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Germany: Controversy Over Proposed Army Reforms

A political row has erupted in Germany over the future of its armed forces. One key question is whether thousands of young men should be conscripted annually to perform 10 months of military service, another whether the main role of the armed forces should be to protect Germany or be ready for international operations. Correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 10 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- German politicians have argued for years about the role of their armed forces in the post-communist world. In the post-war years, the German army was geared to defend the homeland against an attack from the East. But with the collapse of communism, that role no longer exists and many wonder just what sort of army Germany needs.

A government-appointed commission led by former President Richard von Weizsaecker has been reviewing the armed forces' role for most of the past year. Its final report will not be released until later this month, but leaks to the media of what it contains have already created considerable political controversy.

According to leaked information -- which government sources confirm -- the commission will propose a 25 percent reduction in the number of troops in the German army, or Bundeswehr. That would leave a force of 240,000, including young conscripts performing their national military service. Although opinion polls show that many Germans support reducing the overall size of the military, several political leaders and senior army generals say the proposed reductions are too large.

The question of conscripts is even more controversial. Currently, the army chooses 130,000 young men each year to do 10 months of mandatory military service. Leaked reports say the von Weizsaecker commission plans to propose that the army conscript only 30,000 men each year. Army generals say they need nearly three times as many.

Most Germans, however, also oppose reducing the number of conscripts. German analyst Guenther Grube notes that, in the aftermath of World War II, Germany had promoted the idea of the army as "citizens in uniform." That was a way, Grube says, to democratize the institution and to do away with the professional army that was notorious for having seized a powerful political role for itself before World War II.

According to Grube, Germans today continue to support the idea of a "citizen" army, and he says many of them see conscription as its main component. Both Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and opposition Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel say that using conscripts has developed links between civilians and soldiers that have helped strengthen German democracy. Other observers stress that the present German army is an integral part of a democratic state and hardly likely to take a political stance.

The controversy over the forthcoming report on the Bundeswehr has also opened up a debate on what role the army should play in the future.

Until recently, Germany believed its army should defend the homeland -- and the NATO Alliance of which it is a member -- but should not intervene in foreign crises. In accordance with that policy, Germany did not send troops to the Gulf War in 1991. Five years later, then defense minister Volker Ruehe criticized France for abandoning compulsory military service and developing a smaller but more professional army that could intervene quickly in foreign crises.

Things have changed since 1996. German troops are now deployed as part of the NATO-led KFOR force in Kosovo and German aircraft participated in last spring's attacks on Yugoslavia. Germany is now a major partner in a planned European Union military force, which is being developed with France and some other EU countries. It is also playing a leading role in developing a proposed EU rapid reaction force.

Chancellor Schroeder has promised his government will announce preliminary decisions on reforming the armed forces before parliament begins its summer recess. He also said no reforms would be pushed through against the wishes of the military. Many commentators in Germany take that as a signal it will be many months before any changes are made.