The Role of History in the British and German Army Officer Corps: Training, Attitudes and Identity

By Dr Sarah Katharina Kayß


German soldier of the Gebirgsjägerbataillon 232 (Credit Image: Bundeswehr / Andrea Bienert)


“Each nation steps into the future carrying the heritage of its own past. This past leaves its mark on the development of society, and on the way people think, including the way the military staff thinks.”

(Vladimir Rukavishnikov 2007, 24)


The Study – the book

In the past few years (during my work at the War Studies Department at King’s College London) I have concerned myself with the significance of history perceptions in the British and German forces. The following article gives you a glimpse insight of the results of the research undertaken and what to expect in my book which was just published by Routledge. The main purpose of my study was to draw attention to under-researched and yet extremely important aspects in military studies, namely: the detection of professional identity in the British and German forces and the role of history within the enlistment process of aspiring officers in both countries. Modern-day Britain and Germany are Western liberal democracies whose armed forces, (which are both NATO members and under civilian control,) recruit professional soldiers and officers for territorial defence and foreign deployment. Despite many cultural similarities, British and German societal perceptions towards their military pasts seem to differ substantially.

History is essential if you want to understand the power of traditions and the building up of the national image and what history can do in a nation’s psyche.

[British officer cadet]


The Argument

In the book I argue that officers have a strong relationship with the history of their country because the history of their country is identical to the history of their employer. Consequently, soldiers and officers are inevitably more connected to the history of their country than other professional groups. The data results clearly show that the officer cadets’ decision-making was influenced by their interpretation of their professional role, which in turn was heavily dependent on their understanding of history and alleged lessons learned from the past. The study therefore provides insights into the British and German army officer cadets’ understanding of the world that they were surrounded with, and illustrates how far their understanding of history was influenced by the culture in which they grew up in.

I think history was a huge part of my motivation. Obviously, (…) the whole history of Britain is completely intertwined with its armed forces’ history (…) So it connects to pride joining the British Army, because you are linked towards a history that civilians wouldn’t be.

[British officer cadet]


Data and identity studies

The formation of identity, particularly in the field of work identity, has generated a great deal of interest (e.g. Vest 2012; Ben-Shalom and Benbenisty 2016; Franke 2000; Broesder et al. 2014; Pratt et al. 2006; Schott et al. 2016), yet still very little is known about the professional identity formation of army personnel in general and that of officers in particular. I therefore designed a questionnaire covering topics such as the cadets’ motivation to enlist, attitudes towards war and combat, army training and perceptions about the officer profession in the past, present and future. In Britain, 481 British officer cadets who started their training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2014 completed the survey. Additionally, 49 of those cadets were interviewed. In Germany, 274 cadets who were going through basic officer training at the Officer School of the Army in Dresden (to proceed with a degree course in Munich or Hamburg) in 2014 filled out the questionnaire. Fifty-four of those cadets were also interviewed.


Significance and innovation

Detecting the professional identity of young cadets is important for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, the cadets’ awareness of their future profession provides information about ideals which the cadets connected to the officer profession. Although not all of those ideals necessarily correspond with reality, they are insights into what the cadets’ expected from their future profession (comp. Wiik 2010: 58; Remley and Herlihy 2005: 22).

The study demonstrates that developing an understanding of how young British and German officers perceive their profession and the world around them provide some indicators on how those officers might act in the future. Additionally, in 1993, Dandeker and Strachan (282-283) requested more research into what army recruits think about the armed forces, their social characteristics and their perceptions of their role within the army as a way of optimising recruitment methods and gaining an overall understanding of future military leaders’ ways of perceiving the world. My book answers this request in two ways: First, it offers insight into the British and German officer cadets’ thinking by analysing their professional identity, and second, it adds a new incentive for enlistment to the field of recruitment studies by introducing history-oriented reasons for enlistment.

As a result of increased multinational military operations after 1990, the British and German armies began working side by side. An intercultural understanding of future officers’ thinking, perceptions and attitudes are undoubtedly vital for effective, functional and successful cooperation in the years to come. It is important to keep in mind that the cadets are not isolated from their respective societies. Consequently, their way of dealing with the past by either approving or rejecting common history narratives within their culture is also likely to be shared with civilian society.


The Contents

The overall analysis undertaken in the book enables a rigorous understanding of the preconditions for officer enlistment in Britain and Germany. The examination of the cadets’ motivation to enlist focuses in particular on how cadets have aligned their knowledge of the past with their occupational decision-making. A short introduction into the history of the British and German Army until 2014 and the officer training courses in Britain and Germany at the beginning of the book already demonstrate that many differences go back to a different dealing with the shadows of the past.

The book also deals with the cadets’ social and educational background and points out how different experiences in history have not only led to different military systems in Britain and Germany, but also to different external stimuli which influenced the cadets’ decision to enlist. The sections on the British cadets discuss the impact of heritage and education, linkages between the social and educational background of the cadets and their regimental allocations, preconditioning through funding or cadet training (at British schools and universities) and the cadets’ professional perceptions about the officer profession. The sections on German cadets focus on compulsory and voluntary military service and differences between officer cadets which go back to regimental allocations, their attitudes towards the degree course integrated into the officer training and their professional outlook towards a career in the military. Additionally, the social composition of the British and German army officer corps is contrasted followed by a discussion about whether different training systems in Britain and Germany have led to a certain type of officer. The data results clearly oppose popular statements made by prominent researchers of the military sphere such as Karl Haltiner’s (2003) argument that the British and German (Spartans vs. Athenians) forces employ a different type of soldier as a result of the different army training systems to name just one example.


Some results

Along with the two world wars, the British Empire and German reunification stood at the centre of the British and German cadets’ historical awareness. A study from the Swedish National Defence College concluded that historical analogies used by young people usually refer to recent events, or to events that have had a great psychological impact on the individual or the society to which he or she belongs (Brändström et al. 2004: 208). Both the British Empire for the British cadets and German reunification for the German cadets fell into those categories. Although those events vary significantly, they helped a vast majority of the British and German cadets to develop a positive outlook towards history.

The results from the empirical data analysis reveal that the cadets’ perceptions about the British and German armies were incorporated as a part of their professional identity to motivate them in the present by either acknowledging or rejecting what preceding officers in both armies have done. This comparison highlighted many factors which are responsible for most differences between the British and German cadets’ outlook towards their profession. One of those factors was the different dealing with lessons learned from the past and its impact on the military systems in the two countries. Considering that the majority of the British and German cadets were heavily influenced by their perceptions of history – not only in regards to their initial interest in the military and a number of value-related incentives for enlistment, but also in regards to their very decision to serve their countries in the armed forces – clearly demonstrates that history-oriented reasons for enlistment should not take a backseat in future recruitment research.

The study’s results stress that soldiering is not just what one does, but who one is: the professional role identity of the British and German cadets can therefore be seen as a basis from which they will act and respond to their environment during missions in the future (Broesder et al 2014: 522). The officer corps has always been a vital component in the armed forces as it determines the military mind-set and upholds and revises the military ethos (Caforio 2006: 255). Since the surveyed and interviewed cadets are most likely going to impact on all-encompassing developments in all sectors in the British and German armies in the near future, my study has also acted as research on the current military culture in Britain and Germany.

It is important to recognise that the officer intake of 2014 will influence following generations of officer cadets, because it seems likely that the new cadets will identify with the 2014 intake’s thinking more than with the thinking of the older generations. Consequently, the British and German cadets who started their training in 2014 will socialise future generations of officers and transmit their traditions and perceptions of history to them.

Multilateralism and interoperability are deeply engrained in NATO doctrine and both can only function if the forces who work together have at least a basic understanding of each other (comp. Hedlund 2017). Understanding each other on a deeper level will allow officers and soldiers to successfully adapt to external forces and difficulties in their missions to come. The book does therefore not only enable a rigorous understanding of British and German military history and its impact on the training and attitudes of officers in Britain and Germany, it also provides key knowledge for intercultural competence which will be key in the missions to come.


Kayß received her PhD at the War Studies Department at King’s College London. For her large-scale study, she conducted more than a hundred interviews and surveyed almost 900 British and German Army Officer Cadets between 2014 – 2015. All research results can be found in her book “Identity, Motivation and Memory: The Role of History in the British and German forces” which has just been published by Routledge (2018): Please feel free to contact Sarah if you require further information about the study and the book at

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