Reviving obligatory service divides opinion in Germany

Berlin Letter: Military or civil service was abolished in 2011 – and some want it back

CDU party secretary general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks with  chancellor and leader of the party Angela Merkel. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

CDU party secretary general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer speaks with chancellor and leader of the party Angela Merkel. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images


Benjamin Stahl has fond memories of his year in Brussels aged 20, learning French and working with older members of the city’s Jewish community.

Today a researcher in Berlin, he was one of 90,000 young Germans annually who avoided compulsory military service by signing up for so-called social service. The duration varied over the years, from six to 20 months, with recruits often posted to hospitals, youth clubs or retirement homes.

While classmates tried life as a soldier, or pushed patients around hospitals, Stahl worked in a social facility where Holocaust survivors could come for assistance to file compensation claims against Germany.

He has fond memories of the time and of the people he met, some of whom are still in regular contact.

“Most were very friendly but even the few who were hostile to me at the start – because I was German – changed when they got to know me over the year,” he said. “It was reconciliation at a very small, human scale.”

In 2011, a decade after his Brussels year, Germany abolished obligatory military service and, with it, the civil service alternative. But now the country is debating whether to reverse that decision after public remarks by Anngret Kramp-Karrenbauer, deputy to chancellor Angela Merkel in the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

‘Listening tour’

Kramp-Karrenbauer, seen as a possible successor to Merkel as party leader, said the return of national service was one of the most mentioned issues during her recent “listening tour” of the country.

In news-starved August, her remarks sparked a debate so lively that one newspaper joked the only ones yet to provide their views were “the eastern German rail passengers’ association and the Asterix fan club of northern Franconia”.

After just a day, the debate was so lively that a government spokeswoman intervened to insist Berlin has no plans to bring back military service.

Meanwhile, Kramp-Karrenbauer took to Twitter to insist she was not necessarily in favour of compulsory military conscription, adding: “There are many ways to serve.”

But she welcomes the debate she started, which will feed into consultations for the next CDU party programme and its next federal election manifesto.

The army is so starved of new recruits that it is considering looking abroad

Though a poll this month found that almost 56 per cent of Germans would welcome its return, legal experts say reactivating compulsory military service would be constitutionally difficult. That has shifted attention to reviving some sort of obligatory, one-year social service.

Merkel, currently on holidays, has yet to express an opinion, though she will be watching closely to see which way the wind blows in public before making her move.

In the meantime Paul Ziemak, head of the CDU youth wing, praised the idea of a community year as an “opportunity give something back while strengthening national unity”.

Not everyone is thrilled by the idea: Merkel’s centre-left coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), are divided by the proposal while three opposition parties are opposed.

It may be a complete coincidence, but those most enthusiastic about the CDU proposal are voters of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

Policy shift

Many of these are German conservatives who view the abolition of military service and nuclear power as the great, unforgivable policy shifts of the Merkel era.

While Germany is working to replace nuclear energy with renewables, the army is so starved of new recruits that it is considering looking abroad. Even if military service isn’t reinstated, CDU strategists guess that at least some AfD voters could be wooed back by reviving civil service. And for now, at least, it has shifted public attention in Germany away from the toxic migration debate.

While enthusiastic voices see an obligatory year as a break for self-optimising young school leavers, others who did their year of civil service are following the debate with scepticism.

They point out that the community service year still exists and remains popular, though it is voluntary and no longer an obligatory alternative to military service.

Behind the noble talk of “giving something back” to society, many recall how young civil service participants until 2011 were exploited as free labour – most frequently in the health sector.

“Reintroducing civil service could backfire, and badly, because existing jobs might be cut in the health service and trained staff replaced with volunteers,” said Benjamin Stahl. “The discussion about the public good is to some extent hypocritical – at least if, behind it all, it’s really about saving money.”