“Ethics moves us forward”. This is the guiding principle of the Center for Ethical Education in the Armed Forces (zebis). zebis was founded in 2010 by the Catholic Military Bishop for the German armed forces in Hamburg, Germany. To promote ethical competence among military personnel, zebis offers education and training for the military chaplaincy, who provide character guidance training, as well as further training courses for members of the German Bundeswehr. In addition, some programs are aimed at interested members of the public. Ecumenical cooperation in support of servicemen and women is fundamental to the mission of zebis.
Like few other professions, that of serving in the armed forces confronts military personnel with extraordinary ethical challenges. In the extreme situation, they have to make difficult decisions of existential importance under great time pressure. Their conscience is the final authority of judgment. But this also places them under an obligation: “Military personnel must not avoid the question of what is right or wrong. Their actions must be guided by their conscience.” – Dr. Franz-Josef Overbeck, Catholic Military Bishop.
This imperative stems from the crimes against humanity perpetrated under National Socialism, and takes as its model those who invoked their conscience in resistance to the totalitarian regime. The values and norms of the German Basic Law, the concept of Innere Führung (literally “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”), and the model of the “citizen in uniform” therefore provide the foundation for all educational efforts. Furthermore, as a church-affiliated educational organization, the work of zebis is founded on the idea of a “just peace”. This idea states that global justice and orientation toward a global common good can help to establish peace-promoting structures. The biblically attested relationship between justice and peace informs this approach to peace ethics.
Alongside ethical education, character and personality development is the goal of Lebenskundlicher Unterricht (“character guidance training”). In these classes, military personnel can openly and confidently discuss issues or difficulties relating to their role. zebis supports military chaplains by providing quality-tested lesson plans, movies and other teaching materials in its extensive online teaching portal.
The different training formats focus on the needs of the target groups. The annual Peace Ethics course in Hamburg is intended for military chaplains from Germany and other countries. We also offer workshops such as the dialog forum in Auschwitz for Polish, French and German officers, which has been established for many years. Seminars and study days take place at Bundeswehr bases or training facilities, and panel discussions are also held in public. Since the Covid pandemic zebis has increasingly used live streaming functions, with the possibility to join in discussions via chat.
A new edition of the “Ethics and Armed Forces” e-journal is published twice a year. It features experts from academia and practice who illuminate various aspects of a given topic; in addition, members of the armed forces reflect on how this topic affects their own lives and experiences in tangible terms.
Events and publications address a wide range of issues, such as the use of armed drones and fully autonomous weapons systems, or moral injuries in the process of dealing with experiences of military deployments. zebis provides a forum for debate on such moving and emotive topics at the intersection of peace ethics, military ethics and security policy. This requires an interdisciplinary and international approach. Above all, the work of zebis thrives on direct dialog and discussion – with its target groups via educational facilities within and outside the Bundeswehr, and with universities, foundations, and other partners.
Movement is the opposite of inertia. So the guiding principle “ethics moves us forward” can be viewed as a declared aim to treat ethical education via the military chaplaincy as a continuous task, and to keep running a lively variety of appropriate educational formats for our target groups. This expressly includes current issues: one focal topic is climate change as a crisis and threat multiplier.
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Free download of “Ethics and Armed Forces” e-journal:
 Franz-Josef Overbeck: Konstruktive Konfliktkultur. Friedensethische Standortbestimmung des Katholischen Militärbischofs für die Deutsche Bundeswehr. Freiburg im Breisgau 2019, pp. 98f. Translation from German.