Dodging the Draft Conscription Debate Divides German Conservatives

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By Ulrike Demmer, , and Christoph Schwennicke

Part 3: Clever Solutions


With pressure coming from all sides, the situation has to be kept tightly under wraps. Room 04/100 at the Defense Ministry is bug-proof and is thus referred to as the "U-Boot" ("submarine"). Last Sunday at 6 p.m., the country's senior military leaders met in the windowless, wood-paneled conference room on the fourth floor of Berlin's historic Bendlerblock building, which houses part of the Defense Ministry and which was also the place where the conspirators in the July 20 plot were executed. It was a suitable location for the issue at hand. For three hours, the officers discussed nothing more and nothing less than the suspension of compulsory military service.

In the end, they came up with five models. The most radical version is a mini Bundeswehr with 150,000 professional and part-time soldiers. At the other end of the spectrum of reform models is a military consisting of 205,000 soldiers, including conscripts, which essentially corresponds to the current structure. A compromise "Model 4" includes 150,000 to 160,000 professional soldiers, as well as 7,500 to 15,000 short-term volunteers. It would produce a military of about 170,000 soldiers.

The short-term volunteers would serve between 12 and 23 months. But even this version would also boil down to a de facto abolition of compulsory military service.

The federal government has already "cut compulsory military service to the point of senselessness, and thus destroyed it," writes former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe, a member of the CDU, in an essay for SPIEGEL. No one should believe that conscription will ever be reactivated once it has been inactivated, Rühe adds, noting: "Suspension means abolition."

A Touch of Envy

Merkel is still weighing up the options. But if she concludes that turning her back on conscription will trigger a revolt within the CDU, she will not hesitate to oppose her defense minister.

She already feels that Guttenberg could stand to be taken down a notch. It irritates her that he likes to cultivate the image of a chancellor in waiting. Officials at the Chancellery like to make fun of Guttenberg's public appearances. But their ridicule also contains a touch of envy. After all, Merkel lacks Guttenberg's theatrical talent.

CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer, at any rate, would have no objection to seeing Guttenberg put in his place. He believes that Guttenberg has only made it into the top echelon of politics because of his support, and it irks Seehofer that the minister hardly deems it necessary anymore to confer with his party chairman.

Seehofer was outraged when Guttenberg, at the cabinet meeting on cutbacks in government spending, proposed suspending conscription. He also finds it intolerable that Guttenberg has the temerity to even place such far-reaching issues on the agenda. This, the party patriarch believes, is solely the responsibility of the party chairman.

Voluntary Conscription

A compromise was clearly needed. It emerged shortly before Merkel was preparing to head off on vacation. At 10:30 in the morning last Thursday, Guttenberg, Frank-Jürgen Weise, the head of the structural commission on Bundeswehr reform, three members of that commission, Chancellery Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla and Merkel met on the eighth floor of the Chancellery. Weise also proposed voluntary conscription, which would still allow the government to register all young men under the law on compulsory military service and, if legally permissible, to examine them as well.

And there it was: an idea, a plan and a defense minister who was being flexible once again, and who suddenly felt that abolishing compulsory military service would be a "fatal mistake." It all sounds very well and good. The advantage of the plan is that all of the structures associated with compulsory military service would remain in place and could be reactivated at any time, and that the current, preposterous six-month military service would no longer be an issue.

The drawback is that the idea is not a genuine plan, but an attempt to pull the wool over people's eyes. A voluntary military service is no longer a compulsory military service. Anyone in the CDU and CSU, even those who have never been in the military, will see straight through it.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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