Bedpans and boot-polish

Somewhere down below, Doug Merrill was perceptive enough to notice a remark – easily overlooked but of fundamental importance – by Renate Schmidt, Germany’s Minister for Puppies and Sad-Eyed Children (or something like that). In short, the minister signalled, in a roundabout way, that the end is nigh for conscription to the Bundeswehr. The German Kommentariat is not as quick on the uptake as Doug, but they’ve twigged at last, and this has become a Big Issue. (It is eclipsed somewhat, of course, by the question whether we shall all go to prison for having a Putzfrau come in for a couple of hours a week.)

The quick version is this: Germany’s post-war constitution enshrines the right of conscientious objectors to refuse armed service. And the flower of German youth is keenly attached to this right; huge numbers of young men refuse military service. Instead, they perform civil service, most of them in hospitals and old-age homes, or deputed to care for individual handicapped persons. The minister intimated that care institutions and charitable organisations are going to have look elsewhere for their workers. Without obligatory civil service for COs, a compulsory stint in uniform for the non-shirkers starts to look constitutionally dicey.

In other words, the end of substitute civil service is likely to mean the end of the call-up. Now, that is very interesting. Because if you had asked me at any point during the last ten years or so, I would have said that, if civil service ended, it would be because conscription had been done away with first. What’s more, I would have said that the spectre of an end to civil service would ensure that conscription went on forever.

It’s been known for years that most of the officer caste, if given its druthers, would prefer a smaller, all-volunteer professional army. Conscripts show all the symptoms of short-timer’s syndrome from day one. And understandably so, for their time is short indeed. Just when they have learnt to polish their boots properly, they are demobbed. They simply aren’t in the army long enough to be trained up to any useful level of deadliness. How much better (goes the military’s thinking) if the money and time spent on conscripts were reallocated to longer-term volunteer soldiers.

With the end of the Cold War, the gleam in the generals’ eye grew brighter. The fatherland being safe from the bolshevik hordes at last, surely an all-volunteer army was now the sensible thing? Yet there was a problem. The enormous popularity of conscientious objection had been a boon for the health care industry. Whole regiments of long-haired unpatriotic wastrels descended upon hospitals to empty bedpans, push wheelchairs and the like. And they came cheap: Zivis are paid in line with soldiers (i.e., pretty close to nothing). The German health care system had come to rely heavily on this large pool of cheap workers. Given Germany’s enormous cost of labour (especially the non-wage component), replacing Zivis with ‘real’ workers would be a crushing burden. If the army were to do without conscripts, the hospitals would have do without their Zivis. And that (I’d comfortably assumed) would never happen.

And yet now it looks as though it will happen. I wonder whether the minister was signalling something more than just the end of conscription. The German government has embarked on attempts to reform the labour market. It would like to make workers cheaper to hire and easier to fire, and to make unemployment a less attractive prospect than it is now. Thus far its efforts have been desultory, its proposed reforms less than revolutionary. But can it have in its eye a day when bedpan emptiers are easy to find and cheap to employ?

– – – – –

Not if a couple of state governors have their way. As Der Spiegel reports, the Ministerpr?sidenten of North Rhine-Westphalia (SPD) and Saxony-Anhalt (CDU) now speak of replacing conscription with a year’s compulsory civil service for everyone, male and female alike. Their suggestion has not, however, been greeted with applause. Most parliamentarians feel it would be unconstitutional, and a Bad Idea in general to boot. The FDP (liberals), as one would expect, have their knickers in a twist at the notion. Even some in the Union, who aren’t so happy about an end to conscription, don’t like the idea of replacing it with universal compulsory civil service. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is the reaction from the Greens, who wish to encourage voluntarism but are dead set against compulsion. The Greens might come over all fascist on matters of nuclear energy and non-returnable beer cans, but they do have a quirky liberal strain that shows itself from time to time.

2 thoughts on “Bedpans and boot-polish

  1. Since there is growing discussion of a European military somewhat freer of American attachments, does it seem probable that this is part of an effort to raise the German army’s ability to project power? Until the end of the Cold War, the German military was built around a single strategic plan: defence against invaders from the east. A large conscript army and reserves that knows little more than how to fire an anti-tank gun made a certain amount of sense in that context, but surely doesn’t now. You can’t send reservists and conscripts to overseas wars, while the public is rarely very bothered by sending professional soldiers abroad.

  2. Scott,

    that’s a fair assessment of the current strategic position of the German military, and what you propose is exactly the goal towards which it is working. So far as I know, however, the defence minister hasn’t made an all-volunteer army part of his plans and is indeed against the notion. If civil sevice is abolished, though, it’s not likely he’ll have much choice in the matter.

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