"Do something for the country": debate about compulsory social service

«Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country». The famous sentence from the inaugural speech of former US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 is still used today.

A discussion regularly boils up in Germany about whether people should do compulsory service, for example in the social sector. This time, Federal President Frank Walter-Steinmeier initiated the debate. However, the proposal has met with widespread rejection.

“It’s about the question of whether it would not be good for our country if women and men put themselves in the service of society for a certain period of time,” Steinmeier told the “Bild am Sonntag”.

Approximately 100,000 volunteers

Since conscription was suspended in 2011, and with it the civil service, there have only been voluntary services in Germany: for young people the voluntary social year, the voluntary ecological year and the international youth voluntary service. There is also the Federal Volunteer Service for people of all ages.

At the moment, almost 100,000 people are doing youth or federal voluntary service – mostly young people. According to a government spokesman, there are no plans to introduce compulsory service. However, the voluntary services should be expanded “in line with demand”.

Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) had already tweeted on Sunday: “There will be no compulsory service with us.” On Monday, she reiterated, referring to the Kennedy quote: “This can only result from a free decision. We don’t have the right to decide on young people’s lives.”

There was also a rejection from the Greens: “We should make a social year, a volunteer year, so attractive that it makes sense for everyone to do it,” said party leader Ricarda Lang. For example, one could make the use more creditable for the pension or the payment more attractive.

More pocket money

The traffic light coalition had already announced in its coalition agreement that it would increase pocket money in voluntary services. Anyone who works as a “Bufdi” (Federal Volunteer Service) currently receives “pocket money” of a maximum of 423 euros per month.

Welfare organizations also made it clear that they do not believe in compulsory operations. Then you would also have to “recruit people who don’t want to at all and who are perhaps also unsuitable. We don’t want that, »said the general manager of the joint general association, Ulrich Schneider, on SWR. In a nursing home, for example, the residents and relatives cannot be expected to do this.

Get out of your own bubble

Steinmeier initiated the debate on the grounds that compulsory service could strengthen the community: “Especially now, at a time when understanding of other life plans and opinions is decreasing, compulsory social service can be particularly valuable. You get out of your own bubble, meet completely different people, help citizens in need. That breaks down prejudices and strengthens the sense of community.”

There are “considerable arguments” for such a view of things, said former Bundestag President Norbert Lammert (CDU) of the German Press Agency. The current chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation criticized a “remarkably quick and harsh reaction” to the initiative. The rejection was “premature”.

But even if there were the political will to introduce compulsory service, implementation would be difficult. According to the scientific service of the Bundestag, the Basic Law would have to be changed. This would require a two-thirds majority in the Bundestag and Bundesrat.

Article 12 of the Basic Law states: “No one may be forced to do a specific job, except within the framework of a conventional general public service obligation that is the same for everyone.” Accordingly, “conventional” only includes areas such as the fire brigade or dike protection. Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) brought another argument: “We suffer from a shortage of skilled workers everywhere. That’s where young people belong in training, studies or work, not in occupational therapy.”

Survey: Young people tend to be against compulsory military service

According to a survey, young people in Germany are rather skeptical about general compulsory military service. According to a survey by the TUI Foundation, 49 percent of 16 to 26-year-olds are against it, and 40 percent support such a requirement. The result is part of the foundation’s unpublished youth study 2022 and was available to the German Press Agency. Respondents were asked whether they would support or oppose the introduction of compulsory military service for all citizens, either in the military or in another non-profit sector.

14 percent support the introduction of such a service “completely”, 26 percent “rather”. 24 percent reject an obligation “completely”, 25 percent “rather”. According to the foundation, approval is significantly higher in the countryside than in the city – by 8 percentage points. In Germany, approval is also slightly above the European average. It is strongest in France and Greece.

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