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Germany debates reintroducing military conscription

February 3, 2023

Almost one year into the war in Ukraine, the Bundeswehr finds itself still lacking military equipment and qualified personnel. A debate has flared up again whether general conscription could help solve the problems.

Bundeswehr conscripts in camouflage outfits squatting in high grass as they are being shown how to use machine guns
Germany is seeing a debate on whether or not the country should reintroduce conscriptionImage: Frank May/dpa/picture alliance

A familiar discussion has begun in Germany, almost a year after Russia started its war on Ukraine: Should compulsory military service be reintroduced? Some countries, for example Latvia, have recently reintroduced it, and German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius fueled the debate when he said earlier this week: "It was a mistake to suspend compulsory military service."

Article 12a of Germany's Basic Law reads: "Men can be obliged to serve in the armed forces, in the Federal Border Guard or in a civil defense unit from the age of 18."

And until 2011 German men between the ages of 18 and 27 were obligated to either serve in the nation's military, the Bundeswehr, or perform an alternative service for a limited period of time in civilian areas such as emergency management or medical care.

General conscription was scrapped in 2011 with the goal to professionalize the troops and reduce the size of the Bundeswehr. Now the German army consists only of career soldiers and long-term contract troopers.

Boris Pistorius riding a tank
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (l) has said it was a mistake to suspend mandatory military serviceImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Patrick Sensburg, a lawmaker with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also still thinks the abolition of compulsory military service was a mistake. On March 24, 2011, he was the only member of his party, which was in power at the time, to vote against the suspension.

Twelve years later, the reserve colonel is no longer the only one to think this way.

"It's not good enough if we can only defend one or two states with a Bundeswehr that is too small and too poorly equipped," Sensburg suggests. "Of course, conscription costs money, national defense costs money. That's a decision we have to make politically: Do we want to be able to defend our country at all?"

From conscription to an army of volunteers

Over the past two decades, the Bundeswehr has shrunk from more than 317,000 soldiers to just over 183,000. Sensburg is convinced that this number, together with the approximately 100,000 reservists, is not sufficient for an emergency. And voluntary military service is not attractive enough to substantially increase Bundeswehr numbers.

Soldiers as Disaster Relief Volunteers

"We don't just need the super-specialists, we don't just need the KSK special forces, we also need a certain mass of soldiers to be able to provide national defense," says Sensburg, who heads the association of reservists. "Germany needs a strong military that is well-trained but also has many reservists from all walks of life. But we can only ensure that if we have compulsory military service."

No quick fix

In his interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung national newspaper, the German defense minister admitted compulsory military service would not help Germany at all in the next two or three years. But Pistorius, who himself served in the army as a conscript in the 1980s, believes there must be an open discussion again about the benefits of mandatory military service.

A spokeswoman for the German Defense Ministry said in response to a DW inquiry:

"Currently the Defense Ministry has no plans to reintroduce conscription. The Bundeswehr is a very different force today from what it was ten years ago or even further back. We have different tasks that require well-trained and specialized personnel. We have different structures and a different operational reality. And we have opened our armed forces to women for the past 20 years."

Male and female Bundeswehr recruits in blue uniform
Since 2001 women have been serving as soldiers in the BundeswehrImage: Uwe Anspach/dpa/picture alliance

She goes on to say: "The former format of compulsory military service would be impossible to implement in the current structures and would be an additional burden. Recruitment, training, and accommodation of conscripts alone would result in a considerable need for investment."

In principle, according to the Federal Ministry of Defense, "In the event of tension or defense, up to 60,000 reservists could be drafted. Thus, the Bundeswehr is able to fulfill its tasks in national and alliance defense together with the armed forces of our NATO partners."

Merely a 'theoretical discussion?'

For defense commissioner Eva Högl, the debate about compulsory military service is, therefore, a "theoretical debate," and Finance Minister Christian Lindner — who heads the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), the smallest party in the three-way coalition government — has brushed it aside as a "discussion about ghosts."

"This debate about compulsory military service comes up every now and then, but it doesn't have much to do with current reality," says lawmaker Wolfgang Hellmich. Just like Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, he is with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). "It would mean billions would have to be invested in the introduction or re-establishment of structures that are all gone," Hellmich tells DW. 

Hellmich is a member of the German Bundestag's defense committee. Like Sensburg and Pistorius, he thinks the suspension of conscription was a big mistake.

But twelve years later, critics say there is no good reason to reintroduce it: There are no district offices for medical screening, no military equipment to train conscripts, and no instructors to do so. There is no plan for how to introduce military service for roughly 700,000 young men and women who turn 18 each year and would then be required to serve. And it would take double-digit billions in contributions to restart the conscription apparatus.

A young man helping frail elderly man get dressed
Before 2011 young men in Germany who didn't want to do military service could opt to work in health care insteadImage: picture alliance / dpa

Voluntary service must become more attractive

Instead of wasting valuable time on the reintroduction of compulsory military service, Germany must focus on recruiting professionals with a wide range of know-how, Hellmich says. "We don't have a problem in recruiting officers and officer candidates, we have a problem filling jobs in the technical services. So everywhere where it's about logistical supply for the troops and data engineering and cyber security."

And the Bundeswehr still has a massive diversity problem in 2023. Only one in eight soldiers is female. Hellmich is a member of NATO's Parliamentary Assembly, and during a recent visit to Norway he visited a special forces company that was made up entirely of women — which would currently be impossible in Germany, he said.

"We need to look more intensively at the issue of personnel recruitment," the defense politician concludes."We need to think about how to get more people to serve in the Bundeswehr. We have to make voluntary service more attractive in order to reach people who will then stay in the Bundeswehr. But compulsory military service wouldn't help one bit at this point in time."

This article was originally written in German.

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Oliver Pieper | Analysis & Reports
Oliver Pieper Reporter on German politics and society, as well as South American affairs.