When Matthias Fritzsche began working as a volunteer helping the elderly in Berlin, he had no idea how many people were in need of assistance. Now, a year later, he says the experience has helped him find his calling.
Fritzsche, though, wasn't a willing volunteer when he began his stint with the relief agency Malteser International. For decades, young Germans who registered as conscientious objectors to mandatory military service were required to perform volunteer work instead. Without that policy, 26-year-old Fritzsche might never have decided to pursue a career in medicine.
"I wouldn't have chosen to do this, so it's good the government said I had to," says Fritzsche, who will continue volunteering for Malteser after serving in the civil service for 10 months.
That government requirement, though, is now ending. On July 1, the German government officially terminated its mandatory military service for young men -- which means the army of conscientious objectors, upon which the German social sector had relied on for 50 years, will also disappear. And just as the German military is struggling to attract recruits to fill the military ranks, the federal government is scrambling to attract volunteers to a federal program that is meant to fill the civil service void.
'Commit Themselves to the Common Good'
Many social service organizations are concerned that the effort will not be successful. The new Federal Voluntary Service is looking to eventually recruit 35,000 volunteers for placements across Germany. Unlike the civil service program, available only young men opting out of the military, the new service is open to women and does not have an age limit.
German Family Minister Kristina Schröder has said she invites others to "commit themselves to the common good" and to ensure that the new service "will be as successful as the civil service over the last 50 years."
Critics, though, argue that the government cannot expect to change the "culture of volunteerism" in just a few short months. An all-too-quick transition, they say, has led to miscommunication and confusion. And, looking to the Sept. 1 start date for the voluntary year, they worry that the young men who once opted to work in retirement homes, youth programs, and hospitals did so, at least initially, because it was required.
Now that the national volunteer service is, in fact, voluntary, who will sign up?
"This kind of voluntary work has to be established in Germany," says Claudia Kaminski, a spokesperson for Malteser, which relies on volunteers for its humanitarian aid work. "Our society is used to this mandatory military service, and now its end shows our society that everyone has to care."
Kaminski says that as of Aug. 18, about 320 volunteers from the Federal Voluntary Service had signed up for assignments lasting six to 24 months with Malteser, though the organization had expected 1,000 new contracts by Sept. 1.
"The way [the new service] was communicated was rather difficult," says Kaminski. "First the government told us we are going to shorten the service, and then it was quite surprisingly stopped in the middle of the year."
Forty percent of the civil service volunteers at Malteser agreed to stay on longer, which Kaminski says will help with the transition. But she expects it will take years for the organization to regain its annual number of volunteers, and until then, it will face challenges in serving the community at the level it has in the past.
The extended service of civil service volunteers like Fritzsche not only helps organizations during the transition, but also allows the government to keep lower-than-expected recruitment numbers hidden in the small print.
Hermann Kues, a state secretary in the Family Affairs Ministry, which oversees the new service, touted the fact that there were 17,300 Federal Voluntary Service contracts as of July 1. He said it was a sign of the nationwide interest in volunteering. But 14,300 of those contracts were with former civil service volunteers who extended their service, meaning only 3,000 new people had signed up to serve by the launch of the program.
The Ministry of Family Affairs said it expects 10,000 new contracts by the end of October, with an eventual goal of 35,000 volunteers.
"The Voluntary Civil Service is completely new and we have to do some publicity to make sure people know about the service," said Katja Laubinger, a spokesperson for the ministry.