Friday, 21 January 2011
Germany ends the draft
Conscription was introduced in West Germany in 1957 in an effort to ensure that the military could never again become an elitist 'state within a state' with its own political power, as existed during the Nazi period. If the military was made up of all different types of citizens – regardless of social class, ethnicity or political affiliation – it would become an extension of the state that couldn't be turned against the state (or any segment of its population).
Of course given that postwar Germany was effectively constitutionally forbidden to enter into an armed conflict, conscription was never really just about filling the ranks of the German military, called the Bundeswehr. It was about the social cohesion of the state. For decades both the conservative Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats held conscription up as something essential and fundamental to German post-war Democracy.
Given the way the draft was revered in German politics, it always seemed politically impossible to think of getting rid of it – even as Germany's neighbours France and Britain ended their drafts. And yet it became increasingly ill-suited to what the German military was actually doing. Military generals have long complained that young untrained men are more of a hindrance than a help to a military which is now engaged in peacekeeping missions in places like Afghanistan. These missions use less ground forces and rely heavily on technology. For this type of work, older professional soldiers are needed. So for years Germany has kept the draft as a sort of show while surreptitiously phasing it out.
Of course Germany wasn't the only European state to have conscription. Austria, Greece, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Estonia all also have a draft. Neighboring Switzerland has mandatory military service for all men between the ages of 18 and 34. All men older than 18 have to go through 21 weeks of boot camp and are then on 'reserve' duty until they turn 34, having to regularly go to training. They are even all issued with their own guns, which is always unnerving for me to see on the trains in Switzerland! The only other country I know with such rigid and extensive conscription is Israel.
Even if training the conscripted recruits in Germany was a rather pointless chirade and possibly even a waste of the military's time, there was another aspect to the draft which has NGOs and civil service organisations very worried. If a young man was drafted, he had the option of doing charity or service work instead of going into the military. Many men chose this option, and now that the draft is ending charity organisations are concerned that they will not be able to take in enough volunteers to make up the difference.