German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière was doing his best to focus on the matter at hand – the presentation of a new civil defense plan. But the first question at his press conference Wednesday was on the possible reintroduction of military conscription.
He was quick to clear the air after leaked excerpts of the so-called “Civil Defense Concept,” a document that was last updated in 1995 and lays out how the country should defend itself and organize society in emergencies. The leaks had suggested military service could be reinstated, just five years after it was suspended.
“A reintroduction of conscription, and everything I’ve read about this topic, is not at all under discussion,” Mr. de Maizière told reporters.
The interior minister went on to point out that conscription is only ever mentioned a couple of times in passing in the 76-page document. For example, the document says, in a time of crisis, the delivering of some letters – such as any informing people they were drafted – would take priority over others.
Whether the plans are real or not, the mere mention of reviving conscription has put the country on edge ever since excerpts of the document leaked on Tuesday, stirring a heated debate in a country still burdened by its Nazi past.
“Military conscription has been suspended and will remain suspended.”
Ever since the end of World War II, Germany has been reluctant to take on a significant military role. Since unification in 1990, it has slowly increased the number of armed deployments, including missions in Afghanistan and Syria, but its footprint around the world remains very small.
The controversy over the new civil defense plans also comes as Germany is in the middle of a broader review of its military strategy.
Last month, the German cabinet approved a paper outlining the country’s future security and defense policies, calling for its military to play a greater role in global conflicts and an increase in its armed forces and defense spending. The plan marked a paradigm shift of Germany’s military role.
Military conscription, scrapped in 2011, is a contentious issue in a country which tends wants to refrain from ostentatious military might. Some politicians called the plan to reintroduce military service “abstruse garbage” or “absurd,” while another said it would mark a return to “dangerous Cold War logic.”
This week’s trouble for the government stems from the fact that conscription was never abandoned completely. Even in 2011, it was “suspended” rather than abolished altogether.
The new defense document doesn’t actually make any changes to the current situation. It does mention the possibility that conscription might be reinstated in crisis situations, for instance to guarantee supply of food and electricity or maintain civil order. But this had already been the case since 2011.
“The concept assumes different scenarios, which are based on current law,” Ansgar Heveling, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Tuesday. “Compulsory military service has not been abolished, it has merely been suspended. In the worst case scenario, it could be revived.”
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in a statement said there was no need to reintroduce conscription service in full. With more than 100,000 applications annually the army was in a good position. “Military conscription has been suspended and will remain suspended,” she said.
She added, however, that in a concept of civil defense, it was necessary to “consider extreme scenarios, which we hope will never materialize.”
The new civil defense strategy is a response to the increased likelihood of terrorist attacks and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and at Europe’s eastern border in Ukraine. It last civil defense plan was from 1995.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers approved a new “Civil Defense Concept” earlier on Wednesday to better prepare Germany for military attacks, cyber wars and sabotage of water and energy supply networks, the government said on its website. The short statement also spoke of “other support measures of the armed forces to maintain the freedom of operations.”
The new security plan also advises German civilians to stock up food and water that can last at least 10 days to cope with an emergency. This triggered criticism and jokes earlier this week, with Germans sneering on Twitter that it came down to promoting panic buying.
Mr. de Maizière dismissed the mockery, but also rejected any suggestions of panic. The advice simply amounted to proper planning: “We can also be strong through clever preparation,” he said.