03 August 2020

The German minister of defence proposes a new volunteer military service for Bundeswehr

Negoiţă Sorin

Starting 2021, Bundeswehr wants to introduce a new military volunteer service which means that young people who turned 17 can join, for one year, in structures related to national security and defence. Also, for quite little time, it was reopened, in the public space, an important topic related to the reintroduction of the compulsory military service. Shortly after that, there have emerged for and against opinions of the political environment and the social organizations in Germany over the initiatives launched lately and thus it was suggested the necessity to start new debates to that end.

Image source: Profimedia

The leadership of the federal minister of defence thinks of consolidating the national security and defence and announces a new military volunteer service

The German minister of defence, Annegrett Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU), announced, in July, at an online event of the party she runs, the reintroduction of a new volunteer military service within the Bundeswehr. This new service, which should start in 2021, called “Your year for Germany”, is meant to complete the current volunteer service (FWD – Freiwiligen Wehrdienst), which was established in 2021, after giving up conscription.

The current military voluntary version, which is accessed by around 8000 people each year, is being developed during 7 to 23 months, within a force category of the army or a functional field and it is conceived to train a possible future military career within the Bundeswehr. During the training, the volunteer get a strong military education, both theoretical and practical, as well as training regarding the increase of physical capacity. Military volunteers can execute missions on the entire federal territory and, after 21 months, they can even get to the point where they can join abroad missions. The financial gaining of a voluntary military is around 1550 euro gross (1400 euro). This military training option is kind of a “trial service” for the recruitment of military based on contracts or of professional military.

The new voluntary military service wants to consolidate the reserve for crisis situations and is represented by a military training for the young people in national defense field, for a year, without having a continuous development. Thus, some say that instructing the volunteers should start with a basic training period, during 7 consecutive months (including one month of vacation), within the Logistics Base of the Federal Army (Streitkräftebasis), in three locations in Germany: Berlin, Delmenhorst (close to Bremen) and Wildflecken (the touristic region Rohn from Bavaria). After this first phase, the volunteer can go back to his civilian life, and the other 5 months left will be covered by joining, in the following 6 months, the reservist category, joining different exercises or mission on national territory. During or after this training phase, the voluntary can choose other work relations with Bundeswehr (for example, military with a contract – Zeitsoldat) or a professional military career (for example, a non-commissioned officer).

The basic training involves a general military training (3 months), which includes, besides the small weapons training, acknowledging information and proper medical practices, followed by a specialization (3 months) for the mission which can be done by Bundeswehr on national territory, in crisis situations, like the removal of natural catastrophes consequences, defending the critical infrastructures (for example, the power plants) or joining the combat efforts of the effects of a possible pandemic or other events which need the involvement of all state’s institutions and authorities, but also of the population. Considering this basic training, the young volunteer is “enlisted” in a regional protection or help subunit, as “security and support military”, close to his “home”. The particularity here is that such a volunteer will not be used for missions outside the national territory. Financially speaking, there is no difference comparing to the current volunteering option.

As a spokesperson of the German federal defence minister was saying, the concept the minister of defence launched was published at the end of July, on institution’s website. According to the published information, the Bundeswehr wants to initially recruit and train up to 1000 people, starting April 2021, to be dislocated on national territory, after the basic military training, to consolidate the national defence capacity, but also that of the Alliance.

Not least, the coronavirus pandemic showed how important can the Bundeswehr and its reservists is for the entire Germany. Thus, with the new volunteer service, the defence minister wants, besides the already declared objective which is the consolidation of country’s defence capacity, to contribute to the enhancement of cohesion in the German society. To that end, she said that: “such a service – regardless of how it is done - is the bond which helps the society to be united at difficult times”.

Could the reintroduction of conscription be an alternative to this new volunteer service?

The reintroduction of the compulsory military service was a topic constantly debated by the German politicians, since its suspension, in 2011. However, both the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the defence ministers Germany had so far have approached the topic somehow circumspectly, saying they are against it, among others reasoning that the requirements of the German military are currently different comparing to how this situation was ten years ago.

Recently, given the right extremist incidents within the Bundeswehr, the new ombudsman from the German Bundestag, Eva Hogl (SPD), said she was for the reintroduction of the compulsory military service, provoking different opinions and commentaries in the public space. To that end, she stated, for the media agencies of Funke, “I think it is a huge mistake the fact that recruitment was suspended. We must analyze this decision carefully”. Furthermore, the social-democratic politician states that it would be better for the Bundeswehr for a part of the society to fulfill the military service for a period, so that the people to contribute to combating the right extremisms within the troops. Therefore, she states that she wants to launch, in the following year, a discussion about this topic, and if there will be a majority for the withdrawal of the 10-years old decision, “that would be proved at the end of the debate”.

Eva Holg is not supported by the SPD leaders, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter Borjans, who do not share their colleague’s idea. They have stated, referring to the connection between the compulsory military service and the recent culpable events within the Special Forces (KSK), which led to their restructuration this summer, that the “Compulsory military service is a recurrent topic and does not have to do with the dying democratic stability in specific fields (like the KSK), which were never enlisted with active military”.

On the other hand, many of the CDU supporters are still lamenting the recruitment that was suspended in 2011. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer herself is the supporter of mandatory service, but she currently sees les chances to implement it, especially because of the constitutional limits and, therefore, she rejects the idea of the defence ombudsman from the Bundestag.

Talking about this, the Minister also said that the proposal for the new military volunteer service is not a return to another form of conscription, but rather refers to "what holds us together in this society, which has been disturbed, and how we strengthen those who really want to do something for society”. However, she did not completely give up the idea of returning to the situation before 2011, stating that "The next few years will show where the debate on compulsory military service leads us".

Also, the colleagues from CSU, through the voice of the regional leader Alexandr Dobrindt, reject the conscription’s reintroduction, considering that the "Return to compulsory military service is not a realistic debate", being more important for Germans to focus on strengthening volunteer service.

The reactions of the political opposition in Germany and of the German social organizations to the proposals advanced in the public space

Reactions emerged, as expected, from the German opposition. Thus, the defence expert of the Liberal Democrats (FDP), Marie-Agnes Zimmermann, described the idea of ​​returning to compulsory military service as "completely useless". According to her, the Bundeswehr needs specialists for its extremely complex missions and added that "Trends in the rule of law within the troops are not fought by forcing all young people", but rather should get to the roots of the problems.  As for the new volunteer service, the Liberal Democrat politician believes that the Bundeswehr continues to lack "reasonable material endowment and efficient procurement", not offers for volunteering.

Following the same idea, environmental security expert (Bündnis `90/die Grünen), Tobias Lindner, speaking of a debate during the parliamentary holidays, considers that a return to compulsory military service "would simply consume massive human and financial resources”. According to him, whoever wants the troops to be the size of German society should not only provide adequate funding and equipment, but should also deal with responsible recruitment practice and modern political education of the German military.

Also, the German Left (die Linke) rejects the idea of ​​a return to conscription. Dietmar Bartsch, the leader of this group in the Bundestag, believes that the Bundeswehr's problems with right-wing extremism "were not causally linked to the end of compulsory military service, but to a Bundeswehr culture that allowed and tolerated this for dozens of years". According to him, a debate on the reintroduction of conscription could be "a dangerous cardboard target", which would not solve the obvious problems in German military units. The Social Democrat added that "Instead of taking young people for compulsory military service, we need zero tolerance at all levels of the Bundeswehr for fascists who have forgotten history and who believe they can implement their sick ideas through the uniform".

As expected, the right-wing nationalist-extremist political party, AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), unreservedly supports the defense commissioner's initiative. Referring to this subject, the AfD head of defence issues in the Bundestag, Rüdiger Lucassen, stated that Högl should only "convince his own party and the CDU". In his opinion, the “Reactivation (of compulsory military service) is an important but possible task. Sweden has shown that it is possible".

Organizations defending the rights of active or reserve servicemen also sought to express their views on proposals advanced by German policy. Thus, the Bundeswehr Association[1] welcomes, generally, the debate proposed by Eva Högl on the reintroduction of conscription, but thinks that it could not be implemented too soon. The president of the Association, Lieutenant-Colonel André Wüstner, told the SWR (Südwestrundfunk) news channel that “Compulsory military service was suspended at that time (2011) in a hurry, without analysis - and therefore it would be false to reintroduce it without an analysis". He added that "These are measures in terms of infrastructure, training capacity - and would involve investing a significant amount of money."

Patrick Sensburg (CDU), president of the Reserve Military Association[2], approves Högl's initiative. As a member of the Bundestag, he told Handelsblatt that the "Suspension of compulsory military service was a mistake and that is why I voted against it at the time". According to him, in Germany, in the meantime, there is a "wide acceptance" for the reintroduction of conscription or for a compulsory general service. Regarding the new volunteer service, the Association of Reservists was confident and welcomed the concept launched by the defence minister, considering that "it is important, at this time, to discuss in detail other social service options".

German charities are not very enthusiastic about the introduction of the new military volunteer service and have some doubts about it. Thus, the President of Caritas, Peter Neher, told the German editorial Network "With all due respect for new ideas and for the defense of the homeland, we must not forget that there are already serious offers to contribute to social cohesion" and gave as examples the initiatives Voluntary Social Service year (Freiwillige Soziale Jahr), the Voluntary Ecological Year (Freiwillige Ökologische Jahr), the Federal Voluntary Service (Bundesfreiwilligendienst) or the "Worldwide" Program for missions abroad. Therefore, it could be questioned "at least critically" if an additional "under arms" service would make sense at this time.

Wolfgang Stadler, president of the Workers' Charity, agrees, and he is rejecting the concept of a voluntary service in the Bundeswehr from the outset, which he believes should be social. To that end, he stated that "The idea of ​​introducing a military volunteer service in Germany mixes concepts, which should obviously remain separate".

Last but not least, the director general of the Joint Charity, Ulrich Schneider, considers it a "great injustice" in terms of the advantages presented to candidates during promotion campaigns (for example, free train tickets for Bundeswehr staff) and fears that social services could be at a disadvantage in competition with the Bundeswehr, as the reason behind the military service could be higher than for "looking out for children in a day center". At the same time, he was outraged, rhetorically asking "Where is the appreciation for the work that our volunteers do in the social and ecological fields?".

Answering to these concerns of the charity organizations, Kramp-Karrenbauer said that she does not see any competition danger between the volunteering services, especially that she thinks that there are many people who would love to get involved, and this became extremely obvious during the coronavirus pandemic, wherein the Bundeswehr was so present.

Translated by Andreea Soare

[1] The Bundeswehr Association (Deutsche BundeswehrVerband eV - DBwV) is a unitary and central organization for representing the interests of all Bundeswehr military, officials and employees, active and former employees, their family members and their descendants in relation to Parliament, the Government and civil society. It has about 200,000 members. https://www.dbwv.de/der-verband/grundsaetze-der-verbandsarbeit/

[2] The Bundeswehr Reservists' Association (Der Verband der Reservisten der Deutschen Bundeswehr - VdRBw) has over 115,000 members and represents reservists in all military matters. https://www.reservistenverband.de/wir-sind-die-reserve/