How times change! Nine years ago, all of Germany's political parties agreed that the time had come to abolish compulsory military service. At the time, the Bundeswehr wasn't in need of recruits. Those who were drafted complained — quite rightly — that it wasn't fair that only a fraction of those of eligible age were forced to serve, either in the army or in the civilian sector.
Since 2011, the German army has become a specialist army and is less than ever in need of conscripted recruits. However, two issues have fueled a renewed debate about whether a voluntary form of military or civilian service should be introduced in Germany. These issues are the growing polarization of society and the rise of far-right extremism in the military, as exemplified recently by the discovery of such extremists in the ranks of the elite KSK commando force.
'Your year for Germany'
"Your year for Germany" is the title given to Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's idea. It would complement the voluntary military service that already exists; this service is paid and can last up to 23 months. Some 9,000 young people — more men than women — have taken up the offer in recent times.
There does not seem to be an argument for reintroducing compulsory military service on grounds of security policy. A "Year for Germany," whether in the military or civilian sector, would, however, seem to make sense.
In 1981, I was drafted into the Bundeswehr for 15 months. I didn't really want to go. Few of us really did. Many of my friends refused and opted for civilian service in care homes or youth centers instead.
However, we all had the feeling after this period that we were more mature and better equipped to go out into the world. Conscripts in the Bundeswehr prevented career officers from becoming too insular, while those volunteering in the civilian sector were doing urgent work.
Compulsory military service will not be able to prevent far-right extremism in isolated special units such as the KSK, but the idea that young people do something for their country before embarking on their individual career paths is more valid than ever.
Young people should take their time
In 2011, there was a sense that young Germans were entering the labor market too late. So schooling was reduced from 13 to 12 years and university courses were shortened. This was also the reason why conscription and the alternative civilian service were seen as an annoying delay to entering the workforce as fast as possible.
That has all changed around again. In many places, schooling once more takes 13 years and many young people are taking their time deciding what to do with their lives.
This is a good thing.
That's why, for me, a voluntary "year for Germany" is not a bad idea. It is not realistic to believe that such a year should be compulsory, however. There would be no political majority behind such a move. But it does seem sensible to introduce an attractively paid voluntary year in the service of society.
Worth a try
As I said, young soldiers or carers can't do anything to prevent far-right extremism in the Bundeswehr. However, they might be able to contribute to easing the polarization and aggressiveness of society.
At the moment, people don't seem able to agree on simple statements: for example, that Germany — despite its problems — is still a good place to live in general.
A voluntary service year could be one way to help prevent such polarization a little. So why not try it out?