The young man playing with kids at the Main Krokodile preschool here isn't your typical caregiver. He's among the tens of thousands of Germans who fulfill their military service by working with children, the elderly, or the disabled. The head of the school, Berndt Niedergesäss, is all for it: "The children love dealing with men," he says.
When Germany rebuilt its armed forces after World War II, it let conscientious objectors perform civic duties. Now, those civilians outnumber regular recruits, 91,000 to 68,000, and are an essential part of the social service landscape.
But Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has now called for ending conscription. The plan, if approved, would pose a challenge for groups like Mr. Niedergesäss's school. It would also, however, be a milestone in the Bundeswehr's transformation from an army designed to protect peace to one sending its sons and daughters into global conflicts.
Ending the draft is part of what many observers say is a bold modernization plan for the armed forces. Aimed at making the Army "smaller and finer," and better equipped for a broader spectrum of missions, the plan also envisions cutting ranks by one-third, to 163,000 soldiers, and closing many of the country's 403 bases.
While the government's need to save €80 billion ($102 billion) between 2011 and 2014 was an impetus, it was the Army's presence in Afghanistan that precipitated the change. "The experience the Bundeswehr gained in Afghanistan and other missions abroad have showed us that the way our armed forces is operating isn't effective," says Jana Puglierin, a defense expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. ''We don't need an army of conscripts, an army of the masses to protect our homeland from Soviet attack anymore. We need an army of experts who are trained in counterinsurgency, which is highly flexible and can be sent anywhere."
Many countries have replaced draft
Most of the 28 NATO countries – except for Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus – have replaced the draft with smaller professional armies. But the idea of conscripts is an integral part of German identity, for reasons having to do with Germany's troubled relationship with war.
In 1955, still reeling from the Wehrmacht's role in Nazi atrocities, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer appointed Germany's first 100 volunteer soldiers. It was to be an army rooted in the new Basic Law, or Constitution, with checks and balances, controlled by the Bundestag, or parliament. Recruits would be "citizens in uniform" charged with defending national borders during the cold war.
A decision by the constitutional court in 1994 allowing the military to go into conflicts abroad again started the push for transformation. Germany sent troops to Bosnia and, having overcome the reticence it experienced during the Gulf War, Germany supported NATO's bombing of Serb forces in 1999. But the NATO Afghanistan mission is what truly tested the Army's limits.
Germany has 5,200 soldiers in Afghanistan, the third-largest troop presence after the United States and Britain. Images of German soldiers dying there and German soldiers causing civilian losses have highlighted the need for the Army to be better trained and equipped, observers agree. Breaking new ground, Defense Minister Guttenberg actually referred to the engagement as a war – not a conflict. The experience also contributed to Guttenberg's call for ending the draft. "He faced reality, saw how senseless conscription is from a military point of view," says Ms. Puglierin. "Ten years ago, that wouldn't have been possible." The ruling coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to make a decision on reform in November.
Hans-Georg Ehrhart of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg says that because draftees cannot be sent to conflicts like Afghanistan, they have essentially become useless. Unless they volunteer for it and agree to extend their military service, they cannot be deployed for combat. Defense Department officials say that, for now, no more than 8,000 German soldiers can be deployed into a conflict abroad.
Even former German Army chief Klaus Naumann questions conscription. "In the current situation, where war in Europe, war between European states is – thank God – no longer conceivable, in a world in which we must deal with terrorism ... you can no longer make people feel that we absolutely need conscription," says Mr. Naumann. Most Germans agree, however, that conscription should remain anchored in the law, so the government could reinstitute it.
The government had already sealed the fate of conscription in July, when it reduced national service from nine months to six. Naumann says he could support conscription "if it still made sense, if you could still use it to form units in which the young man can say at the end of his service: 'OK, I've learned how it works, I have the confidence to go into battle with this company ... and sur-vive.' " But, he says, "you can't do that in six months."
Guttenberg faces opposition from his party. "Compulsory military service should remain in place, also for reasons of social policy," insists Wolfgang Bosbach, a majority member of parliament. "As a result of conscription, millions of young men have gotten to know and respect the [Army]. It is the fundamental idea of the citizen in uniform."
A place for civilian service
The Army Guttenberg envisions would be about half the size it was six years ago, prompting Völker Ruhe, a former Conservative defense minister, and Ulrich Weisser, a retired vice admiral, to write in Der Spiegel: "Germany cannot assume that the French, British, Poles and Italians will make up for what Germany no longer wants to do. Why should European countries with less economic power than Germany do more for Europe's security in the long run than we do?"
At Main Krokodile, Niedergesäss hopes civilian service can be replaced with voluntary service. "I did community service instead of military service myself, and it was great," he says. "But when there is no war that needs the help of conscripts, I understand that the draft ... has to be restructured."