How we laughed – about Theo, who swallowed a whole tube of toothpaste before his medical so he would be declared unfit for service; about the two sixth-formers who accidentally overslept on the day of their appointments to declare themselves conscientious objectors, and thus had to spend months in the barracks playing chess while the others watched porn films. Everyone moaned about national service, but as a source of anecdotes it was unbeatable.
Laughter is a way we Germans conceal our ambivalence about the Bundeswehr. Ever since the second world war it has been seen as good form for people on the left to be against the army, and therefore to object to national service. Before 1989 hordes of young men from all corners of the west German republic fled to west Berlin to avoid conscription. Paradoxically the Bundeswehr was seen as both a dangerous throwback to German militarism and as a bunch of jokers who were likely to blow themselves up by mistake.
The decades-long controversy over conscription – which has recently resurfaced – has taken a similarly paradoxical course. National service has historically been in line with leftwing goals. In theory, at least, it served to domesticate the German army. Conscripts would be “citizens in uniform” who would ensure transparency and make a military “state within a state” impossible. Nevertheless it is largely political parties on the left who have been pushing for the Bundeswehr to be turned into a professional army, while conservative forces in the Christian Democratic Union have been insisting on retaining conscription.
The fact that a CDU government has now decided to waive – and thereby in effect abolish – conscription is indicative of the state of politics today. It is no longer about the left or the right but about money. Training conscripts takes time and manpower, and in a time of financial crisis Germany can no longer afford a luxury like this. The aim is to save about €8bn from the defence budget. The Bundeswehr is to be reduced from 240,000 soldiers to 185,000, but has to become more efficient at the same time.
The framework of present-day arguments citing practical constraints and no alternatives is familiar to us all, but it is still astonishing to see that after decades of bitter conflict over national service, it is now apparently disappearing with no political debate to speak of.
As is often the case, a lack of discussion is accompanied by the tendency to rush through difficult decisions. Contrary to his claims, the defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (who resigned amid a plagiarism row) leaves behind a plan for reform that is far from well thought-out.
The question of where the soldiers Germany needs for its missions abroad will come from remains entirely unresolved. In practice, the government-regulated muddle of national service functioned primarily as a central recruitment machine for the army. In a country that views its own soldiers as dangerous murderers, helpless victims or foolish clowns, a rush to join the new professional army can hardly be expected.
Initial figures support this view. Instead of the 2,000 voluntary recruits required for the first quarter of this year only 433 people have registered to serve. High-ranking military figures now speak of the 2012 Afghanistan unit being in jeopardy. To make up the anticipated shortfall the Bundeswehr must make itself more attractive by offering higher salaries, further training and bonuses. But that would cost a lot of money – money that has to be saved.
In desperation, the ministry of defence has said it wishes to recruit primarily those with few qualifications – and foreigners. That sounds as if they have forgotten that soldiers are no longer mere cannon fodder. Complex operations such as the one in Afghanistan require a great deal from those involved. Soldiers need to have not only a solid education and good equipment – both of which are already in short supply – but well-honed instincts, communication skills and the ability to understand different cultures. In fact the modern soldier is expected to be a mixture of professional athlete and aid worker. How this equates with an army of losers and mercenaries remains the departed defence minister’s secret.
In the UK, commentators have repeatedly speculated over the military resurgence of Germany since reunification. When Germany’s politicians, under great pressure, recently declared the operation in Afghanistan an actual “war” and not merely a “humanitarian intervention”, it was taken as a sign of a renewal in German military confidence.
In Germany, though, the situation is quite the reverse. A majority opposes the engagement in Afghanistan. The killing of three German soldiers there dominated the headlines for days and the defence minister, the chancellor, the leader of the opposition, the Bavarian state premier and countless MPs turned up at the funerals.
Instead of persistently gawping at the spectre of the Wehrmacht those outside Germany should worry about whether we will be able to meet our international obligations in the future. Military defence in the 21st century is very different from what it was 100 years ago: it is an international affair, no longer just within a country’s borders. Our partners in Europe and overseas expect us to take responsibility for international missions, and right now, it looks as if we are about to inadvertently do away with our troops out of sheer ambivalence.
• Translated from German by Christine Lo.
Juli Zeh, an award-winning German novelist.