Will the German Army Drop the Draft?

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Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg watches joint military exercises at a training area in Grafenwoehr, near the southern German town of Nuremberg, on Aug. 24, 2010

Ending months of speculation, Germany's Defense Minister has outlined a radical plan to restructure the country's armed forces that includes a controversial proposal to end the draft.

If enacted, the changes to the size and structure of German troops will be among the most far-reaching reforms by any member of NATO since the end of the Cold War. At the center of the package of proposals, outlined by Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg on Monday, are plans to reduce troop strength to 163,000 from the current force of about 252,000; make the armed forces — known as the Bundeswehr — less top-heavy by cutting some of the nine existing command centers; and close many of the 403 military bases. The reform also calls for ending conscription and transforming the Bundeswehr into a more professional organization made up of fewer better-trained, better-paid soldiers working with the right equipment to meet today's security needs.

"Germany has learned many lessons from its engagement in Afghanistan," Oliver Schmidt, a NATO and international security expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME. "If these reforms are approved and Germany should be involved in foreign missions again in the future, the Bundeswehr will be better equipped and prepared to handle the task."

Some analysts criticize the changes for not being rooted in a broader reform and harmonization of European security structures. Although Europe has given lip service to the idea of a European armed forces that would share the burdens across borders, analysts say the pressures brought on by the financial crisis are forcing a renationalization of security, delaying rather than encouraging Europe-wide reform. "I don't see a grand vision for a European army, and even a more pragmatic burden-sharing and shared procurement is being put off for years," says Schmidt.

It is uncertain what the reform to the Bundeswehr will look like after it goes through the rigors of Germany's political process. There is plenty of opposition to Guttenberg's plans, even among his political allies. Chancellor Angela Merkel promised "constructive dialogue" in the coming months but would not commit herself to any of the proposals. The main opposition Social Democrats and the Bundeswehr Association, a kind of union that represents the interests of enlisted personnel, are both against the plan, saying it would leave the Bundeswehr with too few fresh recruits to meet the needs of a modern military.

The proposal to end conscription is proving particularly contentious, as many conservatives within Guttenberg's own party, the Christian Social Union, and Merkel's Christian Democrats believe that retaining the draft is a question of cultural values. It not only supplies the Bundeswehr with new blood, they say, but also provides one of the strongest links between citizens and the state.

Germany introduced its first conscription law about 200 years ago in a move to muster troops to defend its freedom against the invasion of Napoleon. After World War I, the victors outlawed the German draft in the Treaty of Versailles; in 1935, Adolf Hitler broke the treaty and reinstated conscription. Typical of the conflicted debate about the military in Germany after World War II, West Germany first created a constitutional amendment in 1949 ensuring citizens the right to conscientious objection of military service, then passed a law to reinstate the draft in 1956. The conservative Christian Democrats — who, led by postwar Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, were instrumental in reinstating conscription — now form stiff opposition to Guttenberg's plan to abolish the draft. Roland Koch, the conservative governor of Hesse, said that although Germany is constrained financially, it must find a way to "continue to anchor the Bundeswehr in society."

Also speaking out against the plan are beneficiaries of the status quo. In addition to governors fearing the loss of jobs in communities that depend on the economic impact of their military bases, ending conscription in Germany could also be a blow to the country's health care system. As well as providing recruits for the armed forces, the draft also ensures that there are about 90,000 conscientious objectors available each year to work in German hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric institutions and other facilities that rely on cheap labor. If the draft is abolished, health care providers will have to come up with an alternative — and possibly more expensive — way to staff their institutions.

To address those concerns, Germany's Minister for Family Affairs, Kristina Schröder, on Monday outlined a proposal to institute a program of voluntary service that would aim to generate 35,000 volunteers to replace the army of conscientious objectors working in health care. The volunteers would enlist for one year to two years and receive €500 (about $630) a month in compensation.

Schröder is also fighting to prevent Guttenberg from abolishing the government agency that administers the conscientious-objection program, an agency with about 1,000 full-time bureaucrats. She wants to ensure that the agency is kept intact in the event that the draft is reinstated, bringing with it a whole new generation of conscientious objectors. But social-welfare groups and even some ministers in the ruling government coalition are against the idea. "Redundant structures only create additional bureaucracy, which we should avoid at all costs," said Florian Bernschneider, an MP from junior coalition partner the Free Democrats.

The only suggestion Guttenberg made that everyone agrees on is that his proposals are not the last word. "The Bundeswehr will be smaller and more capable," he said after presenting his proposals to Parliament on Monday. "This is the beginning of a really important debate."