More Germans Opt Out of Military

But fewer are serving terms as conscientious objectors since nation cut back its armed forces

JORG SCHMITZ is finding out how much he depends on his team of German "civvies," young men who declare themselves to be conscientious objectors and opt for civil service instead of military duty. Mr. Schmitz heads the Red Cross office that serves the severely handicapped in the Cologne metropolitan area. He has recently had to drop five cases because he no longer has enough "civvies" to wash, feed, clothe, shop, and clean for these people.

In Germany, 10 to 12 percent of the young men eligible for military service choose conscientious objection, more than in any other country in Europe.

Instead of drilling on mock battlefields, conscientious objectors (COs) fulfill their duty to the state as civil servants, distributing "meals on wheels" or laundry in hospitals, for instance.

But because Germany is trimming back its Army, and with it, the number of men serving civil servant terms, the social net here is losing a key source of cheap labor. Some social support areas, such as individual help for the handicapped, depend almost completely on the COs and are now being hit especially hard.

In Cologne, the five handicapped that Schmitz's office can no longer support "are either being taken care of by their families - in one case, a family member even had to quit working - or, sadly, they've ended up in homes," i.e. institutions, he says.

Over the last four decades, conscientious objectors have become a significant presence in the German social service sector. (Women do not serve as either soldiers or COs.) Schmitz says he would not have had to drop the five cases were it not for the recent decision to reduce the Army.

Terms are reduced

As of Oct. 1 of last year, the CO term of service is only 15 months instead of 20. The move went hand-in-hand with Bonn's shortening of military service from 15 months to 12, a measure taken to help cut 130,000 troops from the Bundeswehr by 1994. The lower troop force was a promise made in exchange for Soviet approval of reunification last year.

The decision, however, reduced the CO corps of civil workers by nearly a third, from 90,000 down to 75,000, as those who had already completed 15 months suddenly left.

Since then, there has been a rush of applications for conscientious objection status because of the Gulf war, but it will have little effect on the shortage, says Rudolf Thiel of the Ministry for Women and Youth in Bonn.

Applications increase

In January and February, applications increased three- and four-fold compared with the same time last year. Half of the applications, however, were from reservists who feared being called up if NATO, and thus Germany, were dragged into the war, says Mr. Thiel. The reservists have already completed their service and so would not need to repeat it, even under a new status.

The sharp increase, some of which was also due to soldiers on active duty who wanted to switch to CO status, sparked a major debate in the press. Military experts wondered whether Germany had an Army capable of fighting at all or whether it was simply a collection of "cowards," as the Feb. 11 cover story in the weekly Der Spiegel magazine suggested.

The right to conscientious objection is grounded in the German Constitution and stems from the country's tragic military history. It's the preference preached by the churches. Churches and political parties, such as the Greens, have centers all over the country to help young men with their applications for CO status.

"They advise you to put in certain sentences and help you write the application," says Bj 154>rn Preusser, a 22-year-old who just finished his civil service last week. (See story below.) There is no oral interview and 99.5 percent of the applications are approved.

It's difficult to judge how many of the COs are truly pacifists and how many simply want to avoid the rigors of boot camp. The test of sincerity is one reason behind the longer term for COs than for those who choose the military. COs, however, also have to serve longer because once they have finished, they have no more obligation to the state, whereas those who do military service can be called up again as reservists.

Many of the young COs voice the convictions of Frank Terjung, who is a new member of Schmitz's team for the handicapped.

"War is no way to solve problems," Frank says. "My parents, my grandfather, they told me all about World War II. I know what happened." COs can choose their field of service as long as it is for a nonprofit organization. Possibilities include the environment, agriculture, and health care. The latter accounts for 75 percent of the CO positions available.

It is the health-care industry that is most pinched by the drop in civil servants. About a third of the 18,000 COs working for Caritas, a Roman Catholic social service organization in Germany, have left since October. In some areas, such as care for the severely handicapped, the shortage is "catastrophic," says Bernhard Seiterich, spokesman for Caritas.

Private market is costly

Hospitals, the Red Cross, and organizations like Caritas are turning to the private market to fill the vacancies. But this is much more expensive than using COs, who, of course, were on the government payroll.

"We haven't been able to completely close the gap, and the result is that the professional staff is overburdened," says Lothar Kratz, a spokesman for the Association of German Hospitals in Cologne.

Thiel, of the Ministry for Women and Youth, believes there is little hope of closing the gap quickly. Demographically speaking, there are fewer men of military- and civil-service age (18 years), he says. The east Germans, just now being incorporated into the CO system, will be no saviour for the West either, because civil servant jobs are filled regionally, he says.

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