Will Germany Abolish the Draft? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 06.05.2004
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Will Germany Abolish the Draft?

Conscription could soon be scrapped in Germany, as the ruling Social Democrats are reportedly realizing that switching to a professional army as in other NATO countries might be a better option.


Young German men may soon be free of mandatory military service.

The head of the Policy and Advisory Staff of the German Defense Ministry, Franz Borkenhagen surprised members of the Social Democrat parliamentary fraction when he praised purely professional armies in other NATO countries in a paper presented on Wednesday.

"The affected countries ruled that the intervention capabilities of the troops in foreign deployments had significantly improved," German daily Die Welt quoted Borkenhagen as saying. "In general the troops welcomed the abolition of the draft and it even found a wide, positive resonance in society," Borkenhagen added.

Borkenhagen was addressing a special working group on security policies set up by the Social Democrats to examine ways to abolish the draft and the possible consequences of such a move. German Defense Minister Peter Struck is reportedly familiar with Borkenhagen's paper .

Pressure to scrap the draft

Borkenhagen's findings are expected to add further fuel to a growing political debate in recent years on the future of mandatory military service, a feature of German life since the country was unified under Bismarck in 1870.

The Green party -- the junior partner in the ruling coalition with the Social Democrats -- have long pushed for the elimination of the nine-month conscription. However, the Social Democrats led by Defense Minister Struck have repeatedly rejected the calls, saying Germany cannot afford a professional army before 2010.

In recent months, pressure has increased on the government to abolish the draft. In January this year an administrative court in Cologne overturned the Defense Ministry's eligibility rules for conscripts that exempt men who are married, are older than 23 or are found to be only partially fit for military service.

The court said the rules violated the principle of fairness because fewer than half of the young men eligible for conscription are actually drafted. Though women have been allowed to serve by choice since 2001, conscription is all-male with men between the ages of 18 to 45 eligible for nine-month duty.

Unable to meet modern challenges

Many also believe that the original aim of conscription -- being a sort of citizens' army to protect the homeland -- now looks increasingly outdated in the face of modern military challenges such as global terrorism.

Germany -- which remains one of the last major European countries with mandatory military service -- has thus come under increasing pressure from its NATO partners to scrap the system. They consider it inefficient in dealing with crisis intervention and peacekeeping not least because the short duration of the conscription means that conscripts are generally not allowed to participate in combat missions overseas.

Afghanistan attacks Military

German soldiers in Afghanistan

In addition, demands on the German army are currently greater than at any time since the Second World War. German troops are involved in more foreign operations than any other country apart from the U.S., with peacekeeping troops stationed in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the Horn of Africa.

Armed forces undergoing revamp

Earlier this year, Struck unveiled major plans to modernize and trim the armed forces and cut their budget -- a move many believe may ultimately spell the end of conscription.

Struck's reforms seek to reduce the number of soldiers (currently about 272,000) by around 35,000. The new army will include a rapid-deployment force of 35,000 troops to be available for multinational missions, another 70,000 to trained for peacekeeping operations such as the one in Afghanistan and the Balkans. He is also reported to be planning cuts in armament projects for a projected savings of €26 billion.

"Despite his emphasis on maintaining the draft, he is pursuing a very pragmatic policy, which in reality is moving step by step away from the draft and toward a volunteer army," Winfried Nachtwei, a defense expert for the Green party said in an interview with news agency dpa earlier this year.

Abolition not without problems

But the dismantling of the draft in Germany is also expected to bring its fair share of problems. Young men who reject serving in the military for reasons of conscience are required to do compulsory community service for ten months.

Symbolbild Zivildienst - Hilfskraft beim Arbeiter- Samariter-Bund

A German social worker

Around 90,000 young German men are registered yearly for community service, and approximately 80 percent end up working in hospitals or senior citizens' homes doing essential work such as driving ambulances, caring for the disabled and elderly, and delivering meals.

Charitable organizations fear there will be "catastrophic" consequences for healthcare in Germany if this inexpensive and valuable workforce were to disappear.

The Social Democrats, who are set to take a final decision on the future of the draft at a party conference next year, are indicating they're adopting a pragmatic approach. "The working group on security policies is still of the view that conscription is the better decision for the armed forces and our society," Rainer Arnold of defense spokesman of the Social Democratic parliamentary group told Die Welt. "But it has to remain viable," he added.

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