Why actually two? Did it have political reasons or what was behind it?

Gessenharter: I think it was primarily for political reasons. You definitely wanted to go to large locations. Back then, Hamburg was by far one of the largest locations. At that time, however, there was another discussion about the fundamental role of federally owned universities. Because the entire cultural landscape and the universities are primarily a matter for the federal states. Therefore the establishment in two federal states, in which the situation was well known. Helmut Schmidt knew Hamburg, of course, and on the other hand they didn't want to snub Bavaria. That is why these two universities were founded there, but also with different profiles. Then there was the fact that the inner-city location could not be implemented in Munich, which would have been very attractively located near Schwabing. You then had to go to Neubiberg. At that time there was always a problem of ghettoization.

Flakes: The Bundeswehr has now become smaller, and it will continue to be made smaller in the course of the Bundeswehr reform. But you still have two universities. In your opinion, are two Bundeswehr universities still appropriate in view of the downsizing of the Bundeswehr?

Gessenharter: It is a question of numbers only. You have to know how many management positions you have to fill. And I don't have the impression that the Bundeswehr is becoming much smaller at this level. In addition, you don't really want too many professional soldiers, you still want soldiers who leave after a certain period of time. And on the other hand, this entire concept with its many difficulties can only succeed at all because there is an excellent relationship between teachers and students.

Flakes: What's the relationship like?

Gessenharter: We always made sure that our seminars were held in small groups of a maximum of 25 participants. In some years that didn't work at all. I've done seminars myself with 40, 45 people. And that of course brought you closer to the civil universities. You just have to see that the universities of the Bundeswehr can really only succeed if they have a very intensive supervision concept. This temporal process of mastering a course of study in three years or now a maximum of four years that is comparable to that at civil universities can only work under such conditions.

Flakes: The Bundeswehr universities should also make a contribution to the integration of the Bundeswehr into society. The principle of the citizen in uniform should be strengthened in this way.Against this background, wouldn't it even have made sense if the Bundeswehr universities hadn't also been opened to civilian students at the same time? Was that even discussed at the time or was there even resistance?

Gessenharter: Originally it was the case that Helmut Schmidt tried to donate his own departments for the Bundeswehr at universities like Frankfurt or Hamburg. This failed because of the resistance of the West German Rectors' Conference. And then Helmut Schmidt said, then we'll just do our stuff alone and show how one can make sensible university reform. In Hamburg there was another discussion for a long time: Hamburg wanted an integrated comprehensive university itself. At first it was said that the universities of the Bundeswehr, then called universities of the Bundeswehr, would also be included in this comprehensive university as independent departments. This integration did not take place, but not because the Bundeswehr University resisted it, but because the civilian university landscape did not want it that way. But, I think right at the beginning, we offered lectures in the mechanical engineering department for a department at the Technical University and the students only studied with us in these events. At certain times we also carried the Hamburg University overload. Civilian students were able to study with us with guest auditor status, just as our students have been able to study as guest auditors at civil universities since the beginning.

Flakes: The founding of the two Bundeswehr universities was also criticized at the time, also by scientists from the civil universities. Didn't the professors and university lecturers who accepted a call from the Bundeswehr University have a difficult time in academic operations against this background? Weren't they a bit isolated and always had to justify themselves, at least in the initial phase?

Gessenharter: In the beginning it was really like that. I remember when I moved from Freiburg to Hamburg, Freiburg students told me that now the basically liberal Gessenharter is showing his true colors. He's going to a military cadre factory. At the time I argued that the Bundeswehr is far too important a power factor for me to want to leave it to its own devices. I would like to be a part of that. Overall, the appointment of a large number of young professors after the university was founded shows that older professors did not necessarily want to apply to this new university. Of course, that also had to do with the fact that they wanted to design something completely new. And, as I know from them myself, some university professors were very skeptical at the beginning as to whether it would succeed, whether it would be too much work. And I've found myself to found a new university, it's a hell of a job.

Flakes: Are there still reservations about the Bundeswehr universities in academia today?

Gessenharter: Not at all today. But even then, after about three, four, five years, these reservations were gone. This was mainly due to the fact that we had our diploma theses circulated anonymously at the civil universities. The work and the exams went into evaluation processes, so to speak, where no one knew where they came from. And after a relatively few years, the civil university of Hamburg said: I think we can leave it alone now. We can see that training is just as good there as it is with us. Because you just noticed what that means when you have a campus university with short running times, with small groups, etc., and above all with students who didn't have to earn any extra money because they were paid. Then you can actually achieve in four years what takes one, two, sometimes even three years longer at other universities.

Flakes: There were also scandals at both universities of the Bundeswehr. In 1977, a symbolic burning of Jews in Munich by officers caused outrage. And with the then lieutenant Michael Kühnen, an avowed neo-Nazi who had never made a secret of his convictions in the troops, studied in Hamburg. How did the management of the University of the Federal Armed Forces deal with these scandals? Sometimes you had the impression that you didn't want to say anything about it?

Gessenharter: So there you have to differentiate. It was the case in Munich that people tried to do it that way, on the part of an officer whom I knew personally and who was very much appreciated. He got the impression that it made more sense to do it outside of the public eye. But then the press came up with it. And then there was an eerie hype. It was different in Hamburg. We found out about Michael Kühnen through his own activities. When I say we, it was colleagues and me. As soon as we noticed that there was a veritable neo-Nazi behind it, we immediately said: this cannot be done. And when we made it public, the Bundeswehr leadership immediately dropped this man like a hot potato and removed it from the Bundeswehr. I have asked again and again, in public, and still have no answer: How could it be that Michael Kühnen, who, according to a classmate who also studied with me, made no secret of his admiration for Hitler at school? made, and who also made no secret of this story in the Bundeswehr. How was Michael Kühnen able to go through the officer applicant test center? How did he go through the entire career of an officer until he became a lieutenant?

Flakes: After all, it was several years that he was in the Bundeswehr.

Gessenharter: That must have been at least three or four years. And I still don't have an answer to that. We noticed that this Michael Kühnen, had he been there for a longer period of time, would have really left a massive mark on his fellow students.

Flakes: In what way?

Gessenharter: At that time there was definitely a small group in the pedagogy department whose attitudes were extremely problematic. That got lost again afterwards. But at that time we did an empirical study where we could prove this reasonably well for the field of education.

Flakes: There is always the accusation that there is an arch-conservative basic tendency among students at the Bundeswehr universities, and some even speak of a legal orientation. As evidence, it is sometimes mentioned that, for example, a group of students is campaigning for the introduction of an officer's saber, or a parade uniform. How do you see it Is there still an arch-conservative basic tendency among the students at the Bundeswehr universities today?

Gessenharter: So there is no doubt that we are dealing with a more or less predominantly conservative student body, and it will not surprise anyone that much. If we could do any empirical research at all, or if it was done, it showed that it was always a group of around 10 percent. In 2007 another study was carried out by the Social Science Institute of the Bundeswehr. After that, it's around 13 percent that goes in the direction of new rights. Comparative studies have always shown that if we really compare - namely students, i.e. people with a high school diploma, with a relatively high level of education and men - then the numbers in the Bundeswehr are not very much at this point, but a bit higher. So you can say: these “right outside” groups are there, but they are in the order of 10-12 or 13 percent. The universities have actually never had to deal with a really right-wing extremist problem, with the exception of Michael Kühnen. I would say that it has always been marginal.

Flakes: Professor Wolfgang Gessenharter on the Bundeswehr universities in Hamburg and Munich, which will be 40 years old next month. A long version of the interview can be found on the website of Armed Forces and Strategies at ndr.de/info
The interview as an audio contribution here: [external link]


* From: NDR Info ARMED FORCES AND STRATEGIES, September 21, 2013; www.ndr.de/info


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