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Dodging the Draft: Conscription Debate Divides German Conservatives

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

Compulsory military service may be outdated, but Germany is finding it hard to give it up. The defense minister has made no secret of his desire to scrap conscription, but many conservatives see military service as a key part of their identity and are fighting to keep it.

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It is late afternoon on July 20, and the guests of honor and the rest of the audience have already been seated on the enormous, covered grandstand in front of the Reichstag in Berlin. They are there for a swearing-in ceremony for new recruits to the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. A small child is screaming in one of the rows.

The date of the event is no coincidence: It is the anniversary of the failed July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler by a group of army officers, a highly significant event in the psyche of the post-war Bundeswehr.

The ceremony's host is Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who is speaking excitedly with his guest of honor when three black limousines appear on the grass. Suddenly this is no longer Guttenberg's event.

Only that afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel had decided to pay her respects to Germany's tradition of compulsory military service on that historic day and attend the public swearing-in of 420 new recruits in front of the Reichstag. According to the Chancellery, there happened to be an opening in her schedule. How convenient that there was a free two-hour slot coinciding nicely with the event.

Putting Guttenberg in His Place

Merkel steps out of the back of her black Audi, to a growing ripple of applause from the stands. Guttenberg is no stranger to the power of grand entrances, but on this afternoon the chancellor is clearly showing him how it's done. By appearing at his event, she isn't just stealing the spotlight from Guttenberg, but is also sending the message that she supports compulsory military service -- and that she has no compunctions about putting her defense minister in his place.

Guttenberg walks briskly to the lectern and quickly adjusts his speech to the change in circumstances. He says that he is "especially pleased to see Chancellor Angela Merkel here today." And then, a few minutes later, when he gets to the point of his speech, Merkel hears the sentence she wants to hear from Guttenberg. "We need," Guttenberg says portentously, "this service more than ever."

It was a remarkable about-face. Guttenberg, who is a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has spent much of the last few weeks and months trying to shorten Germany's compulsory military service, which was recently reduced from nine months to six. He has even suggested that it might be abolished altogether. In a recent SPIEGEL interview, Guttenberg said that under certain circumstances Germany can, and perhaps must, "do without the draft." He dismissed laggards like Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer by saying: "Whoever shoots down another person's proposal should be able to offer alternatives."

Threat to the Conservatives

Merkel and Seehofer are alarmed. The issue is threatening to turn into a serious problem, especially for the CDU and CSU. "The question of compulsory military service could easily turn into our Agenda 2010," says one adviser. He is referring to a deeply unpopular series of reforms to the German social system and labor market introduced under Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, which ended up costing Schröder his job in the 2005 election.

Now the chancellor herself has stepped in to put an end to Guttenberg's initiative. The defense minister had surprised her with his proposal to suspend conscription and use the resulting savings to help meet the objectives of the government's cost-cutting program. At a meeting to discuss the program in June, Merkel's only response was that the government couldn't abolish compulsory military service on a Sunday, the day the cabinet retreat was being held.

Since then, the chancellor has found her bearings and gained an ally in her quest to constrain the outspoken defense minister in the form of CSU leader Horst Seehofer. There is no connection between compulsory military service and the government savings program, Merkel said before going on vacation.

Conscription is now at the top of the list of subjects the government will have to address after the summer recess. No other issue is as great a source of concern for Merkel. Although her staff at the Chancellery has not yet established a clear approach to handling the issue, one thing is certain: If anyone is going to shape the course of the debate, it will be the chancellor, not her defense minister.

Learning to Fold a Shirt

Conscription may be outdated, but it is difficult for Germany to let go of the tradition. It is a firm part of postwar German culture and military policy. More than 8 million young men have passed through the nation's military training system in the postwar period, where, to the delight of their parents, they learn how to neatly fold a shirt to exactly match the size of an A4 page. Aside from that, however, the purpose and usefulness of compulsory military service have gradually disappeared in the years since the end of the Cold War.

Although it is a relic, the CDU, the most staunchly German of all the country's political parties, sees conscription as part of Germany's genetic code. The party introduced conscription in 1956 in the face of strong opposition. Now many conservatives do not understand why it should be abandoned, merely because the federal budget is short of a few billion.

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