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Could compulsory military service be reintroduced in Germany?

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The war in Ukraine has brought the Bundeswehr back into the spotlight, and with it the issue of conscription in Germany. In 2011 it was discontinued, although it was not removed. So could conscription be reinstated, and what would be the circumstances for that to happen? This is how things are now.

Compulsory military service existed in Germany until 2011, but was never completely abolished (Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

  • Compulsory military service is part of the Basic Law – it was never definitively abolished

  • The Bundestag could reintroduce it in its previous form

  • A two-thirds majority in the Bundestag would be needed to amend the Basic Law

  • In the short term, the Bundeswehr could hardly cope with a reintroduction

  • A relative majority of German citizens are in favor of returning to compulsory military service

In the past, young people had to join the federal government, mostly immediately after finishing school, because military service was compulsory in Germany. About a decade ago, this was discontinued under then Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU) and voluntary military service from the age of 17 was introduced instead.

With the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, the debate about a possible reintroduction of compulsory military service in Germany has flared up again. In an emergency, many believe that the country’s defense capacity should be improved. Could universal conscription return?

General recruitment: what does it mean?

Compulsory military service means that young people over the age of 18 are required to serve in their country’s military for at least a certain period of time. In the Federal Republic of Germany, this was introduced in 1955 with the founding of the Bundeswehr and was even consolidated in the Basic Law. Healthy adult men had to do military service for a year. Anyone who did not want to do this for reasons of conscience could alternatively do so-called community service.

Can compulsory military service be easily reintroduced in Germany?

As already mentioned, compulsory military service was never abolished in Germany, only suspended. In the same way, the Bundestag could reintroduce compulsory military service in its original form, for example, with the justification of a possible threat.

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It will be difficult if compulsory military service were introduced with new rules, for example, in which both men and women should serve in the future. This would require changing the Basic Law, which requires a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat.

What about an acute threat like war?

The Basic Law also provides for the “defense case” and its preliminary stage, the “tension case”, which would also be an opportunity to reassess the situation around compulsory military service. To proclaim these two stages, a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag and the signature of the Federal President are also required under the newly passed law. Neither a defense case nor a case of tension have occurred in the history of the Federal Republic, not even during the Cold War.

Could compulsory military service be reintroduced in the short term?

According to experts, a temporary or short-term return to compulsory military service is not possible. “Structures for recruitment and training must be rebuilt,” Patrick Sensburg, president of the reservists’ association, quotes the Ruhr News.

Also, the Bundeswehr is now a volunteer army with professional soldiers and veteran soldiers; since 2011 many barracks, training grounds and other buildings have been sold. It would be possible to restart these processes for a permanent reintroduction of compulsory military service, but it would take time.

Who is in favor of reinstating compulsory military service?

Union and SPD politicians at least encouraged a new discussion about conscription. However, leading SPD politicians and the Inspector General of the German Armed Forces spoke out clearly against it. Other politicians, especially in the AfD, are in favor of the reintroduction.

And the citizens? A poll conducted by the opinion research institute Insa for the news magazine “Focus” earlier this month showed that 47 percent of those surveyed are in favor of returning to compulsory military service. 34 percent are against, while 19 percent are undecided or did not respond.

Compulsory service instead of compulsory military service: a good alternative?

In the Union, the Free Voters and the SPD, there are also voices advocating conscription instead of conscription. The service would not be limited to the military, but would also be possible in other facilities such as the fire department or in nursing. However, there are still legal issues that need to be clarified. In the end, a majority in the Bundestag would probably also be needed.

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