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FACT CHECK: Could Germany bring back military conscription?

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
FACT CHECK: Could Germany bring back military conscription?
German soldiers train at a military base in Möckern, Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Recent media reports have set the rumour mill swirling that Germany is considering the return of compulsory military service. Here's what's going on - and how likely a return to conscription could be.


What's going on?

A debate has sprung up in German politics about whether the country should bring back some form of compulsory military service. 

The discussion was kicked off by the new Defence Minister Boris Pistorius (SPD), who said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung that getting rid of conscription back in 2011 had been a "mistake".

“Back in the day there was a conscript at every second kitchen table," Pistorius said in the interview shortly after taking office. “Which meant there was always a connection to civic society at large.”


The topic has since been taken up by German parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, Eva Högl (SPD), who urged the government to consider whether a new system for recruiting soldiers is required.

"We have to start the debate now - also on the question of how much should be compulsory and how much should be voluntary," Högl told the Augsburger Allgemeine on Wednesday. 

The German Bundeswehr should improve both its working conditions and its operational structure to avoid losing the best personnel, she added. 

Why would Germany need conscription?

There are a few arguments that those in favour of conscription have used. The first is the fact that the military is - like many other sectors of German society - facing severe staff shortages at present.

According to Högl, the Bundeswehr "urgently" needs more recruits - which is why the government should consider alternative models for finding them.

At present, there are around 183,000 soldiers in the German military, though only 20,000 are engaged in active missions. The army is considered to be the sixth most powerful in Europe after Russia, France, the UK, Italy and Turkey, but military experts say it has suffered from years of underfunding and neglect. 

The war in the Ukraine has forced Germany to reassess its military capabilities over the past year, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) announcing a €100 billion cash injection into the ailing fighting force shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion began. 

However, those in favour of some form of conscription aren't suggesting that Germany is under threat of an imminent Russian attack. Instead, Pistorius said that compulsory service would be a way to create a stronger bond between German society and its military, while others argue that more staff are needed to get the Bundeswehr into shape.

READ ALSO: How prepared is Germany in the event of a military attack?

What would that look like?

One option would be a return to the model that existed in Germany a decade ago. 

Between 1956 and 2011, German men had to carry out obligatory military service for a year once they turned 18. Those that didn't want to join the military could alternatively participate in Zivildienst (social service), for example by carrying out stints as a carer in hospitals or care homes.

With the threats receding after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) scrapped compulsory service in 2011. However, there have been debates about bringing back some form of social or military service for younger people in recent years, with President Frank Walter Steinmeier (SPD) one of the most vocal advocates of the idea.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius

Defence Minister Boris Pistorius (SPD) in a Leopard tank a military base in Augustdorf, North Rhine-Westphalia.
Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

An alternative option was mooted by naval chief Jan Christian Kaack in a recent interview with DPA. 

Kaack suggested that Germany could learn from the Norwegian model in which all young men and women are called for an examination once they turn 19. Of the some 70,000 teenagers, the army selects how many it wants to recruit for the following year, which is normally around 15,000 of the most highly motivated. 

These then carry out a year of military service. 

“I believe that a nation that needs to become more resilient in times like these will have a higher level of awareness if it is mixed through with soldiers,” Kaack explained. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany plans to rebuild its military


Could this actually happen?

If Germany does return to compulsory service - either in the civilian or military sectors - it's unlikely to be in this legislative period.

So far, the traffic-light coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has poured cold water over suggestions that conscription could be on its way.

Steffen Hebestreit, a spokesperson for the government, told The Guardian that the current discussion was "nonsensical", adding that turning the military from a voluntary to a conscription-based organisation would be impossible to carry out overnight. 

Prominent figures in the liberal FDP have also been quick to brush the issue aside, with Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) calling the discussion a "phantom dispute".

Soldiers at a German military base in Pfreimd, Bavaria.

Soldiers at a German military base in Pfreimd, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

“All of our efforts have to be concentrated on strengthening the Bundeswehr as a highly professional army,” Lindner said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) wrote on Twitter: "Coercion is certainly the worst model for building a motivated army of highly qualified professionals."

Nevertheless, if this government - or a future one - did decide that conscription was a preferable model, there would be legal mechanisms for its return.

Though Merkel decided to end obligatory military service back in 2011, there is still a clause in Germany's Basic Law that allows the government to draft men over the age of 18 into the armed forces. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes



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