The first German President, Theodor Heuss (FDP), once described conscription as a “legitimate child of democracy”. And this child is now sorely missed by quite a few federal politicians. Conscription has been suspended since 2011, and the Bundeswehr is a professional army. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, the most important voice in Berlin, has now described this step as “a mistake”.
In politics and the military there is still considerable phantom pain because of the suspended conscription; There is always concern that the bond between the military and democratic society has disappeared with it. In fact, generations of young men were, at least in theory, if by no means always in practice, the “citizens in uniform” that the founders of the Bundeswehr around Johann Graf von Kielmansegg had in mind. In sharp contrast to the Nazi Wehrmacht, there was no longer an unconditional duty of obedience. According to Kielmansegg, conscription formed a balance “between the democratic idea and military necessity”.
Hatred of forced service at arms sparked a revolution
Of course, the supposed child of German democracy is not that “legitimate”. conscription, Levee en masse, is a creation of the French Revolution of 1789, but in Germany it has monarchical roots. “Every citizen of the fatherland is the born defender of it”: With this motto, the Prussian army reformer Gerhard von Scharnhorst created the basis for general conscription in 1807, after Prussia’s devastating defeat by Napoleon. France’s citizens’ armies were the model, but not the “liberty, equality, fraternity” of the revolutionaries; Scharnhorst’s liberal spirit was soon supplanted.
Both the armies of the Wilhelmine Empire and the Wehrmacht were conscript armies; the hatred of forced service with arms for a lost war even triggered the revolution of the sailors and soldiers in November 1918. The Nazis, in turn, required conscription for the millions of soldiers in the Wehrmacht, which then swept the world with war and murder. To prevent a repeat of the 1918 uprising, Hitler’s military leaders set up a military judiciary that resembled a terror machine, murdered at least 23,000 of their own soldiers and ran their own concentration camp in Torgau.
Since the 1950s, huge armies have faced each other in the middle of Europe and along the inner-German borders. The Bundeswehr, a conscript army that was almost half a million strong at peak times, formed the backbone of conventional defense on the part of NATO should the Warsaw Pact ever attack. In 2011 this was over. In the aftermath, it often sounds like the exit was a kind of serious industrial accident, caused by the notorious Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU), who fell in 2013 over his plagiarized doctoral thesis. But in his time there were serious reasons for this.
First of all, a mass army was simply no longer needed, or at least assumed to be. The bloc confrontation was over, little to suggest it would return. However, in the particularly bloody year of 2010, when the Taliban attacks near Kunduz and Baghlan increased massively, the forces of the Bundeswehr were stretched to the brim by combat operations in Afghanistan and other foreign missions. Conscripts did not have to go there – except for volunteers who served longer – and made up hardly a fifth of the troops anyway.
Most NATO countries switched to professional armies
This led directly to the next problem: military justice. This means that conscription or alternative service applies equally to everyone, with the exception of those who have been deferred or who have been decommissioned. But the Bundeswehr was getting smaller and smaller, it could only take on a fraction of the conscripts, not counting the numerous objectors. It was only a matter of time before the Federal Constitutional Court upheld the first lawsuit.
Then there were the allies: Most NATO countries had already switched to professional armies, at the latest after the change of era in 1989/90, and the USA as early as 1973, towards the end of the Vietnam War. Before that, countless young men had chanted “hell no – we won’t go!” on the streets of America. called – the brutally waged war in Southeast Asia divided the nation. In 2010, conscription in the West was seen as yesterday’s model, apart from the Germans, only Norway and the hostile NATO brothers Greece and Turkey stuck to it.
However, Guttenberg and the black-yellow government left a back door open during the legislative process in 2010: conscription was not deleted from the Basic Law, i.e. not officially abolished. Instead, it is considered suspended, so it still applies but is not being practiced. This legal situation would make it easier to reinstate them today.
However, the Bundeswehr has largely abolished the so-called alternative service system for registering, examining and using conscripts. With 183,000 soldiers, the force is currently even smaller than twelve years ago, so there would still not be enough use for conscripts; And that doesn’t count the young women who would probably also be included in compulsory military service today – as with the military service that was newly introduced in Sweden in 2017 after the shock of the Russian annexation of Crimea, which is intended to put national defense on a much broader basis. Since the Bundeswehr was opened up to female soldiers in 2001, their share has already reached 13 percent.
In any case, one thing is certain: a return to conscription, whatever that might look like, would mean another massive reorganization for the Bundeswehr.