Is Conscription Coming Back to Germany?

German soldiers in 2010. By isafmedia / CC BY 2.0

Germany’s Armed Forces have been struggling to fill its ranks, so Angela Merkel’s ruling Christain Democratic Union (CDU Party) is suggesting a solution – a return to conscription. Discussions about the recent proposal are by no means complete; these are early days and not everyone in the CDU thinks it’s the way to go.

The public, however, thinks largely that it’s a good solution to the chronic problem of low voluntary enrollment. Also supporting the idea is the Alternative for Deutschland (AFD), the right wing political party that opposed scrapping conscription when it happened in 2011.

AFD leader Alice Weidel said then that abolishing conscription was “a grave mistake.” Hence, it’s no surprise that she recently tweeted support for its reinstatement, saying that the Bundeswehr must become “an attractive employer again.”

Angela Merkel. By World Economic Forum – CC BY-SA 2.0
Angela Merkel. By World Economic Forum – CC BY-SA 2.0

Some have suggested that Merkel’s party has put forward the idea to sway AFD supporters to CDU; that its conservative base thinks on the whole that conscription would be good for the country – and the party. Reinstate it, and the CDU just might sway voters to its side; according to a recent poll, 56% of AFD members are in favor.

German Soldiers in the 3rd Panzer Battalion. By 7th Army Training Command / CC BY 2.0
German Soldiers in the 3rd Panzer Battalion. By 7th Army Training Command / CC BY 2.0

The change is something CDU Secretary General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is championing, she says, as a result of her talks and meetings with CDU members nationwide, who believe conscription would help bring the country together once again. However, it isn’t intended as a simple reversion to the military draft. “There are many ways to serve,” she said on Twitter.

But not everyone in CDU leadership roles is convinced.

The leader of Alternative for Germany Party Alice Weidel. By © Superbass / CC BY-SA 4.0
The leader of Alternative for Germany Party Alice Weidel. By © Superbass / CC BY-SA 4.0

Germany’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Defense, Hans-Peter Bartels, a member of the coalition’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), believes the proposal is in conflict with his country’s laws on forced labor. “I think it’s very unlikely to register 700,000 young men and women every year to assignments, as attractive as that may sound.”

Another dissenter is CDU member Henning Otte, point man for the party’s defense department. “Old fashioned,  conscription is not going to help with our current security challenges,” he insisted recently but acknowledged the plan might work if the scope is widened.

German Army soldiers in Afghanistan. By ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office – CC BY 2.0
German Army soldiers in Afghanistan. By ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office – CC BY 2.0

One young man who is particularly enthusiastic about the idea is Paul Ziemak. The CDU leader of its youth wing said he thinks the idea of young people spending a year in service to their country is a terrific notion. Not necessarily in the military, but perhaps in emergency services.

Ziemak recently told Bild Am Sonntag, Germany’s largest national newspaper, “We live in a wonderful country. A  year of conscription gives the opportunity to give something back and, at the same time, to strengthen the country’s unity.”

German Soldiers of the 3rd Panzer Battalion. By 7th Army Training Command / CC BY 2.0.
German Soldiers of the 3rd Panzer Battalion. By 7th Army Training Command / CC BY 2.0.

Not surprisingly, members of the country’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), known for its allegiance to business interests, said the proposal is patently “absurd,” and sounded the alarm about the “horrendous waste of money” conscription could cause. The Left and Green parties are also on record registering their disagreement.

German Military on winter exercise. By Bundesheer Fotos – CC BY-SA 2.0
German Military on winter exercise. By Bundesheer Fotos – CC BY-SA 2.0

Some experts have suggested that the “grand coalition” is putting forth this idea as nothing more than a cynical way to woo conservative voters away from other parties, in particular, the AFD.

Read another story from us: Military Tradition: Germany’s Problem With Its Past

Whatever the reason, or the outcome, after its formal proposal at the CDU conference in December, it could well mean big changes ahead for Germany’s young people, come the 2020 election. They simply aren’t signing up for military service like they used to. This proposal might just force them to rethink their future plans, at least for one year.

David Baker

David Baker is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE