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Military Draft in Germany Upheld by Highest Court

Europe: The ruling overturns a 1999 lower-level decision that one conscript was within his rights to reject the compulsory service.


BERLIN — Germany's highest court ruled Wednesday that compulsory military service is still legal and justified despite a considerably reduced security threat to this nation since the end of the Cold War.

The Constitutional Court also rejected claims that the draft violates a citizen's right to equality under the law because only about one in five German men is compelled to perform the nine-month service after turning 18.

Germany's army has been in the process of downsizing since 1990, when West Germany's reunification with East Germany erased the tense and heavily fortified inter-German border at the same time it swelled the ranks with conscripts.

But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's governing Social Democrats as well as the main opposition party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, argue that conscription remains the best guarantee of keeping Germany's military anchored in democracy and civil society.

They also note that the draft, which accounts for about one-third of the 300,000-strong army, remains a more affordable alternative to an all-volunteer defense force.

About 90,000 recruits are summoned each year, or about 22% of the eligible age group. An additional 120,000 who are called up opt instead for civilian service, which provides workers for hospitals, retirement homes and public works.

The high court ruled that justification for the draft can range beyond the need for immediate resistance to a military threat, including Germany's responsibility as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to assist in alliance actions.

The Karlsruhe-based court concluded that the complex considerations of risk assessment, recruitment costs and democratic influences were all matters best left to the government and Parliament to decide.

With its ruling, the court overturned a 1999 decision of the Brandenburg state court in Potsdam that draft dodger Volker Wiedersberg was within his rights to reject both conscription and civilian service because democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe had sharply reduced the risk of a military invasion.

Wiedersberg, who could still face punishment once his prosecution resumes, shrugged off the high court decision as far from the end of the matter.

"This issue is not going to disappear. It's only been put off," he told reporters in Berlin.

Britain, France and Italy have switched to professional, all-volunteer armies, but Germans still marginally favor retaining a draft as a means of preventing any reversion to the aggressive militaristic strivings of the past. A poll by the Emnid group published this week by the daily Die Welt showed 51% of German respondents in favor of keeping the draft and 45% opposed.

Schroeder told an annual assembly of army officers this week in his hometown of Hanover that conscription will be enshrined in his party's platform as he campaigns for reelection in September.

But the environmentalist and pacifist Greens, who are coalition partners of Schroeder's Social Democrats, oppose continued conscription, as do the liberal Free Democrats and the former Communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism. That has made the subject an awkward point of divergence for Schroeder's party, both with his current governing partners and with the liberals who are seen as the likely junior party in the next government.

German conscripts are increasingly being used to guard domestic defense installations while troops with longer service commitments and more extensive training take part in international missions abroad, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping noted at the Hanover gathering Monday.

Germany now has 10,000 soldiers taking part in foreign peacekeeping missions, including the United Nations-mandated force in Macedonia that is under German command and the multinational deployment trying to improve security in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

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