For months, German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has been trying to secure political backing for his plan to abolish the draft in Germany. Now, with the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats on Monday signalling its support for Guttenberg's plan, it looks like he may have succeeded.
The defense minister's intention to move Germany toward an all-volunteer army was the subject of a CDU leadership gathering near Berlin on Sunday evening. The conservative party's general secretary, Hermann Gröhe, said on Monday that the idea of getting rid of conscription was "discussed with great openness." Several CDU state governors who had previously been skeptical of the plan indicated their support at the meeting.
The CDU's approval comes on the heels of an about face on the issue from Guttenberg's own party, the Christian Social Union -- the Bavarian sister party of the CDU. In an interview with SPIEGEL published on Monday, CSU head Horst Seehofer said "conscription is a major imposition on the freedom of young people and is only constitutionally justifiable" should the country's safety be at stake. Only weeks ago, Seehofer had brushed Guttenberg's plan aside by saying that conscription was a part of Germany's identity and should not be abandoned.
Guttenberg has said he is not interested in pushing through a constitutional amendment to strike the passages regulating the draft. Rather, his plan envisions suspending the practice in addition to introducing a volunteer military service that will last from between 12 and 23 months. Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, have long indicated their support for abolishing the draft.
The CDU and the CSU will not formally adopt Guttenberg's position until a joint leadership meeting scheduled for later this month. The defense minister originally forged his plan as a way to cut the Defense Ministry budget in accordance with Germany's recently passed austerity plan. The length of conscription in Germany has been shrinking from its height of 18 months in the 1960s to its current length of just six months. Furthermore, drafted troops are generally not considered for deployment outside of Germany. Guttenberg hopes to save billions by eliminating the need to house, feed and train conscripts.
German commentators on Tuesday discuss the disappearance of the country's conscription army.
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Because the Germany of today is surrounded by friends, we are no longer on the NATO front lines and do not need divisions stationed on the (eastern border) to engage tanks approaching from the east. We need a small, but highly professional force for missions overseas. Of utmost importance is the most modern equipment, sufficient air transport capacities and a navy that can do its part to help secure global trade routes. None of these tasks can be performed by conscripted soldiers, they need to be performed by well-trained professionals."
"This is a realization that both generals and defense ministers have stubbornly resisted since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The result is an overstretched and underfinanced army that still retains the profile of a force designed to defend its country's borders, but which must nevertheless take part in missions abroad -- an army which has resigned itself to doing everything, but doing nothing very well. Money is short everywhere, a fact that is made obvious by an extreme, and dangerous, shortage of equipment. The fact that only 6,700 soldiers in and army of 252,000 can be sent abroad at any given time shows clearly that something is wrong with the structure of the military. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has correctly understood the sign of the times."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"How quickly times change. In the early summer, when Guttenberg first went public with his plans, it seemed like a kamikaze mission. Conscription was considered to be a sacred cow of the conservatives.... But the sensational respect he enjoys among German citizens lent his arguments additional weight as did the knowledge that Chancellor Merkel was solidly behind him. His political style also helped. Finally, someone came out and said exactly what he wanted. Who dares wins."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"The nostalgic invocation of the usefulness of conscription could no longer stand up to the facts: When fewer than 7,000 out of a total of 250,000 soldiers are available for missions abroad; when just 14 percent of young men are drafted; when even the majority within the military itself supports reform -- in such a case, renewal is unavoidable."
"Guttenberg has won an internal party victory. But he is only halfway home. A successful reform of the German military is much more than just the abandonment of conscription. State politicians will no doubt demand a price for their consent -- and the last word has not yet been spoken when it comes to the ultimate size of Germany's revamped military.... Already, some state politicians are demanding that they be compensated for the closure of barracks with federal subsidies. Yet the trigger for the reform debate was Berlin's desire for spending cuts. It is much too early to praise Guttenberg for his success."
The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Getting rid of conscription in an era where the German military is sent on missions to crisis areas across the globe is the correct move to make. It is now important for the government to take the next step as well and close the 50 military bases that no longer make military sense. But one wonders if Guttenberg has the necessary courage for such a step. Loud protests from local and state politicians are unavoidable."