At any given moment, about 100,000 men are conscripts in Germany's military, serving no less than nine months each. But peacetime sensibilities and politics may turn the Bundeswehr into a fully professional force.
Basic training – a lot like camp, but with gasmasks and guns
The conscript army – a lynchpin for German understandings of social identity and responsibility in the post-War democratic era – could one day be a casualty of the country’s reunification.
Whether conscription, the draft, will survive depends heavily on an imminent ruling by the Constitutional Court and on the outcome of this year’s national election.
The high court has before it a case of potentially broad consequence, involving an German man who legally avoided service in communist East Germany, citing "conscientious objection", but who has since been conscripted against his will to serve in reunified Germany’s military or civil service. A decision is expected April 10.
Parties make it an election issue
The September 22 election, meanwhile, looks likely to make conscription a featured issue, as political parties jockey for votes from a peacetime electorate increasingly sceptical of the country’s need for robust defence. German deployments abroad are currently larger than at any time since World War II, but paradoxically the homeland itself enjoys better relations with its neighbours than ever before.
This then is not merely a matter of one man’s fate but a national debate over the future of Germany’s conscript army.
Its outcome depends on how Germans nowadays, in their modern democracy, choose to view the balance between basic individuals freedoms and basic civic responsibilities.
If a young man gets sent against his will to do military service for nine months (or the alternative civil service for ten months), have his liberties been violated? In peacetime, what is the state’s case for compelling national or social interest? What civic responsibilities can the state designate for citizens? If taxes, then why not time and labour?
These are hard questions to answer because, though it’s somewhat taboo to say, Germany has yet to carve out an enduring post-Cold War identity. "The wall in the mind" has outlasted the wall between East and West, and the high court’s upcoming ruling is a case in point: citizens from the East have different histories – different memories, philosophies and obligations – from citizens of the West.
With divisions like this, integration through shared civic responsibility is a complex task.
Forcing rapid integration may even be politically impossible, or electorally disadvantageous. Conscripts are soldiers for a while, but voters for a lifetime.
Just as European and American governments, after the Second World War, opted to renamed their Ministries of War as "Ministries of Defence" to accommodate changing public attitudes about conflict in a new political era, Germany today must reckon with changing public attitudes without simply sacrificing the service its military affords.
Armed and professional
Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, is by and large a professional force. Soldiers sent on peacekeeping missions around the world – Afghanistan, Macedonia, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere – are almost without exception professional, not conscripts.
The peacetime force of some 340,000 military personnel, according to the report of a commission appointed by the government in Berlin, is set to shrink gradually to 240,000. Within the force, professionals currently outnumber conscripts by almost three to one.
Yet conscription remains a key to recruitment. At a time when Germany is increasingly military engaged in the world, about 50 percent of recruits are conscripts who have decided to stay on as soldiers and officers.
It might make sense, since the service is unpopular, to shrink it. But if Germany chooses this, it sacrifices the principle of equal obligation from citizen to citizen. If all young men must serve then none can resist. If only some must, then why?
Even conservatives who favour continued conscription and a strong military, such as the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine-Zeitung, are quick to criticise inequalities in the system, as some young men find ways to slip out of the system.
"No one can say universal conscription exists in Germany anymore," declared the newspaper in a challenging April 2 piece by columnist Volker Zastrow.
In a smaller Bundeswehr, in theory, this aspect would only be magnified.
The political battlefield
Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sits at a cafe' in front of St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Northern Italy, Friday, April 13, 2001. Schroeder is in Venice with his family for the Easter holidays. (AP Photo/Fernando Proiettti)
As the September 22 election approaches, the parties are determining their stances on the conscription question. Revelations that the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is considering a phase-out of conscription were reported this week in the Financial Times Deutschland and could shake up the political sphere.
An SPD policy change would shift the balance from right to left, vastly increasing the likelihood that conscription could be phased out in the near future.
As for now, Defence Minister Rudolph Scharping of the SPD, firmly backs conscription as a way to bolster public support and understanding of the Bundeswehr.
But the Greens, Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) all back various methods of abolishing the draft.
With SPD compliance, the only powerful hold-outs would be the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its partner the Christian Social Union (CSU), increasingly lonely in opposition despite the likelihood of a close campaign.