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.
Part of German Identity
CDU/CSU floor leader Volker Kauder has a book by the Berlin political scientist Herfried Münkler on his bookshelf. Its title is "Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen" ("The Germans and their Myths"). For Kauder, compulsory military service is one of those myths that shape German identity and also forms part of the CDU/CSU's core identity. It is something he is unwilling to give up.
Kauder still remembers clearly how Merkel praised conscription, exactly a year ago in July 2009, when she attended a public swearing-in ceremony for recruits in Berlin. "I support compulsory military service," she said at the time. "Conscription has become a trademark of our armed forces, for which we are envied internationally."
Kauder is determined to fight for compulsory military service. He will have his chance at the CDU convention in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe in mid-November, when the party intends to reach a definitive position on the issue. However, a preliminary decision will be made earlier. Because the subject is so contentious, Merkel and Seehofer plan to hold a joint meeting of the leaders of the CDU and CSU in the fall.
Singing the Praises of Conscription
Unlike Guttenberg, Kauder is no solo performer. In fact, an entire choir of conservative politicians on both the federal and state level has been singing the praises of conscription. "Compulsory military service should remain in place, also for reasons of social policy," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of parliament for the CDU. "As a result of conscription, many millions of young men have gotten to know and respect the Bundeswehr. It is the fundamental idea of the citizen in uniform."
"Our Bundeswehr is an army of sons and daughters. The fact that it is firmly anchored within the population is a great blessing," commented Christine Lieberknecht, the governor of the eastern state of Thuringia. "That's why I support retaining compulsory military service."
"Conscription is part of the identity of the CDU/CSU," Governor Peter Müller of the western state of Saarland said. "Anyone who wants to call it into question needs a very good reason."
And Peter Hauk, the head of the CDU parliamentary group in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament, said: "We are fundamentally in favor of retaining compulsory military service. There is no evidence that a professional military would be more cost-effective for the government than an army of conscripts."
The Bavarian interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, added his voice to the debate when he said: "Despite the difficult budget situation and the need to restructure the Bundeswehr, we should keep compulsory military service."
Of course, state politicians have their own local agendas to consider. The Bundeswehr has 68 facilities in Bavaria, 43 in Baden-Württemberg and eight in Saarland. If conscription disappears, so will some of the military's barracks, which provide local jobs.
Depending on the Civilian Service
There is more at stake. Guttenberg's plans would also affect the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, because the structure of the so-called "civilian" or "alternative" service for conscientious objectors -- which is overseen by the ministry -- is closely tied to that of military service.
The recent reduction in basic military service from nine to six months also applies to civilian service, a change that was met with consternation among social service organizations. The civilian service has become indispensable for many places such as retirement homes, hospitals and facilities for the handicapped. Although civilian service was originally intended as an alternative to military service, those performing civilian service now outnumber conscripts by 91,000 to 68,000.
Because of the relationship between conscription and civilian service, cooperation between the two ministries is essential. However, there is poor chemistry between Guttenberg and Family Minister Kristina Schröder, so cooperation suffers as a result. Schröder's ministry is having trouble planning ahead because of the uncertainty surrounding Guttenberg's intentions. Officials there are somewhat on edge as they wait for the defense minister to finally solidify his plans. Both ministers are expected to report to the cabinet in September on the consequences of changes in conscription for military and civilian service.
All of the alternatives Guttenberg is now examining would have serious consequences for civilian service. "If compulsory military service is suspended, civilian service will also have to be suspended, which would mean losing the commitment of 90,000 young men a year," warns Jens Kreuter, the federal commissioner for the civilian service. "We could expect serious consequences for our social infrastructure."
With pressure coming from all sides, the situation has to be kept tightly under wraps. Room 04/100 at the Defense Ministry is bug-proof and is thus referred to as the "U-Boot" ("submarine"). Last Sunday at 6 p.m., the country's senior military leaders met in the windowless, wood-paneled conference room on the fourth floor of Berlin's historic Bendlerblock building, which houses part of the Defense Ministry and which was also the place where the conspirators in the July 20 plot were executed. It was a suitable location for the issue at hand. For three hours, the officers discussed nothing more and nothing less than the suspension of compulsory military service.
In the end, they came up with five models. The most radical version is a mini Bundeswehr with 150,000 professional and part-time soldiers. At the other end of the spectrum of reform models is a military consisting of 205,000 soldiers, including conscripts, which essentially corresponds to the current structure. A compromise "Model 4" includes 150,000 to 160,000 professional soldiers, as well as 7,500 to 15,000 short-term volunteers. It would produce a military of about 170,000 soldiers.
The short-term volunteers would serve between 12 and 23 months. But even this version would also boil down to a de facto abolition of compulsory military service.
The federal government has already "cut compulsory military service to the point of senselessness, and thus destroyed it," writes former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe, a member of the CDU, in an essay for SPIEGEL. No one should believe that conscription will ever be reactivated once it has been inactivated, Rühe adds, noting: "Suspension means abolition."
A Touch of Envy
Merkel is still weighing up the options. But if she concludes that turning her back on conscription will trigger a revolt within the CDU, she will not hesitate to oppose her defense minister.
She already feels that Guttenberg could stand to be taken down a notch. It irritates her that he likes to cultivate the image of a chancellor in waiting. Officials at the Chancellery like to make fun of Guttenberg's public appearances. But their ridicule also contains a touch of envy. After all, Merkel lacks Guttenberg's theatrical talent.
CSU Chairman Horst Seehofer, at any rate, would have no objection to seeing Guttenberg put in his place. He believes that Guttenberg has only made it into the top echelon of politics because of his support, and it irks Seehofer that the minister hardly deems it necessary anymore to confer with his party chairman.
Seehofer was outraged when Guttenberg, at the cabinet meeting on cutbacks in government spending, proposed suspending conscription. He also finds it intolerable that Guttenberg has the temerity to even place such far-reaching issues on the agenda. This, the party patriarch believes, is solely the responsibility of the party chairman.
A compromise was clearly needed. It emerged shortly before Merkel was preparing to head off on vacation. At 10:30 in the morning last Thursday, Guttenberg, Frank-Jürgen Weise, the head of the structural commission on Bundeswehr reform, three members of that commission, Chancellery Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla and Merkel met on the eighth floor of the Chancellery. Weise also proposed voluntary conscription, which would still allow the government to register all young men under the law on compulsory military service and, if legally permissible, to examine them as well.
And there it was: an idea, a plan and a defense minister who was being flexible once again, and who suddenly felt that abolishing compulsory military service would be a "fatal mistake." It all sounds very well and good. The advantage of the plan is that all of the structures associated with compulsory military service would remain in place and could be reactivated at any time, and that the current, preposterous six-month military service would no longer be an issue.
The drawback is that the idea is not a genuine plan, but an attempt to pull the wool over people's eyes. A voluntary military service is no longer a compulsory military service. Anyone in the CDU and CSU, even those who have never been in the military, will see straight through it.