Alternative Service and the Danger of Depoliticisation


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Andreas Speck1

Conscientious objection to military service is a political act against militarism.  It is a tool available to the antimilitarist movement – and to the individual – in the political struggle against war and militarism and for disarmament and the creation of a more peaceful and just society.  Or at least that is how many politically active conscientious objectors and War Resisters' International (WRI) see it.  In this light, the act of conscientious objection is inherently political – an expression of opposition or even resistance to militarism. However, experience shows that it does not have to be that way. This article looks at the example of Germany to highlight the dangers of turning conscientious objection to military service from a political act into a question of personal service preference, void of political content and relevance.

Conscientious objection in (West) Germany: a synopsis

While between 1949 and 1990 there were two German states – one belonging to the Soviet bloc (the German Democratic Republic), and one belonging to 'The West' and NATO (the Federal Republic of Germany) – it was western Germany that basically took over the eastern German state in what is called the 'reunification' of Germany, and it was the western German legal, political and economic system that prevailed. Therefore, it seems warranted to disregard the specifics of the east German conscientious objection experience pre-reunification in this brief synopsis – an experience very different from the western one, but as unified Germany was built on the western model, the eastern experience is of less political relevance.

West Germany got the right to conscientious objection as a consequence of the second world war – even before it got its armed forces (Bundeswehr).  That right was enshrined in Article 4, paragraph 3 of the West German constitution of 1949.  However, it only became relevant with West German rearmament in 1955 and the reintroduction of conscription in 1956.  Before then – given the absence of German armed forces – it was merely a symbolic statement within the constitution.

A working paper by the Social Science Institute of the German Bundeswehr of 1994 distinguishes between distinct phases of conscientious objection,2 which make sense to me:

1956-1965: social deviance: numbers of conscientious objectors are low, and conscientious objectors are seen as exceptions, and 'socially deviant'. The majority of conscientious objectors at that time come from religious groups, with some political pacifists thrown in.  None of them were taken very seriously politically, and initially they were simply exempted from military service.  Only in 1960 was a law introducing a substitute service passed.

1966-1968: protagonists of a conscientious objection movement: the numbers of conscientious objectors double in just a few years. More importantly, conscientious objection becomes politicised alongside the student movement and the movement against the 'emergency laws' passed in 1968, which allow the use of the German armed forces in internal political conflicts.

1969-1976: diffusion of CO: the number of conscientious objectors doubles again.  The state attempts to make 'constructive use' of conscientious objectors in substitute service, while at the same time increasing repression: the recognition rate drops dramatically from about 70% to between 40 and 50% (higher on appeal).  From the mid 1970s on, the huge numbers of unrecognised objectors bring out new actors in support of conscientious objection – especially churches and human rights organisations.

1977-1983: stabilisation of conscientious objection as a social phenomenon: the numbers continue to increase slightly, but the main aspect is stabilisation. The first attempt to get rid of the inquisitive hearing for conscientious objectors was made in 1977, when the then social democrat led government introduces recognition by postcard.  However, this was scrapped by the constitutional court.  Six years later, the then conservative led government passed a law replacing the inquisitive hearing with an administrative procedure for most objectors, while at the same time extending the length of substitute service compared to military service.  The legislation comes into force in 1984.

After 1984: conscientious objection as mass phenomenon of social normality: after 1984, the numbers of objectors continue to rise and stabilise at a level of more than 100,000 objectors annually.  'During this time, the image the population had of conscientious objectors shifted: objectors were increasingly seen as persons performing a civilian service, something which the older generations also accepted.  This in turn had an impact on those subject to conscription: by now, a majority of those who reach conscription age consider objection – or performing  civilian service.  For this group, civilian service is no longer a substitute service, but an equally valid alternative to military service'.3

This did not change until conscription was finally suspended in 2011.

This could have been a success story – but it wasn't.  With the increase in numbers, conscientious objection in Germany lost any political relevance.  Not only did Germany not abolish conscription until 2011 (one of the very last states in the European Union to do so – a few are still holding onto it), but the phase of conscientious objection as a mass phenomenon was also accompanied – at least from 1990 – by an increased militarisation of German society and the increased use of the German armed forces in military operations – something which had been unimaginable, and prohibited by the then prevailing interpretation of the German constitution, until the mid-1980s. The German military’s involvement in the war against Yugoslavia in 1999 – the country’s first participation in a war since 1945 – was a first and important milestone in this development.

So what went wrong here?

Promoting substitute service as a positive alternative: who cares about antimilitarism?

Räder gives an important hint in his paper: there was a shift of perception in society from the mid-1980s on. People began to see and value conscientious objectors first and foremost as 'Zivildienstleistende' (persons performing a civilian service), thus as providing important social services.  The reason why they performed this service – their objection to military service – was not part of public consciousness and played an ever diminishing role in the consciousness of the conscientious objectors themselves, who merely saw their decision as a choice between two options.  This did not happen of its own accord, but was the consequence of interactions between tactical decisions by the mainstream conscientious objection movement organisations and government policy, which both contributed to this depoliticisation of conscientious objection as a political act and of many conscientious objectors as individuals.

The organised conscientious objection movement responded to the increased repression seen in the mid-1970s with different strategies:

•  A small minority took radical antimilitarist positions, and it was at the same time that total objection appeared as a political response – albeit on a very small scale.
•  Larger organisations such as the DFG-VK (Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft – Vereinigte Kriegsdienstgegner/innen: German Peace Society – United War Resisters) began to organise counselling on a large scale to help objectors master the application process.
•  Similarly, the churches, which got more involved from the mid 1970s on, organised counselling for objectors, while at the same time highlighting the positive contributions of objectors in public.  This was taken on board by many social democratic peace organisations.

The last two strategies – the ones with much stronger organisational backing – individualised and depoliticised conscientious objection, not necessarily consciously.  Far from seeing conscientious objection as a collective antimilitarist action, these strategies were based on an understanding of conscientious objection as a symbolic appeal of the individual conscience against military action.  The radical minority of antimilitarists and total objectors received little support from the mainstream, who not only saw substitute service as a legitimate imposition by the state, but highlighted its positive contributions to social services in their lobbying efforts.

When in 1983 the then conservative led government got rid of the inquisitive hearing for conscientious objectors and replaced it with a purely administrative application procedure combined with a substitute service of punitive length, the mainstream movement feared a renewed increase of repression (this author included).  However, in retrospect, it can be said that the government might have been clever than we thought: doing away with the inquisitive hearing did away at the same time away with one of the last visible repressive element of the application procedure, thus furthering the process of depoliticisation.

By the time conscription, and with it substitute service, were suspended in Germany, conscientious objection had completely disappeared as a political issue, in spite of more than 100,000 objectors annually, and the debate was about the problem of replacing 100,000 persons providing cheap labour to maintain social services. If anything, the high numbers of objectors in Germany delayed the suspension of conscription, if it had any relevance at all in the decision.

Other shortcomings of the conscientious objection movement: the omission of gender

There are other aspects where I think the conscientious objection movement –  in this case all of its tendencies – failed to get the balance right.  Even though ‘Rambo style’ extreme masculinity was almost entirely ridiculed not just in the conscientious objection movement, but in the broader peace movement and the 'alternative scene', which were culturally hegemonic in many areas, this did not extend to a gender analysis of militarism or military service.  However, this lack of political analysis does not mean that gender did not play a role when it came to the issue of conscientious objection.

As German researcher Hanne-Margret Birckenbach pointed out: 'Under the guise of “no to killing vs yes to killing for the purpose of defence”, conscientious objectors and those willing to perform military service argue not only about military violence, but also – without being aware of this – about ideals of masculinity'.4  This is a clear hint that issues of gender, masculinity and patriarchy are very relevant, and it can be asked whether a more gender aware political approach could have increased the political influence of the movement.

Those then performing substitute service did this mostly in areas usually considered 'feminine': caring for the ill, people with disabilities, and the elderly.  In this sense, while conscientious objection did not prevent Germany from becoming a global military actor again after reunification, it might have contributed to a slight shift in gender relations – possibly temporary and far from reaching the foundations of patriarchy.  A challenge for movements in other countries could be: how do you get both – demilitarisation and a shift in gender relations?

Could it have been different?

It is always difficult to provide answers to this question decades later.  But could the German movement have made different strategic choices, which would have prevented or minimised the depoliticising tendencies?

To some extent, depoliticisation is a consequence of almost any movement that gains mass support. Initially, it will always be mostly a core of very committed and politicised activists who form the movement. But when the movement gains mass appeal – and even cultural and/or political hegemony – people will join and take action just because it is what you do.  This is part of what happened in Germany.

However, on the other hand, the movement – or the main tendencies of it – did little to educate its grassroots or to promote antimilitarist perspectives and the need for a collective response.  The focus of counselling was mostly on helping individuals – as individuals – with the application process. It did not attempt to create collective responses, nor did it seek to empower individuals seeking counselling.  The response to discrimination against conscientious objectors through an inquisitorial application procedure was individualising, rather than a political and collective one.

Other responses focusing on a collective response and the collective empowerment of conscientious objectors are conceivable.  However, it is doubtful that the main conscientious objection organisations at the time would have been able – or even willing – to implement them, given their political or philosophical background. It would have required new organisations, or at least different organisations to take the lead. The German example is certainly extreme, and there are certainly differing interpretations.  Nevertheless, it had an impact in other countries.  In Spain, the conscientious objection movement carefully studied the German example and, to avoid its mistakes, they decided to opt for collective declarations and for total objection.

In other western European countries such as the Netherlands and many Scandinavian countries, we can observe a similar depoliticisation of conscientious objection, obviously with local differences (total objection in Finland comes to mind – see the relevant chapter in this book).  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German approach was also adopted in some eastern European countries, where the 'right to alternative service' (which does not exist in international law – a right to a duty) was introduced often in the absence of a conscientious objection movement and as part of a general human rights agenda.


Conscientious objection to military service has huge political potential within antimilitarist movements. However, whether this potential can come to fruition depends on the strategies adopted by the movement.  The German example is one that shows how this potential – initially visible from the mid 1960s on – can be sidelined and diminished such that the act itself becomes completely depoliticised.

The strategic issues relate to a difficult balancing act between the needs and demands of the individuals who face military service and want to object – which is necessarily an individual decision at first – and the need for collective decisions as an antimilitarist movement.  While no collective should (or can) make decisions which overrule the decisions of the individuals involved, the focus of the German movement on 'helping individuals' and its lack of understanding of conscientious objection as a political act and a political movement clearly failed to get this balancing act right. The political impact of the movement – in terms of antimilitarism – was therefore almost zero.

1  For background information on this author, see his previous chapter (The Impact of International Mechanisms in Local Cases: the example of Colombia).
Räder, Hans-Georg 1994, Kriegsdienstverweigerung im neuen Deutschland. Eine empirische Bestandsaufnahme [SOWI working paper], (Munich: SOWI).
3  Räder 1994.
Birckenbach, Hanne-Margret 1986, 'Das ambivalente Verhältnis zur Gewalt. Psychosoziale Grundlagen militärischer Kampfausbildung', in Antimilitarismus information, no 7/1986.

Go to next chapter: After Conscription

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