Marching orders for conscription in Germany, but what will take its place?

Many are happy to avoid what was a German rite of passage, writes Helen Pidd, but the army faces a crisis

German conscrips
German conscripts are drilled at Berlin's Julius-Leber-Kaserne barracks. The last class of conscripts began their service in January. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian

Under a clear night sky in Berlin, the elite drill unit of the German army rolled out their party piece in front of the ministry of defence. As a military band played Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water", the Wachbatallion performed der grosser Zapfenstreich, the military tattoo reserved for the most important national events.

The big occasion was the official departure last Thursday of the defence minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned this month after being engulfed by a plagiarism scandal involving his PhD thesis. As Guttenberg jumped before he was pushed, he qualified for the grand goodbye, which involved more than 400 troops, two platoons of infantrymen and two lines of soldiers carrying torches. They even indulged him with his favourite song.

Guttenberg had only been in office 16 months but his short reign has changed the German army – the Bundeswehr – forever. In November he pushed through the most radical reform of the armed forces in decades, including one particularly drastic measure: the abolition of compulsory military service. The last class of conscripts began their six-month service in January, and from 1 July, military service will be no more.

Ever since conscription (Wehrdienst) was reintroduced in 1961 following the founding of the post-war Bundeswehr, young men have been trying to wriggle out of it. They have faked illnesses and injuries or – since the 1970s when it was allowed – claimed conscientious objection and been packed off to do compulsory community service instead (Zivildienst, also to be abolished on 1 July).

But while many 19-year-old German men cheered the news that they could spend a gap year backpacking in Thailand instead of being shouted at by a drill sergeant, not everyone is happy with the change. At the Julius Leber barracks near Tegel Airport in Berlin, home to the 1,200 soldiers from the Wachbatallion drill unit, two of the last young men ever to be called up were adamant it was a mistake to abolish conscription.

"I think Wehrdienst is important, even though I didn't really want to be here," said Tino Austerman, 20, from the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. "When I got called-up, I had an apprenticeship in a hotel and was earning money. Now I'm here getting up at 5am, obeying a 10pm curfew and spending at least half of every day standing up straight. But you learn a lot, especially about the importance of comradeship."

Max Schneider, also 20, hadn't been delighted to be called up either, having just rented a flat in Berlin, where he was an apprentice canal-builder.

"The timing wasn't great, but I had always wanted this experience," he said. "Now I'm thinking of extending my service and training to be a drill sergeant. I've only been here since January and I've made some really good friends, plus I think I would have a more secure job in the army than on the canals."

The Wachbatallion's commander, Lieutenant Commander Chris Schwarze, said he regretted the abolition of military service. "Conscription ensured a close relationship between the German army and the people. Without it, the only place people will hear about the army is on TV, when things go wrong and people die. If you have been a conscript, or your son has, you have a better understanding of how the military works and what it can do for society."

For obvious historical reasons, Germany has a problematic relationship with its army, which was formed originally as a volunteer force to defend its borders. All that changed in 1999, when Gerhard Schröder's centre-left government took the decision to join the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in a bid to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo. Since 2002, German troops have also been serving – and dying – in Afghanistan.

Yet young Germans do not struggle as much as their parents with the idea of their army fighting abroad. "We've dealt with all that," said Schneider. "That was another chapter. Nowadays we have our duty and we fulfil it. What the Bundeswehr does now has nothing to do with the past."There is now political consensus that Germany needs an army of some description, but the abolition of Wehrdienst has created a serious recruitment problem for the professional army – now 20%-30% of Wehrpflichtigen (conscripts) enlist after serving their compulsory stint, according to warrant officer Hans-Jacob Hein, the Wachbatallion's press spokesman.

Guttenberg replaced Wehrdienst with a voluntary service, which offers men and women the chance to spend between 12 and 23 months as a soldier. The package is marginally more attractive: current conscripts earn a paltry €250 a month; volunteers are being enticed with monthly salaries of between €777 and €900, said Hein.

The Bundeswehr had hoped 3,000 would be ready for action on 1 April, but as of the end of February, just 500 had applied. The chief of the army, Lieutenant General Freer, wrote a letter warning of the consequences of the reform. "In transition to the new structure, we will have to accept big gaps in personnel for many years to come, which will not be compensated for due to the lack of applicants and the demographic dip [the country's lowering birthrate]," he said.

The two recruits at the Julius Leber barracks were similarly pessimistic about the chances of future generations signing up if they weren't forced to do so. "Why would they? I'd say from our group of recruits at this barracks, a minority actually wanted to be there. The others were only there because they couldn't get out of it," said Austermann.

His friend Schneider reckoned the ostensibly less exciting battalions, such as their Wachbatallion, would be hardest hit. "When people think of the army, they think of running around with guns in the woods and camping, but here we learn drills," he said.

At the Julius Leber barracks, the conscripts were being put through their paces, practising for the grosser Zapfenstreich to be performed for Guttenberg. The drill sergeant yelled out orders as they learned the complicated routine. When not performing in parades, the Wachbatallion spend a lot of time at Tegel meeting heads of state off planes.

But while many Germans will not shed a tear about the end of conscription, the simultaneous abolition of Zivildienst is a widespread cause for regret. Though a voluntary form of community service for all sexes and ages will be introduced from 1 July, most people doubt enough volunteers will come forward. Even the family ministry, which is responsible for administering Zivildienst, admits there will be an initial shortfall. Contrary to projections, there will not be 35,000 volunteers ready to start service on 1 July, it admitted this month. Currently, there are 90,000 Zivildienst places in Germany annually. The deputy family minister, Dr Hermann Kues, said he would mourn the loss of Zivildienst. "It was a good tradition for young people to do something for their community and I am sad to see it go," he said. "Zivildienst comes part and parcel with Wehrdienst – it was brought in as an alternative for conscientious objectors – and so if Wehrdienst goes, so does Zivildienst."

Charities which relied on "Zivis" fear how they will cope without the free labour. Zivis' meagre pocket money was provided by the state. The Catholic charity Caritas said it is expecting to receive just 3,500 volunteers, compared to the 10,000 Zivis it had in an average year.

The deputy family minister, Hermann Kues said that as Zivis were never supposed to take proper jobs from trained people, organisations should be able to get by without them. In practice, though, it was well known that untrained 19-year-olds were keeping hospitals and care homes ticking over, cleaning toilets, bathing patients and doing other essential tasks

"We won't be able to compensate," Gudrum Schemel from Caritas in Lörrach, Baden Württemberg, told the Badische Zeitung. "Ever since Zivildienst was cut to six months from 12, we have had to cut projects. What we are really worried about is our support groups for people with dementia. They were always run by Zivis."


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