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60 Year Anniversary of the German Compulsory Military Service Act

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Conscription in the German Federal Republic began on July 21, 1956 when the German Compulsory Military Service Act (Wehrpflichtgesetz) entered into force. It lasted for 55 years until, on July 1, 2011, the German Bundestag (parliament) decided to suspend conscription and convert the German Armed Forces into an army of professional and volunteer soldiers. Instead of compulsory military service, the law now provides for voluntary military service of up to 23 months for both men and women. (Wehrpflichtgesetz, §§5, 6b). Conscription is limited to times when the parliament declares that Germany is under attack or imminently threatened by armed force (“state of defense or tension”).

Conscription is permitted by article 12a of the German Basic Law (constitution) which states that “[m]en who have attained the age of eighteen may be required to serve in the Armed Forces…”. Women were exempted from the draft, but allowed to perform volunteer service. Because conscription has only been suspended and not abolished, there was no need to amend the Basic Law, which also means that it could be reactivated at any time. Prior to the suspension, any man who refused to perform compulsory military service on grounds of conscience was required to perform alternative civilian service (Zivildienst) instead. (Basic Law, art. 12a, para. 2). Alternative civilian service was usually completed in health care facilities, retirement homes, kindergartens, or in facilities for people with disabilities.

Grenadiers dismounting the armored personnel carrier M 113. / Photograph by Bundeswehr/Siwik

Historical Background

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Allied Forces agreed at the Potsdam Conference to demilitarize and disarm Germany and to divide it into four zones of occupation. The post-war pacifist situation was reflected in the opinion of the German people for whom the military had been discredited. On April 8, 1949, the three western zones of occupation were merged and became West Germany.

Although the German Basic Law (constitution) had entered into force in May 1949, the Allied Forces retained occupation powers, which were codified in the Occupation Statute of Germany. The Occupation Statute made every amendment of the Basic Law and adoption of new laws dependent on approval by the Occupation Forces. This situation remained in place until the repeal of the Occupation Statute in 1955.

When the security and foreign policy landscape changed in the 1950s, the Western Allies urged West Germany to share in the responsibility to defend against any possible Soviet Union aggression. In 1955, West Germany therefore formed the German Bundeswehr (armed forces) and joined the recently established North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Originally the Basic Law contained no provisions concerning the military. In 1955, with the approval of the Western Allies, the Basic Law was amended to create a military which would only perform a defensive role. The amendment, article 87a, states:

(1) The Federation shall establish Armed Forces for purposes of defense. Their numerical strength and general organizational structure must be shown in the budget.
(2) Apart from defense, the Armed Forces may be employed only to the extent expressly permitted by this Basic Law.
(3) During a state of defense or a state of tension the Armed Forces shall have the power to protect civilian property and to perform traffic control functions […] Armed Forces may also be authorized to support police measures for the protection of civilian property […].
(4) In order to avert an imminent danger to the existence or free democratic basic order of the Federation or of a State, the Federal Government […] may employ the Armed Forces to support the police and the Federal Border Police in protecting civilian property and in combating organized armed insurgents. […].

In order to avoid the new armed forces from becoming a quasi “state within the state” and a possible threat to democracy like the former Reichswehr (Imperial Army), three decisions were made.

  • Parliamentary Army: The Armed Forces were established as a so-called “parliamentary army”. This means that even though the command of the Armed Forces in peacetime is vested in the Minister of Defense (Basic Law, art. 65a), the German government is under a general obligation to seek parliamentary approval from the German Parliament before every deployment of troops.
  • Citizens in Uniform: The soldiers were supposed to be “citizens in uniform“ (Staatsbürger in Uniform) anchored in society who receive lessons in leadership development and civic education. This principle guarantees soldiers in general the same rights as all other citizens while serving in the Bundeswehr with a few exceptions.
  • Conscription: Lastly, it was agreed that there would be conscription for all male citizens. The first German Federal President Theodor Heuss characterized conscription as the “legitimate child of democracy” (legitime Kind der Demokratie). (Parlamentarischer Rat, 1948-1949 : Akten und Protokolle, Vol. 14. Hauptauschuss, Teilband 2, at 1325). By having a general conscription, it was ensured that all parts of society were represented in the armed forces and everyone was treated equally.

Conscription Equality

Although the idea behind conscription was to ensure equal treatment, sections 9 to 12 of the Compulsory Military Service Act provide for a number of exceptions from the draft, including medical unfitness, conviction for a crime, being a priest, enrollment in an educational program, and marriage. After the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall,  the Bundeswehr downsized continuously and significantly and the demand for conscripts decreased as a result. Over the years, the number of eligible men actually drafted therefore declined rapidly. Between 1957 and 1989, an average of 178,000 men were drafted every year. In 1990, after German reunification, 189,000 men were drafted from the former East and West. In 2009, the number had dropped to 68,000.

In addition, the number of months that conscripts were required to serve varied. Between 1957 and 1962, men had to serve twelve months, which was then raised to eighteen months until 1972. After that, as the Bundeswehr downsized, the length of service declined gradually to a period of six months.

Before the suspension of conscription, the German Federal Constitutional Court, the supreme court exclusively in charge of constitutional questions, declined to decide whether the low number of people drafted violates the equality clause codified in article 3 of the Basic Law. The German Federal Administrative Court, the supreme court for general administrative law, on the other hand held that the principle of conscription equality would be violated if the number of men actually drafted in a particular year is significantly lower than the number of available men required to perform military service.

Suspension of the Draft

With the end of the Cold War, the role of the German Armed Forces changed and the focus shifted to international missions within the framework of the UN, NATO or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). As a reaction to the strategic realignment of the Bundeswehr resulting in a decreased demand for recruits, the German Bundestag decided in 2011 to abolish the draft, because “the changed circumstances no longer justified the infringement of constitutional rights of men”. The possibility of reactivating conscription for times when Germany is under attack or threatened by armed force was retained to guarantee operational readiness of the Armed Forces to defend Germany.

One of the consequences of the suspension of the draft was that the Bundeswehr faced (and still faces) a personnel shortage. Despite intense efforts to recruit personnel, it has struggled to attract volunteer or professional soldiers and other personnel. One reason might be that the reputation of the military in Germany is still not favorable. This is illustrated by the fact that the Bundeswehr was forced to take down a recruitment commercial after criticism that it looked like a “shooter game”. Other anti-military groups argued that the commercials downplay the necessity of killing as an integral part of a soldier’s life and make it look like soldiering is only about adventure, camaraderie, and fun. Advertisements and presentations targeting minors are particularly controversial and have led some schools to bar military recruiters.

Another consequence of the suspension of the draft was that men no longer had to perform alternative civilian service if they wanted to avoid military service. As with the Armed Forces, there are not enough volunteers to take the place of the alternative civilian workers. In 2015, the Federal Agency for Families and Civil Society Tasks reported that 37,430 volunteers were working for the Federal Volunteer Service, down from 78,000 alternative civilian workers in 2010.

Current Role of the German Armed Forces

Over the years, the German Armed Forces have participated in numerous international missions. Their involvement has mostly been limited to peacekeeping, reconstruction, logistics, and reconnaissance. In the last several years, Germany’s allies have put pressure on it to take on an active combat role. The German population though still opposes a more active role for the German Armed Forces in military conflicts.

In order to meet the requirements of operational readiness for a changing security environment and deal with the personnel shortage, the German Federal Government suggested recently that citizens of other EU countries should be allowed to join the Bundeswehr. A recent poll conducted by YouGov shows though that only 38% of Germans are in favor of such an idea, whereas 51% would support the establishment of EU armed forces instead.

Lately there have also been proposals to reintroduce compulsory military service in light of the changing and volatile security environment, as shown for example by the Ukraine crisis and a substantial increase in terrorist attacks from the Islamic State (IS). According to a poll conducted by Forsa for the magazine STERN, only 42% of Germans support such a reintroduction.

German Federal Minister of Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, visits German soldiers who form part of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force on June 18, 2015. / Picture by Bundeswehr/Kazda


  1. What an interesting article. I never knew that compulsory military service ended so recently in Germany. I think it is best if a society builds a military service based on people who choose to work and participate in the service, but it is good to build in periods of short-term volunteering that can help fill vital roles in the service.

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