Economic troubles endanger Europe’s paid-to-play conscription schemes

The modern German conscript: Much friendlier than the WWII variant

The modern German conscript: Much friendlier than the WWII variant

Years of unbalanced budgets combined with a debt crisis have taken their toll across Europe. In Spain, construction workers hired from Latin America during the boom years now wonder if they’d be better off going home as the Spanish unemployment rate climbs past 20 percent. In Ireland, where unemployment is somewhat lower at 13 percent (still dangerously high from a social stability point of view), tow trucks show up at Dublin Airport regularly to remove the abandoned cars of those who’ve left town on a one-way ticket in search of work.

The situation isn’t quite as desperate in Germany. The German government, however, still struggles to keep its economic house in order. One of the options for cutting costs is scaling back or even abolishing mandatory military service, German defence minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg revealed in early June.

Mandatory military service, or conscription, is a fading memory in both Canada and the U.S. Canada’s military has been an all-volunteer force since 1945, following a brief and dissatisfactory experience with conscription during World War II. Conscription continued in the United States until the end of direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973, by which time changing military needs and a less deferential public had made mandatory military service too troublesome to continue.

Conscription survived in Europe, though. Many European countries continued requiring young men to perform mandatory military service throughout the tense Cold War years, from the end of World War II in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

As the risk of armed conflict dwindled into insignificance in western and central Europe, some countries began to abandon conscription in favour of Canadian-style all-volunteer militaries. Belgium and the Netherlands were among the first to stop using conscripts, in 1994 and 1996 respectively, followed by France and Spain in 2001 and Italy in 2005. Other countries followed suit.

Sweden formally ended 109 years of conscription on July 1, its demise unmourned by the influential Dagens Nyheter newspaper, which called the practice “old-fashioned and ineffective”. (The rival Aftonbladet newspaper was a little more sentimental, with an editorial writer bemoaning the fact that “yet another level of collective conscience will disappear”.) A proposed plebiscite could also bring conscription to an end in Switzerland within a couple of years.

Dagens Nyheter‘s description of conscription as an “ineffective” practice was underscored by a late-June article in Der Spiegel, a German current affairs magazine, which described how the comical misadventures of bored young German conscripts were making their way on to YouTube.

According to the English-language version of Der Spiegel, Germans have been going to YouTube by the thousands to type in the search words bundeswehr and langeweile (federal defence and boredom) to check out the latest comedy capers of young men performing mandatory national service which, as described by the German magazine, is seldom very demanding:

This is why many conscripts, after completing basic training, learn how to spend time when there is nothing to do. They learn how to dawdle away hours, days, weeks and months, how to waste time running errands and sitting in office chairs, and they learn how to daydream in their units and offices, in hallways, rooms and barrack yards. Essentially, they learn how to loaf around. In the process, they become lazy, silly or creative, or sometimes all three. They do things like hold sleeping bag races, which they record with their mobile phone cameras. The Internet is full of such videos.


The soldiers have come up with a word for the kind of activity that serves the sole purpose of making it seem as if they were busy. They call it Dummfick (loosely translatable as “stupid fucking around”).

The government has reduced conscripts’ stay in the military from nine months to six months as a first step in reducing the costs this Boy Scouts for Adults scheme imposes on the Treasury — which will also ironically reduce the return on investment from three months’ of basic training. If that forces the German government to abolish mandatory military service on economic grounds, it could mean an end to the YouTube videos that have at least given taxpayers some entertainment for their Euros.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to Economic troubles endanger Europe’s paid-to-play conscription schemes

  1. Brian says:

    Fascinating, another informative post, and no doubt the shift in policy is justified by cost alone.

    Although I have to wonder how hard it would be for the Bundeswehr and other militaries to solve the problem by actually finding useful things for their conscripts to do – training being one obvious example, but hardly the only possibility.

  2. Let us not forget that there is conscription in Bermuda (and Mexico). In Bermuda it is very bad. They need dress-up soldiers to entertain the tourists–there is no threat to their national security.
    For more on the draft, please visit

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks, Brian!

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks, Scott — I stand corrected

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: