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German army under scrutiny for recruiting teenagers

November 22, 2016

The Bundeswehr has sent over a million recruitment brochures to under-18s this year, a news report has revealed. Peace organizations and opposition MPs are outraged, but the military needs more personnel.

Bundeswehr Rekruten
Image: Getty Images/M.Villagran

A German MP has expressed his anger after his 16-year-old daughter received a recruitment letter in the post from the German military. The Bundeswehr has been criticized in the past by the United Nations for advertising to people too young to join the army. "It is scandalous that under-aged people are being targeted," Özcan Mutlu told the "taz" newspaper. "In my opinion this is an unacceptable attempt at creating influence."

According to the paper, the brochure read, "You already know where you want to go? Then get on board as a fixed-term soldier! This is the best possible way to get qualified to engage in our society and for our security."

The letter was presented alongside photos of various roles played by Germany's armed forces, before offering a monthly salary of 837,30 euros ($886,90) to begin basic training. "This letter is very clearly advertising for the Bundeswehr," said Mutlu. "But under-age young people need protection."

As the Green party MP found out when he submitted an official question to the German government, the brochure received by Mutlu's daughter was one of 1,033,043 dispatched in 2016.

Pressure on the Bundeswehr

Many have noticed the Bundeswehr's increased attempts to target teenagers, not least because the German army is still getting used to being a fully voluntary force since national service ended in 2011. "The Bundeswehr is facing an increasingly competitive recruitment environment," said Sebastian Schulte, Germany correspondent for military magazine Jane's Defence Weekly. "One factor is the dramatic change in demographics that Germany's overall society is undergoing: The yearly number of 18-year-old's eligible for recruitment will drop down from 749,000 in 2015 to a projected 605,000 in 2030."

Deutschland Werbekampagne der Bundeswehr
The Bundeswehr is competing with a competitive private sector to land the best young GermansImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

"The people that the Bundeswehr is targeting are getting younger and younger," said Michael Schulze von Glaser, of the German peace organization DFG-VK. "You can see that from the daily reality show 'The Recruits,' and you see it in the numbers - the number of under-age people in the Bundeswehr is growing."

Even the United Nations has voiced concern about this. In a 2014 report on Germany, the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) noted that, "Some advertising campaigns for the armed forces specifically target children, and representatives of the armed forces are sometimes present within the school context, speaking with pupils and organizing activities."

The UN even urged the German government to legislate against this, but so far this hasn't happened, and according to von Glaser, the Bundeswehr often even fails to stick to its own regulations designed to draw a line between informing and advertising.

Youth officers

Germany is in an odd position when it comes to Bundeswehr recruitment and advertising. While it is often seen as more sensitive than other countries to militarization in society (recruitment in US high schools rarely sparks such a political outcry), it also employs several thousand "youth officers" who give lectures in schools - something that is almost unique in European countries.

Bundeswehr Soldaten Rekruten
The army has also launched its own reality show to tempt recruitsImage: Getty Images/A.Rentz

One of these is Lieutenant Moritz Brake, who regularly gives talks in schools in Cologne about current conflicts like Syria and Mali, and his own experiences as a blue helmet soldier for the UN. He explained that there are clear guidelines in such work. "What I do as youth officer is part of political education," he told DW. "I'm not allowed to advertise for the Bundeswehr or for the political positions of the German government." And even those that do recruitment advertisements are obliged by law to point out that "this job can bring very special risks with it," he said.

New Bundeswehr recruits must be at least 17 years old, and are only allowed to begin weapons training from the age of 18. Brake also said that if a teenager approaches him after a talk to ask about career opportunities, he is not allowed to do any more than "point them in the direction of the Bundeswehr website."

"And I think that's right, because otherwise the boundaries would get blurry," he said.

But von Glaser was skeptical that such school talks did not count as advertising. "They reach more than 100,000 school children every year," he said. "Officially they say it's not advertising, but would you let someone from McDonald's into school classes to say something about nutrition? I don't think so. Of course you can never clearly distinguish between information and advertising - there are guidelines and regulations. But the youth officers are obviously not going to come in and say the Afghanistan war is all wrong. It's information work, but always one-sided information."

Some schools also invite people from peace organizations to come in and speak in parallel with the officers, but since personnel capacities among charities are much more limited, they struggle to keep up with the military professionals.

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