Volunteer soldiers quit Germany′s military after a change of heart | News | DW | 04.08.2016
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Volunteer soldiers quit Germany's military after a change of heart

In the past two years, almost 500 Bundeswehr soldiers have asked to leave the army on the grounds of conscience. While no one is forced to stay, leaving can be a little more difficult, and costly, than it used to be.

A request by Germany's opposition Left party has revealed that hundreds of soldiers serving with the Bundeswehr have decided to rethink their planned career since summer 2014. A total of 469 soldiers have entered a plea to leave the army on grounds of having a conscientious objection.

Katrin Kunert, the Left's spokeswoman for military matters, believes it's not surprising. and wonders whether some soldiers have been shocked by their first taste of combat.

"The risk of being a professional soldier, to have to kill or be killed, often becomes appreciable for the first time only in a genuine combat situation," Kunert told the Rheinische Post newspaper. "Often, that's the first time that the full extent of the risk can be grasped."

When Germany's military became voluntary in 2011, it was part of an effort to professionalize what was seen as "ineffectual" armed forces "in desperate need of modernization."

A Bundeswehr soldier on patrol in Afghanistan

Kunate, from the opposition Left party, thinks there could be a link between deployment and a change of heart

In light of its Nazi past, Germany has long recognized a right to conscientious objection. During World War II, the Nazi regime did not recognize the status. Objectors were executed.

Break with the past

After the war, there was a will to break decisively with the past. East Germany was unique among Eastern bloc members in allowing objectors to instead join "construction units."

In West Germany, a section of the constitution ensured that: "No person shall be compelled against his conscience to render military service involving the use of arms. Details shall be regulated by a federal law."

Military service was long a rite of passage for many young German males, but there were a number of ways to avoid conscription to the army. Those with health problems or pacifist views, for instance, could be posted in care homes, hospitals and aid organizations.

Since the end of conscription in 2011 - when new recruits were assumed to be fully on board with the idea of combat - an individual's reasons for leaving the military on grounds of conscience have become more intensively scrutinized.

The decision can also prove costly for many, especially those who have been highly trained at great expense. The government has asked for more than 5.6 million euros in training costs from officers, or those in training to become officers. The amount varies from anywhere between 1,200 and 69,000 euros, depending on the case.

'Basic right is still there'

However, courts sometimes waive or reduce the costs. And the right to leave remains enshrined in the constitution - if a clear crisis of conscience can be proven.

A German military pilot and plane at Incirlik airforce base in Turkey

Members of the military who receive intensive training could be hit with a heavy bill

"There was always this basic right in the constitution that was primarily used by conscripts who had military service and it's a rule that applies in exactly the same way for anyone who signs up for the army voluntarily," said a spokesman for Germany's Office for Family and Civil Responsibilities, which assesses applications. "It's still possible to be a conscientious objector - the numbers are very different than they were when there was compulsory service - but the procedure is the same."

"The test of conscience is the same as before, but it would be a bit more intensively tested now," said the spokesman. "You would question how someone could have changed their mind overnight, but in principle the same criteria are valid as they were before."

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