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Germany mulls reintroduction of compulsory military service

December 29, 2023

The Bundeswehr is facing a dramatic shortage in personnel. Now Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has rekindled the debate over reintroducing conscription.

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius at a parade marking the 68th anniversary of the founding of the Bundeswehr on 12.11.2023
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius is considering the reintroduction of compulsory military serviceImage: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

At the end of October, the Bundeswehr said it counted 181,383 soldiers in its ranks — that's still some distance from the target of 203,000 that the German military hopes to reach by 2025. This has given rise to concern in times of Russia's war against Ukraine, which has once again reminded Germans how quickly conflicts can erupt in Europe.

Since taking office at the beginning of 2023, Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has been thinking about ways to make the Bundeswehr more attractive as a career. He said he has received 65 concrete proposals from his ministry on recruitment and reforming training methods.

Even conscription, something Germany ended in 2011, is also up for debate. "There were reasons at the time to suspend compulsory military service. In retrospect, however, it was a mistake," Pistorius told newspaper Die Welt earlier in December.

He also cited the case of Sweden, where compulsory military service was suspended and then reintroduced. "I'm looking at models, such as the Swedish model, where all young men and women are conscripted and only a select few end up doing their basic military service. Whether something like this would also be conceivable here is part of these considerations," said Pistorius.

Why Germany's military is in a bad state, and what's being done to fix it

In 2011, the Bundeswehr was being reformed and downsized. The conservative-led government under Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to save money and professionalize the Bundeswehr at the same time. It seemed that keeping a large number of soldiers was no longer necessary — instead, the plan was for a smaller, well-trained army specializing in foreign missions. The assumption was that numbers could be increased again in the event of tension or defense.

A volunteer army, without the volunteers

During the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s, there were almost half a million soldiers in the West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Meanwhile, the National People's Army (NVA) in East Germany still comprised around 168,000 soldiers at the end of 1989.

With the post-World War II rearmament of West Germany's Federal Republic in the mid-1950s, all men from the age of 18 were drafted into military service. The idea was that soldiers should be citizens in uniform, a part of the democratic new society. For five and a half decades, almost all young men did either military service or opted for civilian service in retirement homes or hospitals.

From 1962, the GDR also introduced general compulsory military service for all men between the ages of 18 and 26 for a basic military service of 18 months. The only recognized reason for refusal was religious conviction.

With German reunification, the NVA was disbanded and partially integrated into the Bundeswehr. Some 18,000 soldiers were transferred, including 3,000 officers. Due to international agreements following German reunification in 1990, the German Bundeswehr then had to be reduced to 370,000 soldiers.

Russian threat forces NATO to adapt its strategy

Today, the Bundeswehr is a professional army made up of volunteers — but the volunteers are no longer coming. As journalist and defense and security policy expert Thomas Wiegold told DW: "A major frustration in the Bundeswehr is the bureaucracy. Applicants often wait six months for a reply to a letter of application," he said. And the Bundeswehr is not seen as an especially attractive employer in a job market already short of workers.

Pistorius faces criticism over conscription idea

When Pistorius floated his ideas about conscription in December, he faced a barrage of criticism, including from within his own center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Party co-chair Saskia Esken said it would be impossible to implement mandatory recruitment on an ad hoc basis "because the training units required for this are no longer available."

Criticism also came from the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), the smallest member in the three-way coalition that makes up the federal government. "The reintroduction of compulsory service would be a serious encroachment on the freedom of young people who want to orient themselves professionally," FDP parliamentary group leader Christian Dürr warned in an interview with the Funke Mediengruppe.

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But there has been support from the conservative opposition. Johann Wadephul, deputy leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) parliamentary group, told DW: "The CDU's position here is clear: we are in favor of general compulsory service, i.e. service in the Bundeswehr, but also in other emergency services." The latter would include fire departments, the Federal Agency for Technical Relief and a number of charitable organizations set up to help in crisis situations.

"Now is the time for young people to be asked what they can do for our country and for our society," added Wadephul.

So will compulsory military service come back?

"That question is difficult to answer," said Wiegold, pointing out that the security situation has changed radically, especially since Russia's war against Ukraine.

Wiegold believes compulsory military service, as it existed in Germany before 2011, will probably not be reinstated. If only because back then, it did not include women. However, he does not want to completely rule out other forms of compulsory service.

"Who would have thought around two years ago that the Bundestag would decide on setting up a special fund of €100 billion for the Bundeswehr against the backdrop of a Russian war of aggression?" Wiegold asked.

"I am examining all options," Pistorius said. "But every model, no matter which one, also needs political majorities to implement it."

This article was originally written in German.

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.