Before Social Democratic politician and World War II Air Force veteran Helmut Schmidt (1918-2015) became Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), he served as Minister of Defense from 1969 to 1972.
On February 8th, 1971, Schmidt issued an apparently revolutionary decree regarding the hairstyle of his all-male soldiers serving in the West German Army, the Bundeswehr, of which he was the Supreme Commander.
Until October 1st, 1975, when the first five female medical officers started their career, women had been excluded from the FRG’s Army. According to international law, these troops aren’t considered combatants. Therefore, they can’t be attacked or themselves take part in fighting.
The unexpected new regulation stated that the Army could no longer ignore the development of general taste and Schmidt commented succinctly: “Fashionable outward appearances and attitudes haven’t stopped at the barracks gate on their rapid march through all social groups.”
Suddenly, the rule for a fighter’s head hair was: “Hair and beard must be clean and well-groomed. Soldiers whose functioning and safety are impaired by their hairstyle must wear a hairnet while on duty.”
Immediately afterwards and until Schmidt had enough in May 1972, this rather comical decision led to the purchase of up to 800,000 hairnets at a cost of approximately 360,000 deutschmarks for the taxpayer.
Schmidt’s decision to give in probably was due to the insight that problems arising from this radical change, like a growing number of absences as a result of chills caused by wet hair, were home-made.
With this move, the Bundeswehr finally bowed to the pressure that had been building up since the 1960s. Starting in the United States, the fashion of wildly growing hair for men had spilled over into Western Europe as a sign of an oppositional attitude towards society.
The Social-Liberal coalition which had emerged in 1969 led by Willy Brandt (1913-1992) merely followed the supposed signs of the times. In retrospect, this can be seen as the beginning of the eradication of traditional values.
Ironically, it was controversial in radical left-wing circles. Student leader Rudi Dutschke (1940-1979), who always wore his short hair neatly parted, rejected the idea as he feared that it would provoke the working class his like-minded friends were so desperately trying to woo.
The predominantly conservative high-ranking military officers were appalled by the neglected appearance of their subordinates and considered it proof of poor discipline that deepened the gap between the ranks.
Among its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, the West Germans reaped plenty of derision. Soon the nickname “German Hair Force” was making the rounds. In times of the Cold War some even worried about a decreased deterrent effect.
To display the unkempt manes of conscripts in the name of progress was just a weird concept. So it’s still surprising that someone like Schmidt, who generally had very realistic vies, started an experiment in the School of the Nation that failed so miserably.