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.)