Dismissing the Draft: Germany Debates Its Military Future. (World in Review)

By Kanz, Martin | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Dismissing the Draft: Germany Debates Its Military Future. (World in Review)


Kanz, Martin, Harvard International Review


Through four decades of the Cold War, West Germany preferred to keep a low profile on the world political stage. The country's focus on self-defense was congruent with the security interests of the Western alliance, and military involvement abroad was hardly on the political agenda. A decade after the Cold War, Germany has gradually moved beyond the cherished checkbook diplomacy of the Bonn Republic. Today, unprecedented numbers of German soldiers are taking part in multilateral military operations on the European continent and beyond.

But while military challenges have changed and multiplied rapidly, Germany's armed forces have had difficulty keeping up. Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, remains Western Europe's largest conscription army, which is seen as the chief impediment to the effective fulfillment of its increasingly international mandate. Scarce resources, critics argue, are being misspent on an oversized army of moderately skilled draftees at home, while the training and equipment of Germany's professional peacekeepers abroad lag behind those of its allies. At the same time, the fact that the role of conscripts is confined to the defense of the country has increasingly turned the Bundeswehr into a polarized army. There is now a marked distinction between enlisted soldiers, who can count on frequent and extended postings to regions of conflict around the world, and conscripts, who spend nine months of compulsory service at home, occupied with the defense of barracks and equipment against dust and decay, the only tangible enemies at hand.

Reluctant Reforms

Germany's military is a case study in missed opportunities for reform. The times when Germany was a frontline state have long since passed, and with them the strategic necessity of a large conscription-based "citizen army." With the departure of Russian troops from East Germany and the accession of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary to NATO in 1999, fears of a military threat to Germany's borders are farfetched. Instead, new challenges have arisen elsewhere: in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and the diverse fronts of the war on terrorism. Yet Germany has been slow to respond, largely due to the still virtually unreformed structure of its armed forces.

While many European countries, most notably France, Italy, and Spain, have abandoned compulsory military service in favor of more flexible and specialized professional armies, recent German administrations have shown no intention of abandoning conscription. Since the end of the Cold War, two German administrations, one Conservative and one Social Democrat, have cautiously avoided the topic of comprehensive military reform because of its far-reaching social and political ramifications.

Under the administration of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, the topic was delegated to a multiparty commission, led by former President Richard von Weizsacker, which presented its final report in May 2000. The commission's proposal to reduce the Bundeswehr's size from 320,000 to 240,000, while strengthening its out-of-area capabilities, vindicates the two suggestions most often proposed by advocates of a professional army. But while the latter see no role for conscripts in a new Bundeswehr, the Weizsacker commission stopped short of recommending an end to conscription.

Nonetheless, the future of the "citizen army" remained on the political agenda even after the presentation of the commission's report and gained new relevance in the wake of new peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and the military consequences of the terrorist attacks on the United States. A recent ruling by the German Supreme Court and allusions to conscription in the campaign platforms of several political parties may indicate that more far-reaching reforms cannot be put off much longer.

The recent debate on conscription increasingly has brought pragmatic arguments against compulsory military service to the fore. …

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