Friday, 21 January 2011

Germany ends the draft

This month, with little fanfare, Germany saw the end of the military draft that has been in place since the end of the second world war. German commentators seem to be having a mixed reaction - with some saying it will end an era of shared service that will be replaced by an army where only the poorest and least educated serve. On the other hand others have said the change was long overdue, and that such a draft, particularly in modern pacifist Germany, was an antiquated idea and a perverse violation of individual freedom.

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.

Last year less than 60,000 young men were drafted, just a quarter of the number of men that were drafted in 1990. So really, this year's official end has been a long time in coming. The last batch of conscripted recruits were called up on 3 January, and the draft will officially end 1 July. Technically the draft will only be suspended, since ending it would require changing the German constitution. This is also the case in the United States, where at the age of 18 we all (us boys that is) still have to register for a draft which could be started up again at any moment. In Germany, the prospect of this happening seems highly unlikely. In the United States, I wouldn't be so sure.

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.

1 comment:

Kallisti said...

Sweden also "permanently suspended" the draft last July and is going to depend on an all volunteer armed forces from now on.