Yesterday, the German defense chief announced
that, as a result of budgetary cutbacks and minmum training times for recruits, the Bundeswehr
will no longer make use of conscription, instead becoming an all-volunteer force as in the United States, Canada, and France. This move is controversial, though curiosly, not for reasons that non-Germans would necessarily expect.
The defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, is planning to slash the number of active-duty soldiers from 250,000 to 150,000. He will also argue that a professional army will provide a more efficient military when €1bn (£840m) worth of cuts are needed to the annual defence budget.
Scrapping conscription could lead to a saving of €400m a year, although it would also change the way in which the military has been anchored in German civilian life since the 19th century.
Coming on top of previous cuts, which already mean Germany's defence spending is the second lowest per capita among the G8 countries, after Japan, the troop reduction will result in a German military half the size it was six years ago.
[. . .]
Although 76% of Germans are in favour of defence budget cuts, according to a recent poll, the decision to do away with compulsory military service is by far the most controversial. While Nato leaders have been calling for a fully professional German army for decades, most people in Germany oppose the idea.
Germans overwhelmingly favour conscription because, in view of the militaristic past, it is seen as an appropriate way of keeping the army in check. Many point out that a professional army failed to stop the Nazis from coming to power.
Conscripts have traditionally been encouraged to view their service as helping to protect Germany, which in turn has helped cultivate the general view of the armed forces as peacekeepers rather than fighters. Conscripts are commonly referred to as "citizens in uniform". It was, therefore, a watershed moment several months ago when Guttenberg started referring to the conflict in Afghanistan as a "war", rather than a peacekeeping mission.
This observation--the German desire to control the military by ensuring that it is dominated by conscripts drawn from a cross-section of German society and not monopolized by a professional caste--fits in with a post that Noel made recently
, linking to an extended quotation from Douglas Muir on why Germans dislike the idea of wars. They internalized the post-Second World War restrictions on militarization quite thoroughly in the aftermath of the recent resignation
of German president Horst Köhler for reportedly linking military deployments with economic interests. Germany no longer fights wars; Germany supports international order in a multilateral framework.
Basically, if NATO does it, it’s presumed defensive — not Angriffskrieg! — and therefore constitutional.
In 1999, the Kosovo war forced Germany to thread a very narrow passage: they simultaneously argued that the war wasn’t “offensive” because it was in defense of the helpless Albanians, while at the same time carefully limiting German participation. (
This is why, for instance, the air offensive made use of Belgian and Dutch airplanes, but not German.) The German courts subsequently reviewed this and — barely and grudgingly — agreed. [German Tornados provided air cover for the initial RAF assault on Serb positions and later attacked Serb air defenses.]
This in turn provided a precedent for German participation in Afghanistan. Again, it was limited — no German troops storming Taliban strongholds. Arguably the Germans could legally do this, but the political leadership wisely decided not to stretch the envelope.
Note that there was a huge internal debate over Kosovo, and another one over Afghanistan. This flares up again every time Germans do anything new in Afghanistan (“Can we do that?”) or every time a German soldier is killed (“What are we doing there!?”)
Somalia, on the other hand, was easy. There’s a body of law going back around 300 years stating that anti-piracy actions are never offensive. The reasoning is that pirates are the common enemies of all civilized nations; hoisting the Jolly Roger is legally equivalent to a declaration of war against the world. Once you become a pirate, ships of all nations are free to attack you at will. So, there wasn’t much controversy over sending German ships to help. (In fact, there was a bit of relief — here’s something useful we can do, without having a wrenching internal debate!)
Which brings us to the President’s resignation. You said this happened because of the burden of history. This is partly true, but also very incomplete; it ignores the 65 years of history since the war. Germans didn’t think the President’s statement was wrong because Germany has a history of offensive, hugely destructive war. They thought it was wrong because Germany is a peaceful, lawful nation that would never do anything that might be “Angriffskrieg.”
Germany has an extremely strong self-image of itself as a nation that is peaceful and law-abiding. Obviously that has historical roots in the postwar settlement imposed by the Allies, but it’s comfortably outlived both the war and the settlement and is now a historical fact in its own right. The last withered, centenarian WWII veteran will probably drop dead around 2035, but the Germans of that day will almost certainly still be pacifistic and inclined to hand-wringing over most forms of military action.