German politicians and military chiefs suggest return of conscription
Berlin government attempts to pour cold water over prominent voices seeking to reverse Merkel-era phase out
Political and military figures in Germany have suggested a return of compulsory military service after the new defence minister described the 2011 phase-out of general conscription as a “mistake” that had contributed to alienating the general public from civic institutions.
The German parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Eva Högl of the centre-left SPD, on Wednesday urged the government to ask itself whether some form of obligatory civic service was required to address staff shortages in the German army’s ranks.
“We definitely need more personnel in the Bundeswehr,” Högl told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
The chief of the German navy, Jan Christian Kaack, also recently proposed a return of mandatory military service along the Norwegian model, whereby men and women are called in for an examination upon turning 19, but only a small, motivated percentage of each year group is drafted into the army.
“I believe that a nation that needs to become more resilient in times like these will have a higher level of awareness if it is mixed through with soldiers,” said Kaack.
The government, for which the growing debate is above all a headache, has been quick to try to pour cold water over the debate. “All of our efforts have to be concentrated on strengthening the Bundeswehr as a highly professional army,” the finance minister, Christian Lindner, told Süddeutsche Zeitung, describing it as a “phantom dispute”.
Steffen Hebestreit, a government spokesperson, on Monday described the debate as “nonsensical”, adding that turning the Bundeswehr from a conscript to a professional army “could not be reversed from one moment to the next”.
The debate was kicked off by an interview in which Boris Pistorius, the new defence minister who took office last month, said it had been a mistake to phase out conscription more than a decade ago.
From 1956 until 2011, German men were obliged to perform some form of civic service upon turning 18, with those who did not want to serve in the army having the option to instead carry out Zivildienst in civic institutions such as hospitals or homes for elderly people.
With the staffing requirements of a downsized army shrinking after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both services were suspended under Angela Merkel’s rule in 2011, though a clause allowing the state to draft men into the armed forces remains part of the German Basic Law.
Recently army officials have complained of their struggles to fill the ranks of a Bundeswehr no more than 183,000 strong, while social institutions bemoan the lack of young care workers for whom a Zivildienst spell used to work as a door-opener into the sector.
When Pistorius described the phase-out as a mistake, he was explicitly referring not to the threat faced by an aggressive Russian state, but the social acceptance of armed forces in German society. “Back in the day there was a conscript at every second kitchen table”, he said. “Which meant there was always a connection to civic society at large.”
Citing attacks on firefighters and police officers, Pistorius told Süddeutsche Zeitung “it appears that the people have lost the awareness that they themselves are part of the state and of society. […] Taking responsibility for a set period could open eyes and ears for that”.
A return of obligatory military service would require the state to spend millions of euros to rebuild and upgrade barracks and buy in weapons and equipment for training, not least because the number of eligible conscripts would be higher than in the past: as in Norway, a modern version of military conscription would probably have to apply to women as well as men.
Since modern armies require staff trained in increasingly complex military hardware, conscripts serving for only a few months would be of little use.
“The Russians would lead a different war against us,” said Carlo Masala, a professor of international politics at the University of the Bundeswehr, Munich, and a noted conscription-sceptic. “You don’t need mass armies, you need professionals with excellent training.”