Germany is one of the last major European countries that still has conscription for young males. Political parties across the spectrum are turning to the issue to lure voters in the lead-up to elections in 2009.
Debate over conscription divides German parties
In a pitch to distinguish themselves from their coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has called for a softening of the prevailing conscription method, which requires all German males above the age of 18 to enter for military service for nine months.
"We are not asking for military service to be scrapped but to proceed on a voluntary basis in future," said SPD party head Kurt Beck.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) remains the last staunch supporter of general conscription and recently emphasized it will uphold current practice at its annual CDU summit earlier this month.
Franz Josef Jung is a staunch supporter of conscription
"I think that in principle we need conscription because it would be hard to find the 60,000 young men who agree to join the Bundeswehr each year," Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, a CDU member, told Deutschlandfunk radio.
He also dismissed Beck's call for "voluntary conscription" as a contradiction in terms.
Crucial campaign issue
With both parties starting their scramble to improve their image within the grand coalition, issues such as conscription could well be crucial in next year's campaigning ahead of elections in 2009.
Mandatory military service not only serves as a focal point to distinguish party programs, but also directly affects the lives of every German male above the age of 18. Since the number of conscientious objectors has been steadily rising in favor of civil service, conscription might well be an issue that could impact on the outcome of the next elections. Men can also choose to do a year of social work rather than enter the military.
Conscription could gain in importance during next year's campaigns
German opposition parties are generally united in their rejection of the current conscription practice and have called for its abolishment or suspension.
Conscription opponents argue that large standing armies are no longer necessary for domestic defense and that specialized, professional troops who can be deployed swiftly in any crisis region on the globe are needed.
"Conscription cannot be justified any more from the security policy angle," said Claudia Roth, a Greens Party leader. "It also constitutes a massive intrusion into the basic rights of young men."
Other critics refer to the majority of NATO partners that have already adopted the model of smaller, professional armies saying that Germany's reliance on conscription is dated. The only NATO countries still applying conscription are Estonia, Lithuania, Norway, Greece and Turkey. German Army conscripts do not serve in military missions abroad and often receive administrational duties.
Historic issues still cast their shadow
Most NATO members have professional armies
In contrast to many NATO members, historic issues have weighed heavily on German domestic and foreign policy since 1945. After World War II's disastrous consequences, German politicians wanted to ensure that the new army consisted of "citizens in uniform" in order to guarantee democratic control of the army.
The concept of rearming Germany was also fostered by NATO partners who were confronted with the Warsaw Pact, led by the Soviet Union.
However, with the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany in 1990, the future of NATO and costly large armies appeared rather blurred. Moreover, Germany no longer had any borders with potential enemies and therefore one of the main arguments for conscription was void. At the same time Germany's responsibility abroad was constantly growing.
After the Cold War, new threats were found to justify NATO's international role. But it was only after a long domestic debate that Germany agreed to contribute troops to the alliance's missions in the Balkans and later Afghanistan.
Germany currently has about 3,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan
Accordingly, opposition parties like the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party demand a suspension of "unnecessary conscription" at home in favor of more funding for a better equipped smaller professional army capable of acting more efficiently abroad under NATO rule.
As no fast end to the Afghanistan mission is expected and calls for an increase of German troops have been made, it is probable that the conscription and military debate will feature in next year's campaigning. Until then, German governing and opposition parties remain divided on the issue.