| 27 May 2024, Monday |

Spike in German troop numbers asking not to be sent to war

In a sharp rise on 2021’s figures, Almost 1,000 German military personnel applied for an exemption from serving in combat zones in 2022, according to a report published on Friday.

A spokesperson for the German ministry responsible for processing the applications told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland group of newspapers that 951 Bundeswehr soldiers had applied for the exemption.

“In 2021, 201 applications for exemption from combat service were received, in 2022 it was a total of 951 applications,” the spokesperson for the Ministry for Family and Civil Affairs told the newspapers.

The Bundeswehr has roughly 183,000 serving personnel, meaning far fewer than 1% of troops applied for the status in all.

The report cited the war in Ukraine and the increased tensions particularly with Russia in 2022 as the reason for many of the soldiers asking to be ruled out of combat tours. Although NATO is only supporting Ukraine and is not directly involved in the conflict, the prospect of conflict with Russia still became a more realistic one in 2022.

A spokesman for the DFK-VG, a German group for conscientious objectors and pacifists, appealed in the report for the Bundeswehr to offer soldiers an “easy way out” if they want one.

“Soldiers who, in this volatile time for security policy, reach the conclusion that they do not want to shoot at other people and kill or maim them, must be offered an easy way out of the army,” Michael Schulze von Glasser said.
The idea of a professional soldier being unwilling to go to a combat zone might very well seem odd.

The option to ask to be removed from consideration for service in a war zone dates back to the era when Germany still had mandatory national service for many young people.

Until 2011, most school leavers in Germany were required either to serve a short stint with the military or alternatively to work in some form of civic capacity instead.

New recruits to the Bundeswehr can no longer stipulate this, but soldiers who enlisted before the abolition of national service retained the option.
The rule can also be connected to the unusual, and evolving, status of the German military since World War II.

In the aftermath of Germany’s defeat, the Bundeswehr was permitted to rearm and restock for the Cold War, but the army was redefined as a purely defensive force designed to protect German soil and sometimes to provide non-combat services in Germany — for instance helping with crisis management after problems like flooding, or even with transporting medical equipment and supplies amid the COVID pandemic.

In recent decades, Germany has started taking on an increased role in international military operations, often but not exclusively under UN auspices. The biggest and most famous example was its role as the second-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan until the West’s sudden withdrawal in 2021.

Most combat zone deployments are still part of peacekeeping or counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations, and Bundeswehr losses in international operations remain modest by most militaries’ standards.

According to Bundeswehr figures from July of 2022, 116 German soldiers had died while serving abroad since 1992 — also including deaths unconnected to combat like suicides and homicides.

After years of pressure from NATO partners for Germany to expand its military role further, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government has called for increased defense spending and other changes as part of what it calls an “epochal shift” (Zeitenwende) in light of the invasion of Ukraine.

Precisely what shape any future changes will take is not entirely clear yet. As of now politicians have mainly talked in generalities about trying to boost spending, recruitment and procurement, rather than discussing more potentially contentious issues like redefining combat rules.

  • DW