The Road to a Professional Army German Foreign Minister Supports Abandoning Conscription

Several top German politicians have expressed their support in recent months for abandoning the country's decades-old system of conscription. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is the latest to support the shift.

Many in Germany would like to see an end to conscription.

Many in Germany would like to see an end to conscription.

Should Germany discard its conscription army? It is a question which was taboo for decades, particularly given the country's erstwhile position on the Cold War's front line. Even since the fall of communism, while the period of conscription has been repeatedly shortened, few have seriously considered converting the Bundeswehr into an exclusively professional army.

In recent months, however, an increasing number of leading politicians in Germany have begun considering a fundamental reform of the country's military -- including the abolishment of conscription. In an interview with the daily Hamburger Abendblatt, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, head of Merkel's coalition partner the pro-business Free Democrats, reiterated his support for eliminating the draft.

"I am convinced that we should turn the Bundeswehr into a professional army," Westerwelle said. "It would be the correct decision to end conscription as quickly as possible." He said he thinks it would be possible to end Germany's system of conscription before the next general elections, currently set for 2013.

Westerwelle's comments come just weeks after Chancellor Angela Merkel's government agreed to cut conscription from nine months to six months, a reduction that went into effect on the first of July. But with Berlin hoping to reduce spending by €80 billion by 2014, some have suggested that cutting conscription entirely could be a good way to save money.

'Future-Oriented Structural Change'

The current manifestation of the debate about Germany's conscription army was kicked off by none other than Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats. Many conservatives quickly distanced themselves from his proposal, including Merkel herself. Since then, however, the chancellor has indicated that she may have changed her mind. She ordered Guttenberg to come up with proposals for a "future-oriented structural change" to the German military -- one which, she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in June, could lead to abandoning conscription entirely.

In justifying his own plea for the end of conscription, Westerwelle claimed concern about the fairness of the system. "We cannot continue to allow a situation where just 16 percent of those from a given year fulfil their military obligations while many others improve their opportunities for employment during the same time," Westerwelle told the Hamburg paper. He said such a situation may, in fact, be in violation of the constitution.

Westerwelle, who is also Merkel's vice chancellor, was referring to the country's parallel system of "civilian service," a mandatory period of public service for conscientious objectors. Indeed, should conscription be jettisoned, so too would civilian service, which could create immense problems for hundreds of retirement homes, hospitals and facilities for the handicapped, that rely on the pool of cheap labor the civilian service system supplies.

Still, when it comes to Germany's military, it is unclear that the Bundeswehr needs, or even wants, the young recruits provided by conscription. Their short, six-month stint makes extensive training hardly worthwhile. Instead, the some 60,000 conscripts in the army at any given time are often left to fill their time on their own -- and end up fighting boredom instead of the enemy.

Rejecting Conscripts

Indeed, the number of conscripts accepted by the Bundeswehr has been dropping for years, with the army seemingly establishing increasingly arbitrary criteria to reject conscripts in an apparent effort to reduce their numbers (see graphic on the left). The Defense Ministry has calculated that cutting conscription would lop some €500 million off the military budget.

Still, despite the powerful voices in favor of eliminating conscription, there are many within Merkel's CDU who are vehemently opposed. She herself has expressed a reluctance to get rid of a "success story of the social development in the Federal Republic of Germany." She has also emphasized that an elimination of conscription would not negatively affect Berlin's military commitments abroad.

Even as Westerwelle's comments have added more fuel to the fire, it is unlikely that any final decision will be made right away. Guttenberg's Defense Ministry will not be delivering its proposals until September. And many among the opposition Social Democrats are opposed to such a move.



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