BERLIN -- A plastic rocket, cardboard tanks and a dancing skeleton led 5,000 men and women through downtown Berlin yesterday to protest the German government's drafting of Berliners for the first time since World War II.
For 45 years most of Germany's largest city had not seen a German soldier and its young men were immune from the draft. But now the German army is back, and Berlin is sending young men to do 12 months of compulsory training.
The changes result from the fact that West Berlin, two-thirds of unified Berlin's area and population, has lost its special status as a territory occupied by France, Britain and the U.S.
So long as it was officially occupied, no German soldiers could be stationed there and its residents were exempt from the draft. Its status made it a Mecca for draft dodgers from across West Germany, 40,000 of whom are estimated to have fled here over the past 35 years.
But now, even draft dodgers who came to Berlin 14 years ago are eligible to be called into the all-German Bundeswehr. The draft affects most men up to 28 and any man up to 32 who fled to Berlin. In all, about 160,000 Berliners are eligible.
At yesterday's rally, some of them turned out in the pouring rain and cold for a peaceful parade and demonstration against the draft and the army in general.
Some banners called for the abolition of military service as a first step toward a demilitarized Germany, and others made reference to the tens of thousands of World War II army deserters.
"We are the stronghold of the anti-draft movement in all of Germany. This is a direct challenge, and if the army thinks they can introduce compulsory military service here without a struggle, they're going to be surprised," said Ralf Klein, a curator of the Anti-War Museum and member of the Opponents of Military Service.
Speakers at the rally called on all Berliners to resist the draft and claimed that the army was making a priority of drafting residents of Berlin who had moved here to avoid the draft in former West Germany. The army has confirmed that it has drafted several 31-year-olds from Berlin in the past month, but denied that it was seeking revenge, as its opponents claim.
Mr. Klein said it is unfair to draft men who had planned their life around not serving in the military. Unlike an 18-year-old, many older men have started a career and even a family. Drafting men in their 30s during relaxed international relations makes no military or political sense, he said.
Capt. Stefan Lang, spokesman for the Bundeswehr, disagreed. He said extending the draft to Berlin is only fair.
"Why should the Berliners be exempt? We are applying the rule across the country and don't see why there should be exemptions," Captain Lang said.
He said that the armed forces make special provisions for people in the middle of an educational program. People who are running a business will be given a grace period to train a replacement, he said.
Even the West German army's reduction from 495,000 soldiers to 320,000, the cutting of the former East German army from 100,000 to 50,000 and the combining of 16 million East Germans with the West German population of 62 million will not end the need for the draft, Captain Lang said.
The idea behind the draft is not just to give the country a pool of trained soldiers in the event of a mobilization, Captain Lang said, but to root the army in the population and prevent it from developing into an elite, anti-democratic force as it once was in Germany.
"The draft has served this country well. We don't want to abandon the concept of a citizen in arms," the captain said.
Draft opponents, however, view the draft and the accompanying civilian service for conscientious objectors as "forced labor for the government," said Stefan Mueller, a draft opponent in East Germany and now active in the movement in united Germany. Civilian service, which allows proved objectors to serve 15 months in a hospital, retirement home or perform other necessary social work, also is unacceptable, he said.
"Why should the government be allowed to force me to spend one year or longer of my life as it wants? It's my life and I want to make decisions about it as I want," said Mr. Mueller, 25, a plumber.
Questions about military service are so widespread that a magazine discussing the question has been sent around Berlin's schools.
In addition, weekly counseling sessions offered by Mr. Mueller's organization have attracted about 1,000 queries a week from young Berliners who never imagined that the draft would come to their hometown and from worried men from former West Germany who thought they had evaded the draft by moving to Berlin from former West Germany.