With Germany considering deploying troops, conscientious objectors abound

March 08, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- If Germany's major political parties ever agree that they want to send combat troops abroad, they will have another obstacle to pass: Many German young men claim conscientious objector status and get it -- even without the prospect of danger.

All German men can be drafted for military service at age 19. But claiming conscientious objector status in Germany is easy; 95 percent of those who ask receive it.

During the Persian Gulf war, when Germany first began talking about taking part in overseas missions, refusal rates among draftees shot up to nearly 30 percent.

The number of conscientious objectors remains high -- 131,000 out of about 480,000 draft-age men last year. And it is reportedly rising again as the government talks about deploying troops on peacekeeping and, more particularly, peacemaking, missions in places such as Somalia.

"We are very surprised by the numbers," says Christian Herz, an anti-draft campaigner, "because if you reduce the total by the number of reservists, the rate is higher than during the gulf war."

"This is a reaction to the government's plan to create a new army with new out-of-area possibilities," he says. "A lot of the people say no to this army."

This country, with its long history of militarism, has become remarkably pacifist. The German Constitution says no one can be forced against his conscience to bear arms in military service.

Refusal to serve in the armed forces is socially acceptable and, to a large extent, approved. Since the draft started in 1956, more than 1 million German youths have claimed conscientious objector status.

There is, in fact, a government agency -- Bundesamt fuer den Zivildienst -- that directs alternative service for conscientious objectors. About 120,000 conscientious objectors serve in civil service jobs in nursing homes, hospitals and forestry services.

Many young men have long seen army service as a year wasted, often characterized as a year of idleness spent drinking beer. Even employers express doubts about the value of army service, frequently helping workers evade the draft by declaring them "indispensable."

Critics of the draft like to say that only skinheads want to serve in the Bundeswehr, the German army.

That charge makes the army wince, but the Defense Ministry had to acknowledge this month that more than 50 soldiers were implicated in recent neo-Nazi violence, including murder and attacks on refugee shelters.

Volker Ruehe, the defense minister, vowed in November that the Bundeswehr would root out neo-Nazis. Some unwilling draftees seized on Mr. Ruehe's promise as a new tactic of refusal: They claim to be right-wing extremists.

A confidential report obtained by Der Spiegel magazine suggests that the army is worried about filling its induction quotas in the 1990s. The pool of 19-year-olds available in any year was between 400,000 and 500,000 during the 1980s. But those numbers are expected to shrink to about 370,000 a year in the '90s, because birth rates declined in the '70s.

German youths claim conscientious objector status by stating their reasons in a letter to their regional draft board. There is a "conscience test." Most pass the test and are approved as conscientious objectors, who then do alternative civil service.

"Without conscientious objectors in the civil service, it is not possible to run our social system," says Mr. Herz, the anti-draft organizer. Conscientious objectors serve 15 months in civil service, three months more than military service, and at conscript pay, which is 350 marks a month, nearly $220.

The army now seems to be getting tough on "total resisters" -- those who resist any form of service -- and older men who eluded the draft.

Ernest Steinhauer, a 26-year-old total resister who calls himself a universal pacifist, became the first person convicted in west Berlin since World War II for refusing to serve in the armed forces. He received four months' probation.

An east German born in Chemnitz (once Karl-Marx-Stadt), he had earlier refused service in the Communist National People's Army. He escaped prosecution because the Berlin Wall fell and the East German regime with it.

Ironically, he was drafted here because he had refused service in the East. East German youths who served in the Communist People's Army are exempt from service in the Bundeswehr.

Equally ironic is the fact that West Germany used to pay as much as 50,000 marks (about $32,000) in ransom for the release of East Germans jailed for refusing to serve in the People's Army.

Mr. Steinhauer, a home-care nurse for chronically ill people, "refused liberation by money."

"We had a lot of people in the East who refused army service without being interested in going west," Mr. Herz says. "They said it was necessary to change the system there and not flee."

Mr. Steinhauer was convicted at the same Moabit Courthouse where Erich Mielke, the former head of the East German "Stasi" secret police, was on trial.

"One had given the order to kill," Mr. Herz says. "The other refused to kill."

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