Germany contemplates ending conscription

Germany's declining economic power is threatening one of the cornerstones of its democratic system: the conscript-based national army, which replaced the professionalism of the country's militaristic past.

A heated row within the government over proposed defence cuts has focused attention on Germany's inability to finance conscription beyond the year 2000. Yesterday, the Free Democrats, the junior partners in the governing coalition, called for a parliamentary debate, and announced they would hold a referendum among their members over the future of the Bundeswehr.

"If it came to cutting 10,000-20,000 men or more, then I could see that we would have to call conscription into question, at least in its current form," said Gunther Nolting, the Free Democrats' defence spokesman. "I could well imagine that we would have to consider introducing a militia system in Germany."

Mr Waigel, painted as a Scrooge prepared to sacrifice the democratic principles of the nation's defence on the altar of financial rectitude, has even been denounced by members of his own party. "If the total cuts of 12 billion [marks] demanded by the Finance Minister are what we really want politically, than we cannot maintain the draft," said Klaus Rose, a fellow Christian Socialist and chairman of parliament's defence committee.

The debate was sparked last week by a deliberately leaked letter written by Volker Ruhe, the Defence Minister, to his cabinet colleague Theo Waigel, who is in charge of the finance ministry. Mr Waigel's demand for a cut in the defence budget would undermine the draft and endanger Europe-wide arms procurement projects, Mr Ruhe wrote.

The latter include the four-nation Eurofighter aircraft in which Britain has a stake, the Franco-German spy satellite Helios, as well as a new combat helicopter and a transport helicopter to be built together with Germany's European partners.

Mr Ruhe's warning about European commitments was addressed to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who takes a personal interest in these projects. But raising the alarm over conscription was meant for the German public, the majority of whom continue to mistrust people who earn their living as soldiers.

"A professional army keeps itself busy - "its trade is war," was how the liberal daily Suddeutsche Zeitung articulated the angst of the man in the street in yesterday's editorial. At present, 140,000 out of the Bundeswehr's total strength of 340,000 are drafted.

Military service is not popular - half of last year's potential recruits declared themselves to be conscientious objectors and opted for community service instead. But the universal draft is seen as a guarantee of fair recruitment, reflecting a cross-section of society, and excluding the possibility of the armed forces ever again falling into the hands of professional soldiers with a mission of their own. The army's duty to summon every able-bodied male German citizen of conscription age is enshrined in the constitution.

The defence budget has been whittled down from 54bn marks at the time of German reunification in 1990 to DM47.1bn (pounds 20bn). Now Mr Waigel wants to cut it again to DM46bn next year and keep slashing costs until the year 2000, in order to bring the budget deficit down to a level that meet the Maastricht criteria and qualify Germany for European Monetary Union.

Chancellor Kohl, who has been watching his sparring ministers with growing irritation, yesterday repeated his commitment to a conscript force. But critics say there will soon not be enough money to finance the Bundeswehr at its current size, and cost-cutting will inevitably lead to a radical overhaul.

Earlier this year, France decided to ditch two centuries of military tradition in favour of a leaner, fitter and cheaper army, and Germany may well have to follow suit.