Citizen in Uniform

Here in Germany, we again have the debate about ending the draft, a change that I support. My guess: It’ll be gone by 2020, but survive this legislature period (which runs until 2013). In the debate about this, one hears a lot of phrases like “Staatsbürger in Uniform” (uniformed citizen) or “Verankert in der Gesellschaft” (anchored in society) as support for the draft and the dreaded “Staat im Staat” (state within a state) as the opposite. What the hell is all that supposed to mean?

The idea behind it all seems to be that a steady flow of people who would not normally become soldiers are suitable and indeed necessary to make sure that the Bundeswehr, the german military, does not suddenly throw over the government or gradually starts to influence politics.

That raises two questions: How dangerous is our military, and how well is the draft suited to reducing this danger? In times where, in the name of fighting terror, we are giving up more and more of our rights (for example by transmitting banking data from Europe to the US without any control what the americans do with it in the SWIFT accord), the Bundeswehr is notable for having not actually received any new powers. The ones that were planned, allowing them to shoot down hijacked planes, were cancelled. So I don’t think things look that bleak for the german population yet.

Of course, the danger that is often mentioned is “Weimarer Verhältnisse”, i.e. a situation like the chaotic time from the end of the first world war until the Nazis grabbed power, the era known as Weimar Republic. But was the military responsible for that? Much of the troubles were caused by radical right- and left wing organizations. While they undoubtedly had close connections to the WWI army, they were decidedly not the same as the actual, official military. That one was pretty radical as well, of course, but due to the treaty of Versailles, also quite powerless.

Comparing to the time directly before each world war makes no sense at all, of course, as there was a draft in place then, which obviously was not able to stop any world war. Also, in both cases, as well as partly in Weimar, the politicians actively encouraged a strong military, so “state within a state” would not apply. After all, the entire country was highly militarized.

How would, in practice, a draftee help keep the Bundeswehr in line? If the goal is to keep the army weak by forcing it to waste its time on training lots of people who aren’t allowed to fight and will soon leave again anyway, well, there are experts who say that this is working splendidly. Realistically, though, it is more likely the intention that a draftee will sooner scream if something is going really wrong than someone who joined voluntarily and for a long time. My guess, however, is that it more depends on the internal culture. When everybody knows that it only causes trouble to complain, then a draftee will keep his head down as well. If, on the other hand, people are encouraged and free to state what is causing trouble, then volunteers will probably be as vocal as draftees. In the interest of full disclosure, it must be said that I am a conscious objector. So if someone was in any military and had a completely different experience about this than the one I imagine, I’d be very interested in hearing from you in a comment!

But let’s assume that draftees would work to keep the army nice and under democratic control. Then we still have the problem that german draftees are only allowed on NATO territory and not to the places where the army is actually working, such as most importantly Afghanistan. A draftee can voluntarily extend his stay there and will then be allowed (and likely also required) to serve in the sand box, but I don’t think there is a large difference between them and full-on volunteers.

Afghanistan, however, also shows a completely different problem. The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany has a very effective limitation on the power of the Bundeswehr. It is normally only allowed to fight on NATO territory and for defense. That limits its possibilities and potential power considerably. At least, that is the theory. Practically, they are stationed in Kabul. I don’t care what words like “stabilizing mission” our politicians invent, the Afghanistan War, but also most other international missions, miss the idea of those constitution clauses by a mile. Suddenly we have an army that is actively fighting, even though nobody has attacked Germany, and whose decisions have real, dramatic consequences, and that therefore takes up a lot more time in the minds of the politicians. If I were truly more afraid of the Bundeswehr than of Family minister Ursula von der Leyen, then I’d be scared about the Afghanistan mission, not an end of the draft.

Written on August 29th, 2010 at 05:08 pm


  1. Posted 8 November 2010


    I agree with you Torsten. All NATO forces should withdraw from countries which it has invaded.

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