When German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg first broached the idea of eliminating conscription last summer as part of the government's effort to cut spending, there was an immediate outcry. The draft, it was said, was an important link between German society and its military -- it was tradition . Many accused Guttenberg of not having adequately thought through his proposal.
Guttenberg, however, has never been one to back down in the face of controversy. And on Monday, speaking at a meeting of German military leadership in Dresden -- called by the Defense Ministry to discuss Guttenberg's Bundeswehr reform plans -- he announced that conscription would come to an end on July 1, 2011.
"This shows that we are serious about military reform" Guttenberg told journalists on Monday.
Still, Guttenberg said that the would not shrink to the degree that many had thought. Whereas a military report earlier this year suggested that Germany's armed forces may decrease to 163,500 soldiers, the defense minister on Monday said the Bundeswehr would maintain between 180,000 and 185,000 troops. Currently, there are some 240,000 soldiers in the Bundeswehr according to the Defense Ministry website.
Ministry Job Cuts
Guttenberg on Monday also announced several additional reforms facing the Defense Ministry and the military including the elimination of some 1,000 jobs in the ministry. The defense minister declined to provide details as to which military bases in Germany might be in danger of closure. The Defense Ministry expects the reforms to result in savings of up to €500 million annually.
The decision to abandon conscription comes after years of falling recruit numbers. Whereas some 144,650 soldiers performed mandatory military service in 2000, the number in recent years has been less than half that. The length of conscription has been reduced as well, with soldiers drafted in the army today only having to spend six months in uniform. The military has complained that the cost of training and outfitting draftees for such a short period far outweighs the benefits. Partially as a consequence, the number of potential recruits rejected for health reasons has skyrocketed in recent years -- in 2009, fully 42.7 percent of draftees were turned away.
At the same time, the number of young Germans signing up for fixed periods of service -- the Bundeswehr employed 188,000 such soldiers in 2009 -- appears robust enough to meet Guttenberg's ultimate goal for the size of the German military. In addition, Berlin plans to introduce a kind of voluntary conscription, allowing those interested in serving the possibility to sign up for limited stints of between 12 and 23 months.
New Volunteer Service
Last summer, initial reaction to Guttenberg's plans had been full of skepticism. Indeed, his own party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) -- had distanced itself from the proposal. CSU party head Horst Seehofer said at the time that the CSU was the party of conscription. Many within the CDU were hesitant as well. Ultimately, however, arguments as to the inefficiency of the draft won out. Guttenberg did say on Monday, however, that the names of Germans of military age would continue to be collected should a reintroduction of the draft be required.
The decision to eliminate conscription also means an end to Germany's cherished system of civilian service , a period of social service required of conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the country's military. As recently as 2002, there were 136,000 young Germans providing valuable services across the country, many serving in retirement homes, hospitals and facilities for the handicapped. Currently, there are approximately 90,000. While "civvies," as they are called, had to serve longer than those opting for the military, their stints too have been reduced in length in recent years.
Thousands of important facilities around Germany rely on the services of civvies for their survival and there has been an outcry against plans to eliminate the service. Last week, the German government announced plans to establish a service made up of 35,000 volunteers serving for 12 months. The service, Berlin announced, would cost €350 million per year.