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German politicians, military suggest bringing back military conscription

By Sarah May on
 February 10, 2023

Amid the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, politicians and defense experts in Germany have embarked on a lively debate about whether the country should return to the days of compulsory military service for younger members of the population, as the U.K. Guardian reports.

The reemergence of the issue in German politics has sparked a thorough examination of the pros and cons to military conscription at both societal and operational levels and is one which may spread to other Western nations in the near future.

Back to the Future?

As Deutsche Welle notes, German law provides that “Men can be obliged to serve in the armed forces, in the Federal Border Guard or in a civil defense unit from the age of 18.”

Up until 2011, males in Germany aged 18 to 27 had a legal obligation to serve in the Bundeswehr – the national military – or engage in an approved form of alternative service, such as working in medical care or emergency management functions.

However, in 2011, the legislature decided to abandon general compulsory military conscription in favor of working towards a professional troop force in the form of a smaller Bundeswehr.

As such, during the intervening years, the German military has been comprised entirely of long-term contractors and career soldiers, and its ranks have contracted from roughly 317,000 down to 183,000.

Historic mistake?

According to Patrick Sensburg of German's center-right Christian Democratic Union, the 2011 move ending compulsory military service was clearly a mistake, for a host of practical reasons, as Deutsche Welle further noted.

“It's not good enough if we can only defend one or two states with a Bundeswehr that is too small and too poorly equipped,” Sensburg began.

Pointing to the risks of remaining understaffed, Sensburg added, “Of course, conscription costs money, national defense costs money. That's a decision we have to make politically: Do we want to be able to defend our country at all?”

In Sensburg's estimation, current soldier levels – even with the added availability of roughly 100,000 reservists – fall far below what would truly be required in the event of a national emergency, and under present conditions, voluntary service is insufficiently appealing to most young Germans to significantly boost the ranks.

Societal needs cited

The current debate about a potential return to military conscription in Germany was initiated in large part by an interview given by the country's new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, who declared his agreement with the proposition that its end in 2011 was indeed an error of significant proportions.

Pistorius' objections, however, are somewhat different that those voiced by Sensburg, in that he believes the danger of a smaller army comes not so much from external concerns such as aggression from the likes of Russia's Vladimir Putin, but rather from the societal disconnection it fosters among the nation's young, as the Guardian notes.

“Back in the day there was a conscript at every second kitchen table,” Pistorius observed. “Which meant there was always a connection to civic society at large.”

Pistorius continued, saying that to him, “it appears that people have lost the awareness that they themselves are part of the state and society.... Taking responsibility for a set period could open eyes and ears for that.”

Opponents balk

Standing in opposition to a revival of compulsory service, government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit labeled the very idea “nonsensical.”

Finance Minister Christian Lindner called the debate a “phantom dispute,” adding, “[a]ll of our efforts have to be concentrated on strengthening the Bundeswehr as a highly professional army.”

Legislator Wolfgang Hellmich contended, “This debate about compulsory military service comes up every now and then, but it doesn't have much to do with current reality.” He added, “We have to make voluntary service more attractive in order to reach people who will then stay in the Bundeswehr. But compulsory military service wouldn't help one bit at this point in time.”

According to Deutsche Welle, the German Defense Ministry said through a spokesperson that it “has no plans to reintroduce conscription, adding that “the Bundeswehr is a very different force today from what it was ten years ago or even further back. We have different tasks that require well-trained and specialized personnel,” but whether that stance prevails amid ongoing discussions and debates, only time will tell.