Conscientious objection in Germany

Antimilitarist weapon or individualist right?


After World War II, Germany granted the right to CO in its new constitution. Article 4 paragraph 3 says: „Noone can be forced against his conscience to perform war service with weapons." However, in practise it looks a little bit more complicated. In this article I want to outline the development of CO in Germany and raise some questions which occur to me today.

After the defeat of Nazi-Germany the country was ripped of its army and demilitarised. Most people didn’t want serve as soldiers in a new war, no German politician dared to talk publicly about a new German army – although plans were made quite early. Altough the new German constitution of 1949 in the beginning didn’t include any provisions for conscription, it was not that easy to get the right to CO into the constitution – as some politicians feared this might cause problem in case of war.

Although the introduction of the new German army met with mass resistance in the beginning of the 1950s, after the introduction of conscription in 1957 there were only very few people who applied for CO. In the first three years – 1956 to 1958, just 2,500 CO applications were made. CO got visible as a broader movement only in the late 1960s as a result of the students’ uprise and the movement against the US war in Vietnam. One important reason for this was the discussion on the „Emergency Laws" in Germany, which included the use of the army in internal affairs in cases of emergency. This lead not only to an increase of CO applications – they almost doubled from 1967 to 1968 – but also to a politisation of many COs.

In the beginning the German army authorities reacted to the increase of CO applications by calling up COs early – before their application was decided – and the percentage of successful applications decreased from 70 % in the 60s to only 48 % (1970) or 41 % (1973). CO became a political issue in Germany. In 1974 nonviolent action groups around the magazine ‘Graswurzelrevolution’ form a „Committee for persecuted conscientious objectors" to support COs who have not been accepted or called-up early. It soon got overloaded with work, and other groups – the traditional pacifist organisation and CO organisation, especially the churches – joint the work to support COs. Also from 1974 the first political total objectors appeared, who refused to perform either military or substitute service.

This political pressure from the grassroots led to a new CO law. The first draft failed because the president of Germany refused to sign it. The second one introduced the so-called „application by card", which meant the abolishment of all commissions to decide on CO applications and acceptance by just sending a postcard. This law came into force on 1.8.78, and the total of applications almost doubled because of this. However, only a few month’s later this law was stopped by the German constitutional court because of an appeal by the Christian Democrats.

CO applications in Germany since 1956


Graph CO applications in Germany


With the new peace movement of the early 80s, mainly directed against new nuclear weapons, the CO movement „disappears" as part of this movement. CO itself stopps to be the main issue of the peace movement. In 1983 the new Christian Democrat Government introduces a new CO law, which almost abolishes the practise of CO commissions (in most cases the application is decided on the base of the written application of the CO), but the cost is a much longer substitute service, now always 1/3 longer than military service. As a result the total of CO applications briefly dropped, but from the mid-80s on it again started to rise, and today almost 40 % of those capable of doing their military service apply for CO status.

In the 80s the policy concerning COs totally changed. Although still some politicians favoured a repressive approach, the main policy was one of depolitisation and using CO as an outlet for antimilitarists. As there was no shortage of conscripts anyway – in fact people who didn’t apply for CO had a good chance to avoid military service, because they weren’t ‘needed’ – it was easy for the military to accept a high level of COs, as long as this didn’t influence the military’s policy. At the same time the image of COs totally changed. They have been called „shirkers" in the 70s and early 80s, but later they got accepted as „civilian servants". What got lost was the image of COs as antimilitarists. While during the Gulf War 1990/91 the number of CO applications increased remarkably – from 75,000 in 1990 to 150,000 in 1991 – the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia doesn’t show in the CO statistics. CO doesn’t seem to be a political weapon any more...

Total objection in Germany

Total objection out of political reasons started in Germany in 1974. While CO is mainly a legal way to avoid military service, total objection refuses to accept any duties which are a result of conscription, and therefore total objectors not only refuse military service, but also „civilian service" as its substitute. § 3 of the German law on conscription reads „Conscription is fullfilled by performing military service or ... civilian service." Resistance to conscription therefore included resistance to civilian service.

Total objection in Germany never really developed into a mass movement. In the beginning, almost all pacifist organisations didn’t support total objectors, as they focussed on legal CO. DFG-VK (German Peace Society – United War Resisters), the largest WRI affiliate in Germany, took until the early 1990s to decide to support total objectors on the federal level.

Total objectors met with massive state repression. It was seen as „desertion" or „fleeing from civilian service", and total objectors often ended up in jail for several month. In the beginning, very often total objectors got a second call-up to military or civilian service after serving their prison term, and got a second sentence, often even higher than the first one. When I refused to perform my civilian service in the middle of the 80s, some 30–40 total objectors could be counted every year. This didn’t change very much today, and still total objectors are the radical thorn of the antimilitarist movement, but without much support by the broader movement.

Deserters of World War II

Still very controversial is the issue of German deserters from World War II. The total number is still unknown, some 10,000 were sentenced to death by the Nazis, many ended up in concentration camps or special army units and died there.

After 1945, of course no further prison sentences have been enforced. But at the same time deserters who survived haven’t been rehabilitated. They neither got reparation for the time they spent in prison or concentration camps, nor did wives of deserters who didn’t survive get any pensions.

The issue of World War II deserters was a „non-issue" until the 1980s. Then some peace groups started to work on the issue, to search for deserters who survived, and in some cities groups called for monuments for „unknown deserters" or even builded monuments on their own – like in Bremen or Bonn.

The issue of World War II deserters was highly controversial because it challenged many older Germans who readily performed their military service in World War II. The existence of deserters showed that there was an other way, and therefore raised the question of responsiblity of „normal" soldiers. This controversy came up again with the exhibition on „Crimes of the German army during World War II", which was shown in the 1990s in many German cities and challenged the „myth" that the army just fought a „normal" war – even for unjustifyable reasons – and wasn’t involved in war crimes.

The issue of deserters and of war crimes committed by the German army is proof that the German society until today didn’t come to terms with the crimes Germany committed during World War II.

The „new" German army and COs

With NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia in spring 1999, Germany for the first time since 1945 participated in a war. At the same time this war showed the weakness of the German peace movement, and the fact that there was no reasonable increase in CO applications poses further questions to the antimilitarist movement.

The German army today is highly professionalised, and although conscription still exists (how long is not clear), the army doesn’t depend on conscripts any more. While CO today is widely accepted as an individual right – and in public opinion it is not regared as CO, but as a free choice between military and civilian service without political implications – it is not clear today in which way CO can still be an antimilitarist weapon (at least in Germany).

At the same time the state still fears desertion. A public call for desertion, published by some peace movement activists at the beginning of the war, presently leads to some 20 to 30 trials against peace activists, and some already have been sentenced.

It presently is a big challenge for the German peace movement to reformulate CO strategies in times of a professional German army and depolitisized COs. However, this challenge is widely avoided. High time to face it.


Andreas Speck



Andreas Speck is total objector and presently on the executive of War Resisters’ International. From 1995 to 1999 he was editor of the nonviolent-anarchist magazine ‘Graswurzelrevolution’.