Serve or serf?

Germany debates return to conscription

Bundeswehr
Boots on the ground. Source: DPA

Seven years ago, Germany dropped compulsory national service for its men, saying it wanted to professionalize its army and save some cash. Since then, spotty youths have been spared the short, sharp shock of military training or an enforced spell working in a care home or other community role.

But the reprieve could be coming to an end. Over the weekend, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the secretary general of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and a tipped successor, fired up the party base by floating the idea of a return to national service for young people. She was vague on specifics, talking only of a “general service obligation,” but debate has been raging ever since.

Germans like the idea of national service. A poll taken this summer showed that 56 percent were in favor, and only 40 percent were against it. The policy is particularly popular among supporters of the far-right AfD party, which took millions of votes away from the center-right CDU in last September’s national elections.

Ending national service in 2011 was one of many examples of Ms. Merkel dropping conservative policy. But growing support for the AfD — it now regularly hits 16 percent in national polls — has resulted in her conservatives shifting to the right, including on immigration, security and now the possibility of national service.

Fight or right?

Advocates argue that national service, whether it be military or civilian in nature, improves social cohesion, teaches unruly youths a thing or two and instils a sense of pride and community. In Germany, many also think it can help to fill the ranks of the military, which is struggling to recruit, and plug gaps in the medical and care sectors. “A community year gives the opportunity to give something back and, at the same time, to strengthen the country’s unity,” Paul Ziemak, the CDU’s youth wing leader, told the Bild newspaper. Several of his CDU colleagues said the policy would apply to both men and women.

Opponents say that national service is unnecessary, expensive and damaging to the careers of young people, with some likening it to slave labor. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former defense minister who was responsible for scrapping conscription in 2011, told tabloid Bild that it would be costly and even unconstitutional as the law “doesn’t foresee such compulsory, or forced, work assignments.”

The business-friendly Free Democratic Party called the proposal “absurd” and also warned that it would be expensive.

Several countries in Europe maintain national service, including Greece, Austria and Norway. President Emmanuel Macron has proposed reintroducing it in France but has met with stiff resistance from unions and business.

David Reay is a Handelsblatt editor. To contact the author: reay@handelsblatt.com.

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