Dodging the Draft: Conscription Debate Divides German Conservatives

By Ulrike Demmer, Kerstin Kullmann, René Pfister and Christoph Schwennicke

Part 2: Part of German Identity

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CDU/CSU floor leader Volker Kauder has a book by the Berlin political scientist Herfried Münkler on his bookshelf. Its title is "Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen" ("The Germans and their Myths"). For Kauder, compulsory military service is one of those myths that shape German identity and also forms part of the CDU/CSU's core identity. It is something he is unwilling to give up.

Kauder still remembers clearly how Merkel praised conscription, exactly a year ago in July 2009, when she attended a public swearing-in ceremony for recruits in Berlin. "I support compulsory military service," she said at the time. "Conscription has become a trademark of our armed forces, for which we are envied internationally."

Kauder is determined to fight for compulsory military service. He will have his chance at the CDU convention in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe in mid-November, when the party intends to reach a definitive position on the issue. However, a preliminary decision will be made earlier. Because the subject is so contentious, Merkel and Seehofer plan to hold a joint meeting of the leaders of the CDU and CSU in the fall.

Singing the Praises of Conscription

Unlike Guttenberg, Kauder is no solo performer. In fact, an entire choir of conservative politicians on both the federal and state level has been singing the praises of conscription. "Compulsory military service should remain in place, also for reasons of social policy," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of parliament for the CDU. "As a result of conscription, many millions of young men have gotten to know and respect the Bundeswehr. It is the fundamental idea of the citizen in uniform."

"Our Bundeswehr is an army of sons and daughters. The fact that it is firmly anchored within the population is a great blessing," commented Christine Lieberknecht, the governor of the eastern state of Thuringia. "That's why I support retaining compulsory military service."

"Conscription is part of the identity of the CDU/CSU," Governor Peter Müller of the western state of Saarland said. "Anyone who wants to call it into question needs a very good reason."

And Peter Hauk, the head of the CDU parliamentary group in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament, said: "We are fundamentally in favor of retaining compulsory military service. There is no evidence that a professional military would be more cost-effective for the government than an army of conscripts."

The Bavarian interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, added his voice to the debate when he said: "Despite the difficult budget situation and the need to restructure the Bundeswehr, we should keep compulsory military service."

Of course, state politicians have their own local agendas to consider. The Bundeswehr has 68 facilities in Bavaria, 43 in Baden-Württemberg and eight in Saarland. If conscription disappears, so will some of the military's barracks, which provide local jobs.

Depending on the Civilian Service

There is more at stake. Guttenberg's plans would also affect the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, because the structure of the so-called "civilian" or "alternative" service for conscientious objectors -- which is overseen by the ministry -- is closely tied to that of military service.

The recent reduction in basic military service from nine to six months also applies to civilian service, a change that was met with consternation among social service organizations. The civilian service has become indispensable for many places such as retirement homes, hospitals and facilities for the handicapped. Although civilian service was originally intended as an alternative to military service, those performing civilian service now outnumber conscripts by 91,000 to 68,000.

Because of the relationship between conscription and civilian service, cooperation between the two ministries is essential. However, there is poor chemistry between Guttenberg and Family Minister Kristina Schröder, so cooperation suffers as a result. Schröder's ministry is having trouble planning ahead because of the uncertainty surrounding Guttenberg's intentions. Officials there are somewhat on edge as they wait for the defense minister to finally solidify his plans. Both ministers are expected to report to the cabinet in September on the consequences of changes in conscription for military and civilian service.

All of the alternatives Guttenberg is now examining would have serious consequences for civilian service. "If compulsory military service is suspended, civilian service will also have to be suspended, which would mean losing the commitment of 90,000 young men a year," warns Jens Kreuter, the federal commissioner for the civilian service. "We could expect serious consequences for our social infrastructure."

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Graphic: Conscription figures


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