Were there German conscientious objectors for reasons of conscience

German defense policy

Patrick Bernhard

to person

Dr. Patrick Bernhard is a historian and research assistant at the Center for Research on Contemporary History (ZFF) in Potsdam. He researches, teaches and publishes, among other things, on West German social history, the Cold War and consumer culture.

Conscientious objection has been a basic right in Germany since 1949. But those who refused to use the weapon were for a long time ostracized as "slackers" and had to do a civilian alternative service. This developed into a pillar of the German social system.

Controversial from the start: people demonstrated against rearmament and military service on March 24, 1956 in Munich, organized by the "International of War Service Opponents". (& copy picture-alliance)

With the suspension of compulsory military service in 2011, community service also came to an end. More than 2.5 million young men who had refused military service in the Bundeswehr for reasons of conscience worked as alternative community service in hospitals, old people's homes and other social institutions. Long attacked as "slackers", conscientious objectors were only gradually accepted by German politics and society from the 1970s onwards. Dealing with them also showed that the much sought-after "zero hour" of pacifism never existed in Germany after the National Socialist dictatorship and the Second World War. Rather, it took years before attitudes towards war, the military and nonviolence began to change in West Germany.


Conscientious objection in the GDR

In contrast to the Federal Republic of Germany, there was no constitutionally guaranteed right to conscientious objection or equivalent military service in the GDR until the spring of 1990. In 1962, 18 months of military service had become compulsory for all male GDR citizens. Since 1964, they had the option of refusing to use weapons, but they remained soldiers: As so-called construction or spade soldiers, they had to do mainly physically strenuous work, as Rüdiger Wenzke writes in his text on the NVA.

The filthy children of the Bonn Republic: conscientious objectors before 1968

Until 1968, conscientious objection was a completely marginal socio-political issue. For most young men it was the norm to do their service in the newly established Bundeswehr. The few thousand who made use of their constitutional right to conscientious objection every year and preferred to do community service were seen as social outsiders.


Article 12a GG

Conscription and alternative service

(1) Men can be obliged to serve in the armed forces, in the Federal Border Guard or in a civil defense association from the age of eighteen.

(2) Anyone who refuses military service with a weapon for reasons of conscience can be obliged to do alternative service. The duration of alternative service may not exceed the duration of military service. The details are regulated by a law that must not impair freedom of conscience and must also provide for the possibility of alternative service that is not related to the associations of the armed forces and the Federal Border Guard.

(3) Conscripts who are not involved in a service according to Paragraph 1 or 2 may, in the case of defense, be obliged by law or on the basis of a law to provide civilian services for defense purposes, including the protection of the civilian population in employment relationships; Obligations in public-law employment relationships are only permitted for the performance of police tasks or such sovereign tasks of the public administration that can only be fulfilled in public-law employment relationships. Employment relationships according to sentence 1 can be established with the armed forces, in the area of ​​their supply as well as with the public administration; Obligations in employment relationships in the area of ​​supplying the civilian population are only permissible in order to cover their vital needs or to ensure their protection.

(4) If, in the case of defense, the need for civilian services in civilian medical and medical services as well as in the permanent military hospital organization cannot be met on a voluntary basis, women from the age of eighteen to the age of fifty-fifth can do so by law or on the basis of a statute Services are used. Under no circumstances should you be obliged to serve with a weapon.

(5) For the period prior to the state of defense, obligations under Paragraph 3 can only be established in accordance with Article 80a Paragraph 1. In preparation for services according to paragraph 3, for which special knowledge or skills are required, participation in training events can be made compulsory by law or on the basis of a law. Sentence 1 does not apply in this respect.

(6) If, in the case of defense, the need for workers for the areas mentioned in paragraph 3 sentence 2 cannot be met on a voluntary basis, the freedom of the Germans to give up the exercise of a profession or the job can be made by law or by a Restricted by law. Before the occurrence of a state of defense, paragraph 5 sentence 1 applies accordingly.



Hardly anyone in Bonn had expected this after the violent disputes over rearmament. But there were good reasons why so few turned their backs on the Bundeswehr. This was not only because conscientious objection was one of the least known basic rights at the time. In addition, despite the World War and National Socialism, the military in large parts of the population had not lost the amount of prestige that is commonly assumed. On the contrary: Even among young people, the "Bund" was still regarded as a valuable educational institution for imparting civic values ​​such as discipline, order and obedience, for which the military had stood since the 19th century.

In addition, not a few young men found it deeply "unmanly" to do work in community service that was considered to be classic women's tasks, such as caring for sick people. This is shown, for example, by essays that students wrote as part of their ethics and religion classes. Traditional notions of gender roles were by no means dissolved in the post-war period. Conversely, after 1945, refusers still had the odium of cowardly "shirking". This was a stereotype that was known as early as the 19th century and was once again fueled considerably by National Socialist propaganda. More than 30,000 soldiers had been sentenced to death or long imprisonment for desertion and refusal. After 1945, politics and the judiciary cemented the slacker cliché by not rehabilitating the deserters of the Wehrmacht - this only finally happened in 2009. The Cold War finally played an extremely important role in this context. Under the impression of the threat from the Warsaw Pact states, it was easy to stigmatize objectors as "Moscow's fifth column".

Source text

The rehabilitation of conscientious objectors in the Wehrmacht

With the amendment of the law for the repeal of National Socialist judgments in criminal justice (NS-AufhG) of September 24th, 2009 deserters and conscientious objectors of the armed forces were officially and fully rehabilitated.

"§ 1This law revokes convicting criminal court decisions that were made in violation of elementary ideas of justice after January 30, 1933 to enforce or maintain the National Socialist regime of injustice for political, military, racial, religious or ideological reasons underlying proceedings will be discontinued. "

Source: Law to Repeal National Socialist Injustice Judgments in the Administration of Criminal Justice (NS-AufhG)



"Inquisition of conscience" and military community service

The state examination commissions, which conscientious objectors had to face, also deterred many. The mothers and fathers of the Basic Law decided in 1949 that only so-called pacifists of principle, who rejected the service of the weapon as absolutely incompatible with their conscience, should be recognized. To ensure this, the Bundeswehr bureaucracy set up its own judicial review apparatus. Before state commissions, the refusal had to explain conclusively why he could not reconcile the arms service with his basic conceptions of good and evil. The burden of proof was not on the state, but on the applicant. The state auditors often cross-examined him; At the time, critics spoke of an inquisition of conscience. The oral hearing represented a huge psychological hurdle, especially for young people from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

The community service launched at the beginning of the 1960s also had a decidedly deterrent effect. That was quite deliberate, because from the start Konrad Adenauer's government had the goal of making civilian service as unattractive as possible and thus preventing conscripts from refusing to do so in the interests of the Bundeswehr. In a confidential note, for example, Federal Interior Minister Robert Lehr, who was initially responsible for civilian service, promised that he would "ensure that the refusal to do this service outside of the armed forces would be spoiled". The institution thus became an important adjustment screw with which the government wanted to control the personnel situation of the armed forces. In fact, conscientious objectors were housed closed in civil service and were subject to relatively strict discipline and controls, modeled on the Bundeswehr.

The fact that community service was an unloved child of the Bonn Republic for a long time is shown above all by the fact that it was poorly administered in the early days. It started with the examination process. On the one hand, a wide range of grievances resulted in the recognition process taking an average of two years. On the other hand, due to personnel shortages, not all civil service conscripts could actually be called up until 1967. This had fatal consequences for the image of refusers: Because they often did no service at all, they were once again seen as slackers. Regardless of these problems, there was no fundamental change in civil service in Bonn.

Source text

The examination procedure

Between 1956 and 1984 all conscientious objectors had to go through a multi-stage test procedure.

First of all, the applicant had to justify conclusively in the form of a written application why he could not serve the weapon for reasons of conscience. This was followed by an oral hearing and questioning by a review commission. If the application was rejected there, the case went to a test chamber. Both instances were assigned to the responsible military area administration and thus to the Bundeswehr. If the application was also rejected by the test chamber, the only option left for the applicant was to go to a proper administrative court.

It was only with the amendment to the Law on Conscientious Objection in 1984 that the test procedure for "unserved conscripts" was replaced by a simplified recognition procedure. Oral hearings were only given in cases of justified doubt. For active soldiers, however, the previous examination procedure continued to apply.



Diverse change: The community service in the turbulent sixties

The situation only began to move when pretty much everything seemed to change in 1968. On the one hand, the radical part of the student movement discovered both the armed forces and civil service as effective fields of agitation. In order to undermine the federal German defense system, the Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (APO) called for mass refusal. The aim was to withdraw the necessary recruits from the Bundeswehr and to completely collapse the civil service, which was already suffering from organizational problems, with a huge onslaught. In addition, unrest should be carried into both institutions. In fact, in this way, community service also became the scene of the "68" revolt. As in the universities, there were sit-ins, squatting and demonstrations in West German hospitals and old people's homes. On the other hand, the number of objectors rose - less as a result of the student protests than as a result of a disproportionately broader social change, as a result of which more and more young people turned their backs on the Bundeswehr. Previously there were only a few thousands a year who refused to use the weapon, mainly for religious reasons, but since the end of the 1960s the number has steadily increased. The motives of the objectors varied, as shown by sociological surveys, self-testimony by objectors and secret inquiries by the Department of Defense. For many, the nuclear arms race under the sign of the Cold War was crucial. With the efforts of social liberal détente, this motive gained even more weight. Now that their own government was negotiating an understanding and peace with the Soviet Union, many of them no longer saw joining the Bundeswehr. Others had primarily social motives. They no longer decided against military service solely for reasons of conscience, but also for community service out of social responsibility. This increased social commitment was no doubt related to the unprecedented economic growth after 1945 and the expansion of the federal German welfare state from the late 1960s onwards that this made possible. Increased prosperity under the sign of the economic miracle and the state's efforts to provide collective services not only promoted individual claims towards the state, but also gave rise to a new awareness of their own social responsibility in society. Still others decided to do community service for more private reasons. What spoke against the Bundeswehr, for example, was life in the barracks, the daily drill and the pronounced hierarchical structures based on orders and obedience.

The fact that more and more young people no longer wanted to go to the "school of masculinity", but preferred to do work in community service that were considered to be classic women's activities, ultimately refers to the gradually changing understanding of gender since the late 1960s. At least more and more young men no longer saw their own role model being called into question through work such as nursing.

Preventing Social Change: Restrictive Reforms after 1969

Politicians and the military perceived this complex change as a threat. The external security of the Bundeswehr is at risk, explained the Christian Democratic defense politician Manfred Wörner in 1977 in the Bundestag. Ultimately, the country fell in the back of NATO, which was increasingly threatened by Soviet armament. But more than that: For many, the rising number of refusals is not only endangering the country's military security. The social-liberal government in office since 1969 even saw this as a sign of a much broader social crisis. Willy Brandt understood this to mean the "internal turning away" of a larger part of the youth from the "duties that are required of them by the state and society", as he explained in his declaration on security policy in March 1971 in the Bundestag. For the Federal Chancellor, military service was still the norm and its refusal an expression of a lack of civic loyalty - a view in which he knew he was in agreement with many Christian Democrats.

The civil service policy of the federal governments in the following two decades was correspondingly technocratic to restrictive. In order to push the number of objectors down again, Bonn extended civil service compared to military service. From 1973 onwards, people doing civil service had to serve one month longer, and in the mid-1980s even up to five months longer than those doing military service. Only in 2004 was the length of service adjusted again. In return for the increase in the length of service, the Kohl government replaced the previous examination procedure with a simple written assessment procedure for the majority of those who refused to work. However, this was not done out of consideration for the conscientious objectors. Rather, it was about relieving the state administration of the cumbersome and inefficient examination procedure.

The socio-political arrangement and its unexpected side effects

However, social change could not be stopped. On the contrary: the number of conscientious objectors rose continuously in the following years and in 2001 was no less than 180,000. At the same time, the reputation of this group in German society grew. As surveys show, the slacker cliché vanished within a short time and the majority gave way to a very positive assessment of conscientious objectors."Zivis", as the young men without weapons were almost affectionately called from the 1980s onwards, became the real "everyday heroes", since they were now considered to be an indispensable aid in the "care crisis" prevailing in the Federal Republic.

It took a long time for politicians to come to terms with this development. It was not until the end of the 1970s that a rethink set in, which was, however, based purely on considerations of utility: Because the government had now recognized that it could not reduce the number of refusers, it used the civilian alternative to military service as a control instrument in the welfare sector. Social problems should be alleviated with the help of conscientious objectors. The state tried to initiate a fundamental restructuring of the social system through this institution: Primarily for cost reasons - the background was the global economic crisis that began in 1974 - the expensive inpatient care was to be replaced by the cheaper outpatient care. The inexpensive use of semi-skilled community service providers seemed to be particularly suitable for this. Indeed, from the end of the 1970s onwards, the charities and municipal welfare organizations set up services such as "Meals on Wheels", which were largely based on the work of conscientious objectors.

At the same time, however, the social associations became heavily dependent. The suspension of compulsory military service in 2011 made this problem extremely urgent, as this decision also meant that community service was discontinued. There is still no scientific knowledge about the long-term effects on social and health services. It therefore remains to be seen whether the much smaller federal voluntary service, which has replaced civilian service, can close the resulting gaps in social work. The historical review has always shown one thing: The social change manifested so impressively at the end of the 1960s in the increasing numbers of refusers has long-term repercussions on the social system and thus on a core area of ​​the federal German state.


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