Aux armes, citoyens! The echo of that famous call to arms in revolutionary France has long since faded, though wars continue to be fought, even in Europe, as the history of the 1990s shows only too well. But such conflicts no longer demand vast conscripted citizens' armies clashing on the battlefields, as in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. Instead, modern warfare focuses on deploying small, highly specialised and professional military combat units – a change opening a debate on universal conscription, whereby, in principle, every male citizen is summoned to arms. Now, after two hundred years, France, home of the modern conscript army, has abolished the draft, shortly after other continental countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, instituting a purely professional army instead. It is a path Germany, too, will most likely follow in the foreseeable future.
The American and British military model has triumphed, with a professional army comprising a stable group of long-term volunteers. Helped by geopolitical factors, neither country saw a need to establish a conscription system, merely introducing a short-term draft in times of war to cover recruiting and mobilisation needs. In contrast, on mainland Europe, citizens were mustered and enlisted even in peacetime, and trained in military skills – a policy dictated by military and strategic considerations, but in which differing political cultures, social and gender arguments also played a role.
Even today, supporters of conscription emphasise the institution's symbolic value and the benefit it brings in the political sphere, repeatedly claiming that the draft prevents social decay, acting as a reminder of civic virtues and the solidarity lying at the very heart of a democratic state. Advocates of conscription draw on a long tradition, going right back to the start of conscript armies in France and Prussia, appealing to the notion of the soldat citoyen, or citizen-soldier, as a figure bridging the structural gap between the armed forces and civil society and transforming the military into a societal institution.
In fact, military service is one of the very oldest institutions in the history of modern continental Europe, and generally older than the male franchise, a tradition tracing its roots to the late eighteenth century in France and the early nineteenth century in Prussia. Conscription has survived changing political systems and various constellations in security policy where the characteristics of democracy, fraternity and equality were not always immediately discernible, if at . . .