Munich, 17 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - A new debate has opened in Germany about the structure of its armed forces, after the opposition leader Rudolf Scharping suggested the number of troops be cut over the next eight years, and that compulsory military service for young men be reduced to about six months.
Scharping is leader of Germany's main opposition party, the Social Democrats. He expanded on his proposals in a Sunday newspaper with comments about the cost-effectiveness of the present military and other arguments. But experts say, his proposala - in effect - challenge existing, fundamental ideas about the armed forces. And it is this which has stirred the debate.
On one side, there was criticisms from the military, the defence ministry and some top Government officials. On the other, there was satisfaction from the junior partner in the federal Government, the Free Democrats. Its defence spokesman said Scharping's comments were a step toward the creation of a professional army without national servicemen, and, therefore, a move in the right direction.
The military's role in a democratic Germany is a frequent source of debate in German political circles. With memories of German aggression in Europe over the last century constantly given new life in books and the media, many Germans believe the army should limit itself to the defence of the homeland, and not become involved internationally, even under the auspices of the United Nations.
German troops were allowed to join the international force in Bosnia, only after a protracted debate, not just in Parliament, but among the citizens and in churches and other institutions. The troops were eventually assigned a limited role away from the centers of tension. They performed their duties without incident and, as a result, there has been little argument about Germany's participation in the new Bosnia force.
But, the sensitivity about the military and its place in German society has not diminished. This year, the Constitutional Court provoked an uproar in military and Government circles by upholding the right of pacifists to suggest that soldiers are potential murderers. German pacifists take pleasure in quoting a line to that effect first used by the writer Kurt Tucholsky in 1931. Parliament is now considering a law which would enforce severe penalties on those who insult the honor of the military.
Scharping did not comment directly on the overall role of the German military, although its capacities would be affected if his ideas were adopted. He proposed the army be cut from the current 340,000 to under 300,000 troops by the year 2005. He also suggested the current 15 months military national service be cut to "around half a year." At the same time, he raised the idea that perhaps Germany should do away with national service altogether, and have a purely professional army, like Britain and the U.S.
Currently, there are 160,000 national servicemen in Germany's army - that is 47 percent of the total 340,000. By questioning whether thousands of young men should be compelled to perform military duty as a national service, Scharping challenged a central thesis of the current Government.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl has many times made clear his personal view that young men should be proud to do military service. More to the point, it is Kohl's view - supported by other political leaders - that the presence of young civilians, doing military service, helps develop links between the civilian society and the professional military.
Post-war Germany has tried to develop the concept of the "citizen soldier" to eliminate the old view of the military having a special status in society. It is constantly impressed on members of the armed forces that they are "citizens," before they are soldiers, and are expected to respect civilian values, including human rights..
The discussions stirred by Scharping's comments recall the debate in Germany in Februry this year, when France's President Jacques Chirac announced that compulsory military service by French civilian youths would be phased out by the year 2001. As in Germany, national servicemen now make up a considerable part of the French armed forces - 200,000 of the total 500,000. That is, 40 percent.
When Chirac's scheme takes effect, France will have a purely professional army. His decision continues a growing trend in much of Europe - Britain and Luxembourg have already abolished national service, and it has virtually been done away with in the Netherlands and in Belgium. Some other countries are considering abolishing it.
Even Scharping's suggestion that compulsory national military service be cut to around six months was criticised by the Defence Ministry and other experts. And, some commentators pointed out that in six months a recruit could be given only a scanty infantry basic training. It was impossible in that time, they say, to train a young man to participate in a high-technology army.
The Defence Ministry, which generally opposes abolition of national service, commented that Scharping's proposals were not well thought-out. It argued that the effect would be to create a too-small and only superficially trained army, which neither qualitatively nor quantitaively would be in a position to carry out a defence assignment.
Several commentators have said they are unsure whether Scharping is really proposing a fully professional army, or not, and have urged him to clarify his views. That could lead to an even longer debate.