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As Germany mulls military service return, what about Europe?

Stephanie Höppner
May 11, 2024

Against the backdrop of Russia's war on Ukraine and low birth rates, Germany is debating a return to compulsory military service. It wouldn't be the only country in Europe to do so.

New military recruits in Munich.
Military service used to be compulsory in Germany but was axed in 2011Image: Frank Hoermann/SVEN SIMON/picture alliance

After long discussion, Germany's main opposition party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), this week voted to put a gradual return to mandatory military service back on its agenda.

That means that if the CDU returns to power, it would try to introduce legislation making it mandatory for young people to either serve in the military or the social sector for one year.

Germany used to have a system like that, but axed it in 2011.

The reason for the CDU's about-face is concerns about Russia and a lack of personnel in the Bundeswehr.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, of the governing center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has already said he wants to decide this by the summer whether he too would suggest a return to some form of mandatory military service.

So where do other countries stand on military service?

Sweden: A role model for Germany?

Pistorius is currently evaluating various options, including the Swedish model. Sweden suspended compulsory military service back in 2010, but reintroduced it seven years later in the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Since then, all 18-year-olds have had to report for an assessment and some are then invited for a medical examination. Each year, only about 5-10% — of both men and women — take up military service, and only young people who are willing do it are recruited.

It's merely mandatory to report for an assessment; actual military service is voluntary. At the end of 2023, Sweden also decided to reintroduce compulsory community service, for example in the emergency services.

According to Defense Minister Pistorius, the Swedish model "is particularly suited" to Germany's needs.

Renewed debate over conscription in Germany

Compulsory in Denmark and Norway, but only some serve

Denmark has compulsory military service from the age of 18, but so far it's only for men. However, from 2026, women are set to be recruited as well. In addition, basic military service is to be extended from four to 11 months.

Just as in Sweden, only some of each year's cohort are currently called up because there are enough volunteers.

In Norway, both men and women have had to report for military service since 2016. They are then medically assessed to see whether they are fit for service. But again, only a fraction is actually called up for service.

Due to the rigorous selection process, the service is considered to be as prestigious as other higher educational qualifications.

Austria sticks with military service, women can volunteer

Despite much public debate, Austria never gave up its compulsory military service.

Men between the ages of 18 and 35 are drafted into the armed forces for six months of basic military service, provided that they have previously been deemed medically fit.

Anyone who does not want to join the army for ethical reasons can do nine months of community service instead. Women can volunteer for the army.

Latvia, wary of Russian aggression, brings back military service

Latvia has also reintroduced compulsory military service. Initially introduced on voluntary basis last year, as of this year all 18 to 27-year-old men can be drafted for up to 11 months. Women can choose to take part in the training voluntarily.

From 2028 onward, 7,500 men will be called up every year. According to NATO, this corresponds approximately to the number of professional soldiers in the country.

Alternative service is possible and can be carried out in a facility subordinate to the Defense Ministry.

The Baltic country reintroduced conscription in response to Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. Its two neighbors also bordering Russia — Estonia and Finland — never abolished conscription.

Ukraine, Lithuania bring back conscription after Crimea

Ukraine reintroduced compulsory military service shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. It applies to all men between the ages of 18 and 26.

In addition, after the full-scale Russian attack in February 2022, the Ukrainian government passed a law according to which all men between the ages of 18 and 60 can be drafted.

Lithuania also reacted quickly and reintroduced conscription in 2015 after it was abolished just a few years earlier. Around 3,500 citizens are to be drafted each year.

Kyiv's rules for military-age men abroad causes anger, doubt

Greece: Community service possible, but twice as long

In Greece, all men between the ages of 18 and 45 are obliged to serve in the military for up to 12 months. However, there are exceptions depending on the location and unit.

Shorter service lengths apply, for example, to operations at the border, or with special units such as paratroopers or divers. Conscripts from large families also serve for shorter periods.

The alternative to military service is community service, but it takes twice as long. There are also plans to allow voluntary military service for women in the future.

The duration of military service was extended as recently as 2021 due to the ongoing conflict with Turkey and the low birth rate.

In Turkey, money can cut service short

Turkey has a special feature: conscripts can shorten their time in the military by four weeks for a payment of around €5,000 ($5,400). In the past, it was even possible to buy your way out of a longer stretch.

In general, compulsory military service applies to all men between the ages of 20 and 41 and lasts at least six months. There is no right to refuse military service: anyone caught evading it could be fined or even sent to prison.

This article was originally written in German.