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Should Germany bring back conscription?

July 7, 2020

The parliament's new military commissioner flummoxed her colleagues by suggesting reintroducing conscription to combat far-right extremism in the Bundeswehr. But how feasible is that option, and what would it achieve?

Soldiers in a line
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

The German parliament's new center-left military commissioner wrongfooted a number of her colleagues on Saturday by calling for the reintroduction of conscription.

It had been a "big mistake" to get rid of mandatory military service in 2011, Eva Högl, a Social Democrat (SPD),told the Funke Media Group. She argued that the reported far-right tendencies in the Bundeswehr partly stemmed from that decision.

Eva Högl
Eva Högl surprised politicians across the political spectrum by calling for a reintroduction of conscriptionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

Högl immediately won support from all the wrong places — namely, Germany's biggest far-right party. This was the "first meaningful proposal by the SPD for many years," said Rüdiger Lucassen, the Alternative for Germany's (AfD) defense spokesman.

"Now all she has to do is convince her own party and the CDU," he said.

The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was indeed in an awkward position. Chancellor Angela Merkel's party traditionally supports the Bundeswehr and long held on to the need to continue conscription.

Now, the CDU finds itself in the awkward position of looking less conservative than its coalition partners, as Chancellor Angela Merkel and Defense Minister and party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer are both on record as opponents of the idea of reintroducing conscription.

Read more:'A year in the army won't do any harm'

But SPD party leaders, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, were quick to put out a joint statement dismissing conscription as a "constantly recurring issue" that had no connection to the threats to democratic values in certain sub-cultures within the Bundeswehr.

Outflanked from the right

A string of scandals has exposed far-right sub-groups among soldiers and former soldiers, and Högl seemed to be suggesting that an influx of conscripts would dilute far-right groups that had formed.

Last week, German media reported thatKramp-Karrenbauer was planning to restructure the Special Forces Command (KSK), a few weeks after the minister had received a 12-page letter from an officer alleging a rampant far-right culture among the elite unit.

At the time, Högl said that the case showed that these structures were not "isolated cases."

How right-wing is the Bundeswehr?

The CDU's defense spokesman Johann Wadephul offered a cautious welcome for the general idea of re-opening a debate on military service. But "a straightforward return to conscription for men falls short – especially if the justification for it is supposed to be (tackling) far-right extremism," he told Die Welt newspaper.

Read more: New figures on extremism in the Bundeswehr are just the 'tip of the iceberg'

"No professional soldier is turned away from misdirected ideas because they are training conscripted soldiers," he said.

Some in the German army itself were similarly skeptical: "The Bundeswehr is in large part a mirror of society," said Nariman Hammouti, chairperson of Deutscher.Soldat ("German soldier") a non-profit that seeks to promote the integration of people of minority backgrounds in the armed forces.

"Forcing people to join the army – I don't think that will do anything about far-right extremism," she told public broadcaster ARD.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the cockpit of a fighter plane
Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has proposed a voluntary version of national service – with the motto 'Your Year For Germany'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg

For Sebastian Schulte, editor-in-chief of the German defense publication griephan, agreed that the problem is that elite units such as the KSK have a tendency to develop isolated cultures within the Bundeswehr, and that conscription would make little difference.

"I think Ms Högl is incorrect in thinking the entire Bundeswehr is infected by that," he said. "These islands of extremism happen not in the mainstream, they happen in the isolation of those units."

Read more: Bundeswehr apologizes for Nazi uniform on Instagram

Rebuilding the army

The Bundeswehr currently has 184,000 men and women in uniform,down from 250,000 ten years ago, when it was still training around 35,000 conscripts per year. German men were forced to serve in the army from the age of 18 but could claim moral objections to military service, and opt to do civilian national service instead.

Recruitment advertisement
The Bundeswehr has tried to attract new recruits with a wide range of campaignsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/S. Sauer

Conscription was introduced in postwar Germany, with the idea of  'citizens in uniform' serving as a bulwark against extremist tendencies.

The German military has been struggling to compete for new recruits in the job market since it went fully professional and has run controversial campaigns that appeared to target foreign nationals and high-school age people.

But even reintroducing conscription, which was finally limited to six months before it was phased out in Germany ten years ago, would not fix that problem, according to Schulte.

"For a modern military, six months are not really a long time to train a person to become a professional or even a semi-professional soldier," he pointed out. "You can just about get the basics down in that time."

In any case, reintroducing conscription would not be easy. For one thing, it would take a constitutional amendment, requiring a two-thirds majority in both chambers of parliament.

Not only that, but conscription would also mean rebuilding a huge network of recruitment centers and training facilities across the whole of the country. "You would need dedicated training regimes that look vastly different from what a professional military has in place," Schulte said. "This is not a switch you can turn on and off lightly."


Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight