Germany's last conscripts report for duty

 

AFTER HALF a century and eight million recruits, Germany has brought the curtain down on compulsory military conscription.

The new year began for 12,000 young German men yesterday with a sign-up call to serve as the last “citizens in uniform”.

That was how Bonn sold its new army to sceptical West Germans in the 1950s, just a decade after the military’s key role in the Third Reich calamity.

Putting ordinary citizens in uniform could hinder the creation of a new officer class that played such a vital role in the Hitler era, Bonn argued. Not everyone was convinced: when the first 10,000 recruits were called up in April 1957, tens of thousands of Germans went on to the streets to protest at what they saw as creeping remilitarisation. Eventually, conscription became a part of West German life with East Berlin following in 1962.

For yesterday’s recruits, history was less in the foreground than the practicalities of everyday life.

“I’ve just got a new job so this is a complete break in my life,” said Dennis Hartmann (19), clutching his ID card as he studied his conscription papers.

Conscription has been in decline for years, with 60 per cent choosing “civil service” instead in hospitals and care facilities. Ending it is part of Germany’s army reform that will see troop numbers halved to just 170,000, still enough, Berlin says, to meet its Nato obligations.

“We’re confident that good training is only of use when the motivation is there, so we are confident about the future,” said Lieut Dirk Putscher.

Motivation, or lack thereof, has been a problem among Bundeswehr conscripts for years: for some, avoiding military service is as much of a rite of passage as serving.

Until 1984, the conscription system obliged young men to prove their unsuitability to serve.

In recent months, online forums have been buzzing with ideas for the last conscripts trying to wriggle out of serving in the Bundeswehr, founded in 1955 as a voluntary army.

Within a year, however, the government of Konrad Adenauer introduced a “Wehrpflicht” conscription model drawing in all German men from 18 to 45.

The latest reform returns to a voluntary army idea and hasn’t buried conscription for good: the measure remains anchored in Germany’s postwar constitution and can be reactivated in changed security circumstances.