Germans debate return of military conscription and service for men and women

Germany's ruling CDU party has launched a debate on reinstating military conscription and offering young men and women a chance to serve their country in other ways. A recent poll shows Germans are in favor of the idea.

As the German military struggles to fill its ranks, representatives of Angela Merkel's CDU party started a nationwide discussion on the return of mandatory military service.

The general conscription was scrapped in 2011 after Berlin decided to professionalize its troops. Prior to this decision, all young males were obligated to either serve in the nation's military, the Bundeswehr, or perform an alternative service for a limited period of time in civilian areas such as emergency management or medical care.

Currently, the Bundeswehr consists only of career soldiers and long-term contract troopers, although the army still offers an option of short-term paid military service to young volunteers.

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In a surprising move on Friday, however, the CDU Secretary General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pledged to "very intensively" discuss military service and mandatory conscription, according to the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

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Kramp-Karrenbauer said she had been touring the country and meeting CDU members to discuss ideas, which would be presented at the CDU's party conference in December. The topic of mandatory service apparently resonated with the conservative party's base, which fears the loss of social cohesion.

The politician told FAZ she did not expect a simple reinstating of the military draft, but remained vague on specifics. "There are many possible ways to serve," she later said on Twitter.

Other ranking CDU members were quick to back Kramp-Karrenbauer's initiative, but kept equally vague on the details. The party's youth wing leader Paul Ziemak spoke of a "community year" which would see young students take part in some sort of a mandatory service program. The term itself is a throwback to the "social year" which had been offered as an alternative to serving in the Bundeswehr.

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"We live in a wonderful, affluent country," the 32-year-old told Bild am Sonntag. "A community year gives the opportunity to give something back and, at the same time, to strengthen the country's unity."

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CDU lawmaker Oswin Veith commented that youths could serve with the Bundeswehr, but also with first responders or medical institutions. "It should last for 12 months and apply to young men and women over the age of 18," he said. Several other CDU politicians also stressed the program would apply to both men and women.

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At the same time, CDU's point man on defense in the German parliament, Henning Otte, responded with skepticism.

"Old-fashioned universal conscription is not going to help us with our current security challenges," he said, adding that youths could serve in other areas, such as firefighting.

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Some politicians from the SPD, the CDU's junior partner in the grand coalition, said the idea was worth considering. Others, including the Parliamentary Commissioner for Defense, Hans-Peter Bartels, insisted that mandatory service would clash with Germany's ban on forced labor.

"I think it is very unlikely to assign 700,000 young men and women every year to various mandatory assignments, as attractive as this idea may sound," he said.

The business-friendly FDP called the proposal "absurd" and warned of the "horrendous waste of money" it could cause. Other opposition parties in the parliament; the Left and the Green party, also oppose the idea.

At the same time, right-wing AFD came out in favor of reviving conscription. Their position comes as no surprise, as the AFD had previously floated the scheme. On Twitter, AFD's parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel said the suspension was "a grave mistake."

Weidel added that the Bundeswehr needed to become "an attractive employer again" in order to be able to fulfill its defense duties.

Moving on AFD's turf?

Some analysts have speculated that the CDU launched the initiative as a way to wring conservative votes from the populist AFD. According to a recent online poll, the prospect of reinstating the military conscription is very popular among AFD supporters, with 60.6 percent of them saying they were "strongly in favor" of the idea.

Germans in general also support the draft, according to poll published by the survey center Civey. The poll, based on responses by 5,046 people between early May and early August, shows 55.6 percent are in favor of the idea, as opposed to 39.6 percent against it.

After discussing the draft on their party conference in December, the CDU is expected to make it a part of their platform for 2020.

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