end of an era.

Twenty-two years ago today, I reported for basic training at the German Army’s International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School in Weingarten, by Lake Constance.

Today, the last batch of German draftees is reporting for basic training at their respective boot camp installations.  The German parliament has effectively abolished the draft, and Germany’s Bundeswehr will become a volunteer military once this last batch of draftees leaves the service again in six months.

Back when I joined, the draft was eighteen months, but it got shortened progressively over the years as the Bundeswehr was restructured and reduced in size after the end of the Cold War.  This last run of draftees will only have to serve six months, which is such a short period as to be pointless.  In six months, you can barely produce a basically trained soldier–three months of basic training, and then another three of specialty training don’t even leave any time for anyone to serve in a field unit after finishing training.  For the last half decade or so, the draft was more or less symbolic in nature.  (I joined as a volunteer and served a 4-year term of enlistment on the NCO track, so the length of the draft had no effect on me, but both my brothers served as draftees.)

Germany consciously adopted a draft system to avoid the new German military after World War II once again becoming a state within a state.  The thinking was that an army of 50% draftees from all segments of society and from all over the country would keep the military more tightly integrated with the civilian society.  Now that the armed forces of Germany have been reduced to less than a third of their Cold War strength, there’s simply not enough space in the military to accommodate all the eighteen-year-olds required to serve, and the shift to a volunteer army was pretty much a foregone conclusion.

German society has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with its military, draft or no.  In the new pacifistic post-WWII Germany, the Bundeswehr was always regarded as sort of a blue-collar career, with less respectability than “proper” professions.   When I served, there were no combat deployments outside of Germany due to Constitutional restrictions (one reason why Germany didn’t contribute to the coalition ground combat forces during Desert Shield/Storm.)  Since the end of the Cold War, the Constitution has been interpreted a bit more loosely, and now Germany has troops in Afghanistan and half a dozen other hot spots around the world.  These deployments are deeply unpopular in Germany.

It will be interesting to see if and how the image of the Bundeswehr will change, now that they’re transforming into a professional volunteer army in a society that doesn’t want its military deployed outside of the country (or that doesn’t see much use for a military, period.)


12 thoughts on “end of an era.

  1. divemedic says:

    With so much of the world disarming, it is only a matter of time before someone decides it would be nifty to invade a disarmed neighbor. Nature abhors a vacuum.

  2. Dan says:

    For a change? Pretty sure it’s happened before. Both France and obviously Germany used to be military powerhouses. It’s kind of depressing to see how low they’ve fallen :/ Last time I went to Germany it was like a nation of hippies who used my accent as an excuse to talk at me about Iraq as if they’ve been there.

  3. Fred2 says:

    “For a change? Pretty sure it’s happened before. Both France and obviously Germany used to be military powerhouses”

    For much of european history, “Germany” was “the germanies” anchored in the north by the Prussians ( whose power base is what we call “poland” now), and in the south by the Austro-Hungarian empire (which wasn’t even majority German, but…) and basically the FRENCH were the big bullies spending their time invading the Germanies and everyone else with reasonable success. (In fact if you count the number of times France has invaded “germany” in the greater sense, vs the opposite, the Germans look like the kid you keep having to pull out of the locker where the french stuffed him. )

    Finally the Prussians, having been kicked around a lot, managed to get everyone else in the Germanies to form a half-hearted self defense and customs union – the silly French promptly invaded, forcing the Germans to cooperate, this lead to the disasterous 20th century, where a united Germany decided it was time for a little pay back for 5 centuries of abuse and got it’s arse handed to them, twice, basically destroying Europe in the process.

    How the French managed to get a bad military reputation out of this, and the Germans turned in the warmongering death beasts is really one of lifes little mysteries.

    • perlhaqr says:

      How the French managed to get a bad military reputation out of this, and the Germans turned in the warmongering death beasts is really one of lifes little mysteries.

      Enh, not that mysterious. Americans mostly have a crappy sense of history (we think our founding ~235 years ago was a really long time ago) and what we do have, centers around us. So, the French got their asses handed to them by the Germans, twice, and we went in and settled things down. Thus, the ‘common’ perceptions you mentioned.

  4. I’m of two minds about this. Personally, it wouldn’t bother me very much if there were no German army and I would anticipate that such a view is widely shared among those older than I.

    On the other had, for Germany’s sake, it’s a bad idea. Recent history has shown that being an economic power who can only write checks is not a path to being a power of any note. Being able to wield an effective stick makes taking the carrot an attractive option to other nations.

  5. anon says:

    Not so much a dismantling as an abdication. Pretty much like the rest of the world really. And yeah, they hate us there, too.

  6. George Smith says:

    That there is a difference between what the populace of a country wants with its military … and the realities of military performance should not surprise us. The Cold War promoted a entire generations of pacifists … thanks to our western societies’ improved living conditions and enhanced education opportunities.

    In the case of Canada, that process happened but was partially arrested with the brave decision to support NATO in Afghanistan on a combat level. Keep in mind that Canada’s military had not engaged in any combat since the Korean War.

    Our experiences in Afghanistan have resulted … at considerable cost … for us … in lives … in an army that has proved itself. Combat efficiency like all things at the pointed end of the stick comes with supreme costs in lives of young men and women. A volunteer force can succeed but the opportunities for combat must be taken.

    The average Canadian is probably as pacifist as the Germans … we just have had a leadership that took advantage of Afghanistan where the German leadership caved.


  7. Fred2 says:

    An interesting thing about the canadian military is, how much is represents “old Canada” and not todays more multicultural Canada.

    I do not believe this reflects on the canadian military per se, but it is a self selected (volunteeer) sample, and it’s pretty obvious that more recent generations of immigrants are strongly selecting away from the CAF.

    I do not care to speculate why, but I have theories.

  8. Chris Pugrud says:

    I worked with the German military several times in central and northern Afghanistan. In my experience they are consistently the nicest people you could hope to work with when you need to accomplish a job. I have no idea what the influence of the draftees is in their general attitude, but I hope the change does not affect that.

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