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Germany debates how to boost Bundeswehr recruitment

February 24, 2024

Career vs. conscription: The German military is struggling to boost its numbers, to be in the position to take on a possible Russian threat. Officials are divided over if and how to bring back the draft.

Recruits in the Bundeswehr Gebirgsjaegerbataillon seen from the back during a ceremony in Munich on 14.09.2023
The Bundeswehr has long been struggling to recruit more soldiersImage: Frank Hoermann/SvenSimon/picture alliance

Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, is going on a buying spree to make up for years of neglect. The challenge it faces, however, is more than a matter of money. As the Defense Ministry pours tens of billions of borrowed euros into planes, tanks and shells, it also needs the people to fly, drive and shoot them — and keep all of it in working order.

That's why conscription has emerged from the dustbin of Cold War history for a possible second act. In Germany, as in many of parts of Europe, a political debate over the issue is heating up. Opposition parties, such as the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have expressed interest in some kind of mandatory national service. The three-way governing coalition has been more skeptical.

The position puts the defense minister, Boris Pistorius, officially at odds with the government he belongs to. He has called the suspension of Germany's military draft in 2011 a "mistake," and wants a public conversation about the need to reinstitute one and how best to do it.

Renewed debate over conscription in Germany

"To me it looks like Pistorius is putting a range of ideas out there," said Sophia Besch, a Europe Program fellow with a defense policy focus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "In a way, that is already serving his broader goal of just raising awareness of the Bundeswehr as a possible employer."

The Defense Ministry has said it is conducting an internal review of its options to meet its goals. Any policy change would likely require legislative action.

From conscription to career

For decades following their founding after World War II, former West and East Germany required their men to serve a stint in the armed forces. The national obligation survived the end of the Cold War and the creation of a single Germany, until Germany's Parliament, the Bundestag, suspended the draft 13 years ago. Its legal basis, however, has remained a part of the Basic Law, which serves as the country's constitution.

"After the financial crisis, the motto was 'save, save, save.' And everyone assessed the security situation as not easy with Russia, but we work together," Major General Wolf-Jürgen Stahl, the president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy, told DW. "So it makes sense to me that people back then made the decision that they did."

But that was then. The end of conscription brought Germany in line with many of its NATO allies, which had long ago moved to an all-volunteer military. The change led to a smaller, but more professional force. After reaching a peak of almost 500,000 troops toward the end of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr dropped to about half that size by 2010 — the last year of the draft. The latest figures put the force at around 183,000.

Training new reservists in Germany

More than a decade and a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine later, defense officials have taken a U-turn on cuts and are rethinking what a military is made for. Now the Bundeswehr wants to grow to 203,000 people by 2031. Its struggles with recruitment and retention, as laid bare in the most recent annual report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces, could make that a difficult mark to hit on a volunteer-only basis.

"We need to present capable deterrence, which means more soldiers, among other things," said Stahl. "How can I generate these personnel from the open labor market? That will be difficult."

Many kinds of conscription

Aside from sheer force size, Stahl said questions of conscription deal with a "tension between the rights and duties" of a citizen, for which policymakers need to find a balance. Germany has struggled in recent years to root out far-right sympathizers from its ranks, and a draft is one way to ensure that all types of people in society serve. That could produce a more democratic armed force, at less risk of attracting a disproportionate number of applicants with a penchant for militarism.

According to a Defense Ministry spokesperson who spoke with DW, a "crucial factor" in whether to bring back conscription is "the contribution it can make to a stronger bond between society and the Bundeswehr."

Yet doing so is not as easy as flipping the switch on the suspended law. It would likely require legal changes, for example, to include women. Tapping non-citizens is also under discussion. Military service could also fall under a broader kind of "national service." 

Sweden prepares its citizens for the possibility of war

What's known as the "Swedish model" is also getting a closer look. Sweden, which boasts a respected military and is on the cusp of joining NATO, employs what it calls the Total Defense Service. It covers everyone from ages 16-to-70, then sorts people into various kinds of civilian and military roles depending on need and ability. Very few actively serve, but the system is designed to quickly ramp up or down as the security situation requires.

"It also asks people whether they want to join the military," said defense analyst Besch. "So I think the hope is that if you make everybody go — and this part is mandatory — to do the exams, that might then spark some interest."

The United States, which did away with the draft following its defeat in Vietnam, maintains a more passive system known as the Selective Service System, which requires all men from 18-to-25 to register. In theory, the 15 million men on the SSS list could be quickly mobilized, but since they haven't been trained or screened, it's unclear how ready any of them would be to confront a national threat.

More people, more problems

Despite the drive to field a larger force, the German Defense Ministry is sober about how quickly that can happen. 

"An immediate reactivation of conscription would also pose practical and personnel challenges," said the ministry spokesperson. Those include housing, clothing and equipping conscripts — basic necessities that already pose a problem for the current, smaller Bundeswehr.

The armed forces would also struggle to merely process a bump in recruits, Besch said, as more people would be needed just to screen the applicants.

"They didn't arrive at that number randomly," she pointed out, referring to the 2031 target of 203,000. "I think by 2031 they must deem that possible, or at least work towards making that possible."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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