Interview with Former German Army Chief 'I No Longer See Any Military Point' in Conscription

Germany, one of the last European countries with a draft, is considering ending its compulsory military service. The current defense minister wants to abolish it to save money. In an interview, retired General Klaus Naumann, the former chief of staff of the German armed forces, discusses what a professional army would mean for his country.

German Bundeswehr soldiers train in Grafenwoehr, Germany, in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan.
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German Bundeswehr soldiers train in Grafenwoehr, Germany, in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan.

IP: General Naumann, do you believe in Germany having a draft?

Naumann: I am a convinced supporter of conscription because in my country it is the only duty that is demanded of young people that makes possible a whole life in freedom and, in the final analysis, in peace. But following the coalition's decision to reduce the length of basic military service to six months, I have my doubts about whether it still make sense from a military point of view. I no longer see any military point in it. And I am also extremely doubtful about whether it provides any advantage to the armed forces and whether the financial costs justify the benefits in any meaningful way.

IP: Defense Ministry officials have indicated that getting rid of the draft could save half a billion euros annually. But is it really about the cost, or is it simply easier to run a modern army on a fully professional basis, particularly in regard to foreign deployments?

Naumann: Foreign deployments are already possible today. Only professional soldiers or conscripts who have voluntarily signed up for a longer period and therefore have received the corresponding training, are deployed. We should not forget, especially when we are discussing this issue for the benefit of a foreign audience, that the Bundeswehr, with its current strength of 250,000 troops, has almost 200,000 professional soldiers. The proportion of conscripts is relatively insignificant -- 50,000 to 60,000.

IP: Does that mean that the Bundeswehr can function well without conscripts?

Naumann: I think the Bundeswehr could cope relatively well without the draft if it were to scale back its peacetime strength. All the studies that were carried out during my time as head of the joint chiefs of staff, and the demography hasn't changed much, indicated that we can't get more than around 190,000 to 200,000 troops from the current population of Germany. That is against the background of the demographic development in Germany that is leading to a reduction in the overall population and in particular to a significantly ageing population and therefore to a shrinking number of young people. Conscription has always been useful because it helped us to harvest enough professional soldiers from the ranks of the recruits -- it was a kind of try-out. But I have serious doubts whether that will still be possible with six months, whether the heavy commitment of instructors that is necessary, instructors who are then not available for missions, is still justified.

IP: So conscripts do represent an important recruitment source for the full-time army?

Naumann: Yes. I don't know what the current figures are but during my time as head of the joint chiefs of staff around 40 percent of new officers and almost 50 percent of non-commissioned officers were recruited from the pool of conscripts. And, as you can easily calculate, that is significantly more cost effective than the way professional armies like the British or the Americans do it.

IP: Does that mean that you think it could be a false economy to get rid of the draft?

Naumann: No, because that advantage was always linked to the length of basic military service. If I require someone to do six months of compulsory service, then I have to be able to offer a sensible justification for it. Is the sacrifice required of a young citizen really justifiable from the point of view of security policy considerations? In the current times, it is difficult to find an answer to that question that justifies the retention of general compulsory military service.The second factor is whether the length of service is long enough for the young man to have the feeling that he has learned something useful that he could actually use in a real-life situation and that he can also build on? I don't think that's achievable with only six months. The third thing is that you need around 30,000 to 40,000 instructors to train these recruits. But these professional soldiers, these instructors are then not available to the army for deployment and thus reduce the deployment strength of the forces.

IP: Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has said that in ten years' time the draft will be "in effect abolished." Do you think he's right?

Naumann: He should be very careful with the word "abolished" if he means he wants to change the Basic Law (German constitution) in which the draft is anchored ...

IP: He made it clear he wasn't talking about constitutional change, only about suspending the draft.

Naumann: If he retains the legislation allowing universal conscription but doesn't apply it in practice then I largely agree with him. But he should not abolish it as an instrument because none of us know what the world will look like in ten or twenty years' time.

IP: There are other politicians in Guttenberg's party, Bavaria's Christian Social Union and its larger sister party, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, who do not agree with the defense minister's position. CDU-CSU parliamentary floor leader Volker Kauder says the draft is an instrument linking society with the Bundeswehr-that's the traditional concept of draftees as "citizens in uniform."

Naumann: I'm not sure Mr. Kauder is completely right there. The Bundeswehr has been well anchored in society for 55 years now. It is seen by our society as an instrument to maintain the country's foreign and security interests. It enjoys a high standing. I think some politicians would like to see politicians enjoying the kind of respect the Bundeswehr does. So from that point of view, considering this longstanding success story, we do not need conscription as a way of linking the army to society. The principle of the "citizen in uniform" can also be realized in a professional army. And by the way it has always applied to all professional and career soldiers.

IP: The defense minister underlined that point recently when he dismissed the idea that it was only conscripts who helped to maintain the citizen in uniform concept.

Naumann: The essence of the principle of the "citizen in uniform" is that one tries to reconcile the fundamental idea of our constitution -- that the individual citizen is protected from the power of the state by the rule of law -- with the indispensable military principle of obeying orders within a purely hierarchical structure. I think we have managed that quite successfully in the Bundeswehr. Better than in some other armies in the Western world, not to mention the East.


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