Conscription in Germany: Politics

Germany has officially a conscription, but 88% of our soldiers are volunteers or professionals. Some of those volunteers are serving voluntarily a bit longer than a normal conscript does and wouldn't serve without the conscription.
We don't seem to send any real conscripts to missions outside of NATO territory.

The discussion about conscription in Germany hasn't been very fundamental, but usually focused on the "Wehrgerechtigkeit" - whether the method of conscripting is just. The shrinking of the Bundeswehr plus the enlarged population base (unification) reduced the per cent need of the Bundeswehr for conscripts. The need for more long-serving volunteers to master the casualty- and failure-sensitive missions in overseas further reduced the absolute need for conscripts. The ministers of defence have attempted to compensate and spin away the problem with two measures;
* much shortened basic service - that makes conscripts officially useless for demanding tasks
* increased fitness standards
They had a bit luck as well, because the baby boom children generation became eligible for military service til the 80's.

That wasn't enough spin, though. Only about a sixth of a generation is called to serve in the Bundeswehr and half of the young men are being declared to be unfit to serve (a ridiculously high percentage that tells more about the standards than about the men).

It's obvious: To serve or not to serve as conscript is a lottery nowadays. For men. An overwhelming majority of Germans acknowledges that our conscription discriminates men, but for unknown reasons this is not a mature though for discourse among high-level politicians.

This situation is a strange one, as few parties still back the system. We'll have federal elections this September and the political programs have been published. That's what they tell us about the parties' intents:

CDU/CSU (conservatives, most likely to join the next government, with chancellor)
Die Wehrpflicht ist auch angesichts der neuen Bedrohungen der Sicherheit unseres Landes zukünftig notwendig. Sie ist ein wichtiges Instrument der Sicherheitsvorsorge.
Die Wehrpflicht verbindet Bundeswehr und Gesellschaft. Wir wollen jedoch für mehr Wehrgerechtigkeit sorgen und die Wehrpflicht attraktiver gestalten. Den Zivildienst wollen wir als Ersatzdienst erhalten. Er hat große sozial- und jugendpolitische Bedeutung. (...)

In short: conscription is necessary due to the 'threats to national security'. They assert that the conscription is an important link between forces and society (that's based on assumed lessons of the Weimar Republic). The alternative civil service has great social importance.

F.D.P. (liberals, likely junior partner of the conservatives)
(...) Sie müssen als Instrument einer wirkungsvollen Friedenspolitik professionell, flexibel und schnell einsetzbar sein. Hierzu reicht eine einfache Fortschreibung überkommener Strukturen unter Beibehaltung der Allgemeinen Wehrpflicht nicht aus. Die Wehrpflicht ist nicht mehr zu begründen. Sie ist in ihrer Ausgestaltung zutiefst ungerecht und für die Einsatzbereitschaft der Bundeswehr mittlerweile sogar kontraproduktiv. Sie muss schnellstens ausgesetzt werden. Deutschland benötigt Streitkräfte, die gut ausgebildet, modern ausgerüstet, voll einsatzbereit und schnell verlegbar sind. Das kann nur eine Freiwilligenarmee gewährleisten. (...)

(...)Die von der FDP geforderte Aussetzung der Wehrpflicht bedeutet auch das Aus für den Zivildienst.(...)
In short: They call for a deactivation of the conscription. The forces would need to be for "effective peace policy" (= overseas deployments, apparently liberal newspeak) and the continuation of old structures like the conscription is counter-productive to this. They assert that only a volunteer army can meet their requirements. They also complain about the present conscription being unjust. The second quote also calls (in a chapter about social policy) for a deactivation of the alternative civil service as well.

SPD (social democrats, less likely party to lead a new coalition, incl. chancellor)
(...) Die Wehrpflicht weiterentwickeln. Wir setzen auf die Fortentwicklung der Wehrpflicht, die unter Beibehaltung der Musterung die Möglichkeit einer flexiblen Bedarfsdeckung des erforderlichen Bundeswehrpersonals mit einer Stärkung des freiwilligen Engagements in der Bundeswehr verbindet. Wir streben an, zum Dienst in den Streitkräften künftig nur noch diejenigen einzuberufen, die sich zuvor bereit erklärt haben, den Dienst in der Bundeswehr zu leisten.
In short: blablabla. They don't really tell anything. It may range from irrelevant changes to a deactivation of the conscription. They should be embarrassed.
Other sources than their program indicate that they probably think of a deactivation of the conscription.

Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (greens, former pacifists (pre-'99), possible junior partner)
(...) Die Bundeswehr muss europatauglicher und UN-fähiger werden. Wir wollen die Bundeswehr auf 200.000 Soldatinnen und Soldaten verkleinern, die Wehrpflicht abschaffen, den Zivildienst umwandeln und die Freiwilligendienste ausbauen.
In der Bundeswehr wollen wir einen freiwilligen militärischen Kurzdienst von zwölf bis 24 Monaten einführen, der Frauen und Männern offen steht. (...)

In short: The Bundeswehr shall be more optimized for (as peaceful as possible) overseas missions. Conscription shall be abolished. Alternative civil service shall be transformed. The Bundeswehr shall offer a short-term volunteer service of 12 to 24 months,. The size of the Bundeswehr shall be reduced to 200k (-20%).

I don't get why they want to emphasize short-term volunteers if they want to reduce the Bundeswehr by more personnel than it has conscripts.

Die Linke (socialists, turned pacifist in opposition, least likely to join the next government)
* radikal abrüsten: die Wehrpflicht abschaffen; die Bundeswehr zu einer Verteidigungsarmee umgestalten und deutlich verkleinern; (...)
In short: Disarmament, abolition of conscription, modify the Bundeswehr into a much smaller defensive force.

These socialists are hypocrites; they treat the Bundeswehr as if it was the anti-democratic military (NVA) of socialist Eastern Germany. They pretend to be peace-lovers now (as usual when socialists are an opposition party).

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It's interesting that this lingering topic has made it into some newspapers as a topic for the elections. The party chairman of the liberals has attacked our conscription as unnecessary and a harassment of our young men. He's most likely to form a coalition with the pro-conscription conservatives (and his party is unlikely to ge the minister of defence seat).

The present minister of defence has a low standing and low competence, so he's likely to be replaced in a new coalition; either by a conservative or (less likely) by a social democrat. Everything else would be a premiere.

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The present polls (2009-07-28) say

SPD 23,5%
FDP 14%
Grüne 12%

A classic black-yellow coalition of CDU/CSU and F.D.P. with Merkel as chancellor is most likely.
More about our parties here.

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We could easily live without conscripts - their share of the Bundeswehr is small and they rarely get any tasks of importance any more. I have concerns about the issue of a sufficient reserve pool, but that's nothing that seems to worry our federal top politicians.
The greatest obstacle to a deactivation of this underpaid and sexually discriminating unfree labour is not national security policy: It's social policy.

Citizens can object to armed service and have to serve in an alternative social service. The income is similarly marginal as for conscripts (it's unfree labour, after all) and these social services are concentrated in social community services; caring for elderly in nursing homes, for example.
A deactivation or abolition of our conscription would deprive the private sector of tens of thousands of cheap unfree labourers. Efforts (so-called reforms) to reduce the costs of our social and health services are common in German federal politis, and an end of this unfree labour system would cause some new cost problems.

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Oh, before I forget it: It's politically incorrect to call our conscription what it is:

An underpaid and sexually discriminating unfree labour with partial removal of human rights.

I challenged people to disprove this assertion for years, but so far all failed because it's true. We as a society have just become used to this instrument that was introduced by monarchs two centuries ago and reactivated by the Nazis and finally by the present state for the Cold War.


edit 2015-12: I found a Swiss article which argued for a Swiss militia of volunteers. It's in German, and covers some of the same points as I did on this blog. By the way, conscription was deactivated in Germany a while ago, in one of the many political u-turns in which Merkel turned her party's decades-old policy upside down once the pressure became unbearable to her.


  1. I totally agree with you on the characterization as a discriminating, cheap labour instrument which is basically kept alive as a cost-saver in the social sector.

    Personally, I favor the view of the FDP. But I have my doubts that it survives the after-election coalition negotiations. The implementation simply would need too much additional funding, money politicians are more likely to spend on other issues.

    Therefore I doubt that relevant changes will be made after the election. The pressure to "do something" doesn't seem to be great enough.


  2. I am all for Conscription; it frees up the Professional soldiers to respond to international situations as there is someone at home that can handle natural disasters.

    It is also tradition and a part of our heritage.

    If nothing else it gets those pampered whimps off of their unfit butts.