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Germany

Germany's last conscripts report for military service

The last batch of recruits have been drafted to do their military service. From July, conscription will be officially suspended and the German armed forces will become a professional army.

Bundeswehr soldiers

After Monday, young men cannot be forced to serve in the army

After more than 50 years of conscription, the last group of 12,150 men was drafted into the German army, the Bundeswehr, on Monday. By dint of their age, their draft papers had already been sent out when the cabinet decided to phase out military service.

"The new Bundeswehr will be smaller, more effective and will be orientated towards foreign deployment," said defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who also hopes the measure will save 8.3 billion euro ($11 billion).

Stefan Gabler, a 20-year-old from near Ulm finds it unfair that he is part of the last batch of conscripts. He didn't get a permanent job because his employers knew he would have to do military service. He told public broadcaster ARD that his employment future was far from secure.

"If the economy stays as it is, I can return to my job, if they still need people," he said.

His friend Mark is one year younger and is relieved that he won't have to do military service.

"After an apprenticeship, you need to get into the swing of working life. If you have to go away for 6 months, when you come back, you've forgotten a lot. I think it's good because I wouldn't have wanted to go."

A generous attitude to exemptions

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Hellmut Koenigshaus sympathizes with the last batch of unwilling soldiers. But he says that the authorities are understanding of extenuating circumstances.

"In special cases where people will suffer hardship, for example if they might endanger their job prospects by doing military service, they can defer their enlistment, which obviously would in principle now mean an exemption," he told Deutschlandfunk national radio.

Koenigshaus said he has been actively encouraging the military to be generous with exemptions.

At the next intake in March only volunteers will be taken on and the general military service will cease to exist from July 1.

A soldier in Afghanistan

In the future, volunteer soldiers may get training abroad

The reform means that the Bundeswehr will become a voluntary army. It will be reduced in size by a quarter to just 185,000 soldiers, made up of 170,000 professional soldiers and 15,000 volunteers.

The voluntary military service will be open to men and women and will last between 12 and 23 months, which will give the volunteers the opportunity to receive training in foreign assignments.

Responding to concerns that the military may become disconnected from society, Koenigshaus said that when military service began, conscripts made up over half of the army and now they only make up one fifth.

"During this period, the armed forces integrated into society in a totally normal way and I have no doubt that this will continue to be the case in the future," Koenigshaus said.

However, he admitted that there have been differing reactions within the military.

"Some say that the shortened military service of 6 months didn't benefit the forces anymore. There are also people who coolly calculate that the skills gained from the conscripts compensate for the expense of training them up."

A more appealing career choice

Abolishing military service has raised concerns that the army may not be able to recruit the skilled soldiers it needs.

"If there wasn't already a military service, we would have to have introduced one," the General Inspector of the armed forces, Wolfgang Schneiderhan said in a report written three years ago. "Only the conscripted army gives us access to the breadth of professional qualifications of our young citizens."

But the current commissioner for the armed forces says the military needs to be reformed to make it just as attractive as a civilian career, especially now that it can't rely on recruiting a professional army from its conscripts.

"We need to get rid of all the aspects that are a strain on civil life. This includes the continuous relocation across the country every few years," said Hellmut Koenigshaus.

Heinz Schulte, an independent defense analyst, agrees with the need to up the ante on army recruitment.

"The Bundeswehr, like all the other armies in Europe, have to make a major effort to get the people interested in the armed forces and that against a background of a dramatic demographic decline in Germany and at the same time a burgeoning industry," Schulte told Deutsche Welle.

In line with Europe

The reforms are a necessary adaptation to today's security risks and bring Germany in line with the rest of Europe, according to Schulte.

"After the end of the cold war, we don't need mass armies any more. And if you send your soldiers into harms way like in Afghanistan or at the Gulf of Aden, where people are on anti-piracy patrol, you do need professionals," he said.

The obligation of men over 18 to serve their country won't be wiped from the constitution, but merely suspended. In theory, if a security situation requires it, a simple majority in parliament could reinstate it. Such a u-turn could, however, be too unpopular to implement.

"I think that in the foreseeable future it is unlikely to be reenacted again," Schulte said.

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg

Guttenberg hopes the reforms will save money

Along with a reduced army personnel, the government has proposed the closure of military barracks. Out of 52 current district draft offices, 42 are expected to be closed. Some regions are worried about the economic impact these closures might have.

"There may be grave consequences," said Gerd Landsberg, the manager of the German Town and Borough Association, adding that he wanted government to make a plan for the transition.

The alternative to military duties, community service, which saw recruits working in old peoples' homes and for organizations such as the Red Cross, will also be abolished. The government plans to replace it with a voluntary service with 35,000 positions open to people of any age group and gender. It would last between 6 and 24 months.

"The alternative service really helped the handicapped and elderly. Doing away with it will have an effect on society rather more than the Bundeswehr has," Schulte said.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg (dpa, AP)
Editor: Rob Turner

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