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The German Hair Force: The Military’s Failed Experiment With Long Hair

Like every other country, the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, have strict rules on grooming. The Bundeswehr decrees that soldiers and officers should cut their hair short, such that they do not cover their ears or eyes. The hair is not allowed to touch their uniform or shirt color. Female soldiers can keep long hair as long as they are tied into a neat knot or braided.

military hair style

Soldiers with short cropped hair stand in formation. Photo credit: withGod/Shutterstock.com

Short hair looks smart on men in uniforms, but it also has practical benefits, the biggest of which is hygiene. During combat duty soldiers may be required to spend long times in environments where they may get infested with fleas, lice, ticks, crabs and other small insects. These tiny creepers can’t hide in short hair. Another reason is uniformity, which is actually a big deal for the military. Same uniform, same boots, same watches, same haircut. But mostly, short haircut is a part of psychological reconditioning an individual has to go through once he or she signs up for the armed services. A soldier has to lose his individuality, including his preference for a certain type of haircut or clothes, and blend in with his unit.

“It takes away all the soldier's intellectual freedom and his ability to think for himself,” explains one Quora user. “He is submitting all his personal ideals to their demands, which is the first step in what they really want from him; unquestioning loyalty when they want him to do something immoral.”

Army hair wasn’t always short. In the olden days, it was cool to have long hair. Many heroes in Greek mythology are depicted with long hair. According to Roman historian Tacitus, male members of Germanic tribes were only allowed to cut their hair after they had killed an enemy. Long hair fell out of fashion in the 1800s and was replaced by glorious moustaches and sideburns. During the Crimean War of the mid-19th century, soldiers of the British Army were encouraged to grow large moustaches and full beards. After the Crimean War, moustaches became mandatory, although photographic evidence suggest that this order was widely ignored and many British soldiers had clean-shaven faces.

Facial hairs from the American Civil War

Facial hairs from the American Civil War. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (left) and Major General Ambrose Burnside (right) both sported spectacular moustaches and sideburns. In fact, the term “sideburns” come from Mr. Burnside’s title.

In 1967, a young man named Albrecht Schmeissner walked into the Bundeswehr’s recruitment office with a long, flowing mane. Schmeissner was inducted into the army under the assumption that he would cut his hair short as the regulation demanded. But Schmeissner protested claiming that it was his constitutional right to grow hair. Schmeissner had also found a loophole in the military regulations, which stated that hair must be cared for, but did not contain any stipulations about the maximum length permitted. Schmeissner endured frequent harassment and ridicule for his decision, but when his officers threatened to press insubordination charges against the young soldier, Schmeissner reluctantly surrendered his locks to the scissors. His defiance lasted 45 days.

Albrecht Schmeissner’s brief act of rebellion stirred something in the upper ranks of the Bundeswehr. Officers observed that long hair had become the new fashion, a symbol of counterculture and an expression of protest against the state and society. From Elvis Presley and the Beatles, to TV newscasters, football players and even politicians were wearing their hair below their ears.

On February 8, 1971, the then German Defense Minister Helmut Schmidt issued a decree permitting soldiers to keep their hair long, as long as they are clean and well-kept. If the hairstyle got in the way of their duties, they must wear a hairnet, like workers in fast food.

soldier of the German Hair Force

A long-haired soldier of the Bundeswehr. Photo credit: Spiegel Online

The new rule drew incredible flak from both inside and outside of Germany. Military veterans who were proud of army traditions were enraged at the change, while Germany's NATO allies spoke harshly against it. The Bundeswehr became the butt of bad jokes around the world, and many began calling it the “German Hair Force.”

The Bundeswehr also started having problems with the hairnets. Some soldiers became worried that wearing the nets for extended periods of time could be damaging to their health. To allay those fears, the Bundeswehr appointed a team of doctors and asked them to investigate the issue. The doctors found that although the soldiers had nothing to fear of hairnets, the hair themselves were the source of many problems such as lice as well as dirt and dreck that increased cases of skin problems, infections and parasitic infestations. The doctors stated that during combat it would be impossible to care for long manes and maintain hygiene.

soldiers of the German Hair Force

Photo credit: Spiegel Online

The investigating commission also found problems with facial hair. Soldiers in combat duty often suffered from irregular bowel movement which caused many soldiers to experience outbreaks of acne. Having long beards made the problem worse.

In addition to the health aspects, the commission noted that longer hair required greater amounts of water to wash, which would require greater maintenance costs for water mains and sewage pipes as well as increased energy bill from the use of hair dryers. All this would would put a strain on military budgets.

The “Hairnet Decree” was eventually repealed fifteen months after the order was passed. From 1972, new regulations were put in place disallowing soldier from growing hair that touched his collar or uniform. This regulation has remained essentially unchanged for nearly fifty years.

soldier of the German Hair Force

A Bundeswehr soldier wearing a hair net. Photo credit: Spiegel Online

soldier of the German Hair Force

A Bundeswehr soldier putting on a hair net. Photo credit: Spiegel Online

soldier of the German Hair Force

Photo credit: Spiegel Online

soldiers of the German Hair Force

Photo credit: Spiegel Online

soldiers of the German Hair Force

Photo credit: Spiegel Online

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