Unfree labour phantasies in German politics

(I'll try to keep my distaste for certain proposals and politicians well enough in check to write this piece objectively. It's a tough challenge, for sure!)

Three debates are raging  in German national politics these days;
(1) Reform of the conscription
(2) A provocative book about migrants in Germany
(3) Extending the operating periods for nuclear power plants

I'll discuss the first one (conscription is about to become suspended apparently).

Conservatives have fought hard for conscription in the 50's. A conscription-based Bundeswehr was part of the governments' Western integration grand strategy. The Bundeswehr was meant to contribute with 12 (of a total of 26) divisions for the defence of Western Europe, in Central Europe,  effectively buying Germany a place as almost normal country in the Western World (in combination European unification and reconciliation and cooperation policies with France) shortly after WW2.

It has apparently turned into a conservative party (CDU/CSU) doctrine and ideology since then, for conservatives are the most fierce defenders of conscription in Germany.

The most extreme and in my opinion despicable attempt to save this kind of unfree labour is a proposal of Lower Saxony's minister of the interior, Schünemann.

Nach den Vorstellungen von [...] Schünemann könnte die Dienstpflicht nicht nur in den Streitkräften, sondern auch in der Bundespolizei oder in Zivilschutzverbänden geleistet werden.
(According to the ideas of [...] Schünemann could the service not only be done in the armed forces, but also in the federal police or in civil defence organisations.)

(source: FAZ)

This would actually be legal under our constitution, but not everything that is allowed needs to be done. The constitution allows a lot, including much that Schünemann and his party would not want at all. In fact, the constitution demands plebiscites - which his party opposes fiercely.

- - - - -

The central problem is habituation.
Humans can get used to the greatest nonsense and damages.

Lean back, relax, free your mind. Imagine a world that hasn't seen conscription for generations. You should really muster your imagination and distance yourself from what you're used to.
No major power threatens our country, in fact no real power does. All is fine.

Suddenly, a politician makes his way into newspaper headlines with the idea to force our youth into unfree labour - underpaid, of course. He also wants to strip those who serve their unfree labour period in the military of some of their free speech rights.
Keep in mind; the military can easily make do without unfree labour, the federal police has never employed unfree labourers and the civil defence organisations don't need that either.

What would our reaction be?

My guess:
* We would draw parallels with the Nazis one year forced labour which they imposed on all young men. Many wouldn't hold back and call him a Nazi.
* We would point out that there's absolutely no necessity for unfree labour.
* We would point out that we want and have a free society, and unnecessary unfree labour is an assault on our civil liberties.
* We would protest as much as necessary to get this irresponsible politician gets fired from office.

Why doesn't this happen?
Simple: Germans got used to the abhorrent concept of conscription. They got used enough to it that many even tolerate it in times of no real threat whatsoever. Myths and lies have been formed and spread around conscription to defend it, the fact that almost only German-speaking country retain conscription in Europe isn't well-represented in news at all.

- - - - -

The German society is increasingly under burden of the long-term consequences of political decisions made in the 50's and 60's (and myths created in that period). This was a period of almost exclusive conservative-liberal governance and thus the conservatives stem against some reforms that would address these problems. Some problems aren't on the to-do list of any party because their roots have become so self-evident and unquestioned that  no party has an internal majority in favour of facing the issue. The export orientation and trade balance surplus is such a problem that has been turned into a strength in federal German mythology.
Conscription on the other hand is a legacy of the early Cold War and the Western integration grand strategy that keeps haunting and hurting us for no other reason than the fact that the party which fought for its introduction fights against its suspension, too.



  1. It is rather staggering that while Germany - being a modern country - can have a woman chancellor, only males are conscripted. This does not make sense. I'd love to see Lena in a Luftwaffe uniform.

  2. Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion... but I don't buy the "conscription as slavery" schtick at all (or "unfree labour" if you think it sounds better). Go ask a Finn of military age what he thinks of that!

    The point I'm trying to make is that the conscription vs. volunteers debate is much more complex than you are letting on here. Such as why and how we build and utilize military force. And, who does that communal entity we call the "Nation"'s dirty-work abroad.

    It may seem old fashioned, but conscription has its place, as does volonteers. Perhaps, under the right circumstances, Germany will be better served by the latter. Perhaps not!

    Knee-jerk pieces like the one above creates no light on this issue.


    Go ask the Israelis about that, women and wars doesn't mix half as well as you seem to think. And I actually support your position, women should serve like men, but be under the exact same requirements, both physically and mentally. My guess is that certain females may excel in some roles, while hardly any will be seen in others.

  3. Some conscripts have no issues with being pressed into service, others have.

    "dirty-work abroad" - I hope there's nobody for that job!

    I don't think that my post was "knee-jerk". I'm missing a serious critique of any of my arguments in your comment. Instead you hurl a lot of generalities ("has its place", "is much more complex") at me.

    Feel free to hurl real arguments at me. Arguments of this calibre:

    "Unfree labour (...) is a generic or collective term for those work relations, (...), in which people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, (...) or (...)."

    Conscription is a work relation in which people are employed against their will by the threat of
    detention: &53ZDG - up to five years jail.

    "Unfree labour" doesn't only sound better (I avoid forced labour because the definition isn't met) - it's correct. I'm calling it what it is.

  4. The point I tried to make was that I found your post one sided and with uncalled for parallells to repressive political systems. Indeed, I'd go as far as invoke Goodwin's Law*.

    In my view, conscription goes to the very heart of how we view the nation, perhaps even the "Volk"**. What are our responsibilities towards society? Once upon a time it was a matter of "One soldier, one rifle, one vote"***. Today views such as your's seem to dominate, at least among people who care at all.

    Now, with that said, I think that conscription could be modernized, and made more flexible. Unmotivated people make bad soldiers, and some people shouldn't be trusted with anything sharper than a pen****.

    But everyone should be made to do *something* for their fellow citizen, be it in or out of uniform. That way a representative slice of the citizenry gets to be exposed to the military, not just those naturally drawn by military glamour and myths. And each former conscript act as an ambassador for the military in society, and vice-versa.

    My reference to "dirty work" is that once an army goes all volunteer, it is all to easy for the rest of us to dismiss their problems, both here and abroad. Conscripts are much more taxing, as made obvious by Vietnam.

    This is why politicians love volunteers, and why units such as the French foreign legion (admittedly an extreme example) is so brilliantly useful for that country's imperial pretentions. No-one gives a f**k what happens to them, so they can be, and are, used for anything...

    Lastly, I'd like to say something about comparisons in training. As is well known, training is a major determinant on the battlefield. But as volunteers are much more expensive, less money is available for training. If money is a lesser constraint, volunteers can be trained to a higher standard. But where money is tight, conscripts get better trained more than their salaried counterparts.

    Also, the raw material used for conscripts is better as the "pool" is bigger. And politicans think twice about using them, which at least to me equals less military adventures and a greater dialogue and awareness about security in general.

    The key then, to me, is to make clear that everyone should serve their country, but that there are many ways of doing so. No-one should be made to go to jail for not serving under current conditions, perhaps not even in war.

    ** A word with much more positive connotations in Swedish (folk). I don't know how it is used in German.
    ***Google it, in brackets ("one soldier, one rifle, one vote")

  5. The state is a collectively upheld illusion that's meant to improve the well-being of the people.
    Some people demand that we "give back" to the society or state by submitting ourselves to underpaid labour, but that is nonsense in my opinion.
    We "give" in order to "get back", and what we "give" is income. There's no reason why anyone should serve or "give back" to an illusion.

    The illusion of a state is meant to serve us, so it's wrong to use a systematically suboptimal way of resource allocation.

    Conscription is suboptimal exactly for the element of compulsion. I can prove the systematic welfare damage with quite basic microeconomic theory, but a comment is not the right place for this.
    The short version is like "forcing someone who really doesn't want to do it instead of hiring the one who's most willing to do it creates unnecessary welfare damage".

    The domestic political difference between a volunteer and a conscript army in a war is in my opinion exaggerated. It's a common talking point about the U.S.Army, but it doesn't seem to fit history well and the evidence is anecdotal at best anyway.

  6. "The state is a collectively upheld illusion that's meant to improve the well-being of the people.
    Some people demand that we "give back" to the society or state by submitting ourselves to underpaid labour, but that is nonsense in my opinion."

    I can only ask you why someone would be willing to die for anything if the above is the case. Why should I or anyone else make the ultimate sacrifice for people I will never meet? What am I "given back" from that?

    If it is your opinion that anyone putting themselves in harms way, for free, for you and your childrens sake... If this is your definition of a sucker, then be my guest.

    Now, I can only reiterate that, depending what you want to achieve, volunteers may indeed be the best alternative. And I really wouldn't want to force anyone to fight, that doesn't make any good at all.

    I hold on to the conviction that an intelligently designed conscript system has its place, especially when dealing with the sort of complex civil-military operations we europeans seem to do a lot of at the moment. That is the experience in the Swedish military anyway.

    If all you want is a living weapon, the go for volunteers. Especially desperate ones who no-one cares if they live or die.

    If you want to do more than this, you need to attract a wider variety of backgrounds. One way achieve that by attracting them through high pay, good benefits and high status. If you can afford that, AND constant training AND top-notch materiel, then that's great.

    Another way is through selective conscription, which can, in my opinion, have a lot of beneficial side-effects if correctly persued.

    But given the apparent gulf in perceptions, there seem to be little we can do but agree to disagree.

  7. The dominant motivations to fight in wartime?
    * most soldiers: Fighting for common survival. This extends to comrades, at most comrades in another formation - the national level is negligible here
    * about 1/5th of soldiers: dominant Warrior/hunter instinct

    Soldiers don't commonly risk their lives because they "want to give something back to their state". It's mostly the basic instincts that enable us en masse to overcome the even more basic self-preservation instinct.