Germany's Compulsory Military Service

The Impact of its De-facto Abolition

Plastic assembly kit for soldier
The abolition of conscription. Oliver Burston - Ikon Images@gettyimages.de

Even if Germany and the Germans are often caricatured as a militarized society, the opposite is the case. Since the war, Germany might be a country where the military seems to play at least just a secondary role. You would not find such an emotionalized way to deal with soldiers like in the USA in Germany. However, unlike the USA and the majority of the European countries, Germany has had a compulsory military service until a few years ago.

Even today it is not completely abolished but just interrupted for peaceful times. Although the German society has certain reservations towards the military, many criticize this abolition of the  "Wehrpflicht". Not because of the lack of soldiers, but because of those who did their "Zivildienst", the civil service and who are missing dearly now.

 

The early beginnings of a (West-)German army

The German society is more or less pacifist. People are very aware of everything that has to do with military or the war - you can imagine the reasons for that. That is why the compulsory military service had become a bit like a charade in its last years. A quick look at the history of the German army service will get you a clear picture of what was and still is so unique about the German model.

Since its foundation in 1955, the German Bundeswehr, it drew its soldiers from the pool of young Germans by a constitutional right.

The German constitution, the "Grundgesetz", says that every German man could be obligated for military or technical service or for protecting the country's borders. Notice the "could" in the last sentence, which means that the parliament could abolish the obligation to serve in the army. Therefore, it was not constitutional that every German man had to serve the "Bundeswehr".

Moreover, secondly, conscientious objectors ("Kriegsdienstverweigerer") could theoretically be obligated to civil service instead of military service. German families who had been persecuted by the Nazis could opt-out it.

 

A increasing number of conscientious objectors

However, until the 80s, it was not very easy to assert your moral reservations towards the "Kreiswehrersatzamt", the district recruiting office. You had to defend your arguments in front of a committee that mainly consisted of men who served the army. It was not easy to refuse your military service. However, there have been certain ways to avoid one's military service altogether. If you delivered a poor physical performance at the recruitment office on your medical examination day, you would have been quickly sorted out. Another way was to move to West-Berlin. Because of special regulations of the allies, German men in West-Berlin were not obligated to do military service.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain ("Der Eiserne Vorhang"), it became much easier to refuse your military service. One simply had to write a letter that explained why one refused to fight.

 

The Civil Service

Instead of in the military, one could serve e.g. in a hospital, a senior citizens' home, as a paramedic or just driving children to school.

This kind of service lasted from 20 months in the early 90s to just nine months in the 2000s while the military service always lasted two months less.

For many young German men, the "Zivildienst" was way more attractive than the army service. You did not have to crawl through mud, nor did you have to live in a barrack during the whole time. The civil service was also a social job, and not few young men found their calling in working in such institutions.

Only 14 Percent of young men above 18 have been conscripted into the military in 2009. At the same time, the number of unfit candidates had increased up to 50 percent.

 

The Abolition's Deep Impact on Society

In 2011, after a lengthy discussion, the "Wehrpflicht" had been stopped. Since then, the German "Bundeswehr" has been a voluntary army with a continually decreasing number of members.

The suspension of the "Wehrpflicht" had a profound impact on German society: There is a significant lack of young men working in social services. r "Zivildienstleistende" were mainly paid by the state and, therefore, were an excellent opportunity for organizations like e.g. the Red Cross ("Das Rote Kreuz") to gain affordable manpower. Since 2011, young people - also women - can still do something like a "Zivildienst" but now it is entirely voluntary. However, it seems that young men and women are not keen on working in social institutions for a minimum wage. Which might be why the numbers of those who do such services voluntarily are much lower than before, when it was obligatory.

 

(No) Conclusion

Some say it was a mistake to stop the "Wehrpflicht" - not because of the military issues, but because of the consequences it had for the social economy. Others argue that it, in fact, destroyed workplaces as the jobs the "Zivis" did were heavily subsidized by the state.