BERLIN – Germany formally discontinued the draft in June to make way for a smaller, tighter army that will draw people like Johannes Beckert and Steven Stadler, both volunteers signing up for duty at a sprawling, suburban recruitment centre that once housed the East German military’s overseas espionage agency.
The two men are part of a military evolution spanning more than half a century, from rearmament in the divided Germany of the 1950s through the Cold War, which placed hundreds of thousands of young German soldiers on either side of the Iron Curtain, and on to a reunification that was not just geographic and political but also created a single army bonded by conscription.
They are part, too, of a long-running German quest for antidotes to its Nazi past, ensuring that its military is subservient to the will of a democratic Parliament.
About 5,000 German soldiers are part of the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan, and even though 52 German soldiers have died there in the past nine years, Stadler said, “It is an honour to serve your country and help people abroad.” Fear, he said as he prepared for a psychological aptitude test, would be the wrong word to describe his attitude to deployment in hostile terrain.
“Respect is better,” said Stadler, who is 20.
For his part, Beckert, 18, said that being a soldier would be a new and risky experience. “You have a lot of thoughts, but I think it’s worthwhile to do it,” he said while preparing for a physical.
The latest military changes have also raised broader questions that cut to the core of Germany’s enduring identity crisis: Will Germany’s new force draw disproportionately on recruits from the former Communist east? Will young Germans – men and women – be prepared to overcome postwar Germany’s deep aversion to militarism? Will the end of the draft create an army with fewer inhibitions about deployment alongside its NATO allies to the world’s trouble spots? West Germany introduced compulsory military service in 1957 for periods that varied between a maximum of 18 months and, toward the end, of only six months, said Lieutenant Colonel Kai Schlolaut, a Defense Ministry spokesman. From the beginning, conscription was seen as a constitutional means of averting the militarism of the past by creating “citizens in uniform” to bind the armed forces to the rest of society. Everyone had to serve.
Indeed, Schlolaut said, about 8.4 million Germans served, either as conscripts in the Bundeswehr, as the armed forces are called, or in alternative civilian service, as helpers in old age-homes or charitable institutions.
Then last year, the former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg unveiled plans to reform the military, cutting it from its current levels – 220,000, along with 76,000 civilian support officials – to a maximum of 185,000 in uniform supported by 55,000 civilians. “We want a more flexible, more professional armed forces,” Schlolaut said.
Germany is making the change years after its major allies have taken the same step, including the United States, which ended the draft in 1973. The draft was technically suspended as of July 1 – under German law, to abolish it would have required rewriting the Constitution. The last draftees began six months of compulsory service in January, and some left their barracks for good recently.
The change to an all-volunteer army brought a shift of pace for Marion Krauskopf, the civilian director of Berlin’s recruitment center at the former military espionage base at Treptow-Koepenick in the southeast of the city, which once processed up to 150 draftees a day.
Now, Krauskopf said in an interview, the figure is 20 or 30. In the past, women were excluded from conscription, although in recent years they have been able to volunteer for the military in other categories of service. So far, though, only a handful of the 171 soldiers recruited at Treptow-Koepenick for induction in July as volunteers are women, she said.
But gender seems to be less of an issue in the German debate than the origin of those who do volunteer.
In a recent study, two experts said that while only 16 percent of the German population of 82 million lives in the former East Germany, easterners make up 30 percent of military personnel.
At the same time, said Michael Wolffsohn, a professor at the German Institute for International Security Affairs, and Maximilian Beenisch, a social scientist, easterners with higher educational qualifications were drawn to the military because of a lack of alternative opportunities in eastern Germany, where unemployment is higher than in the west.
“In the final analysis, these figures touch the soul of the reunified Germany and evoke the problem of the fair distribution of opportunities and burdens,” they said. The imbalance could also mean that, proportionately, more easterners than westerners face the risk of being killed in action, their study concluded. “For inner-German matters, this risk, based on geographic origins, could be explosive.”
For Germany’s allies, the shift to an all-volunteer force is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Berlin’s uneven record of readiness to deploy soldiers abroad. For years Germany has been reluctant to embark on overseas military adventures that might conjure historical ghosts of Hitler’s divisions in World War II.
Although German troops are stationed in northern Afghanistan, Berlin abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote in March that authorized the air campaign in Libya. More recently, Germany indicated that it was prepared to supply some unspecified munitions for the NATO effort.
But, said Christian Moelling a research fellow with the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik private research group, “there has never been the argument that we should not go into an operation because of conscription. We are talking about a much more deeply rooted thing. The abolition of conscription doesn’t change the mindset.”