At any other moment in modern European history, the following story would be big news: “Germany to abolish compulsory military service“.
A continual theme in the history of Europe is the sheer destructiveness of warfare – one third of the German and Czech populations died during the 30 years’ war, for example, and think of all the cultural treasures that have been lost.
And a continual theme of the modern history of Europe is the fear of Germany in such wars. The unification of Germany in the second half of the 19th century led to much larger wars with much larger protagonists, and Germany’s neighbours were permanently in fear of its military prowess. The Versailles treaty of 1919 placed a maximum size on the German army, forbade it modern weapons, and abolished conscription.
But that fear exists no longer. The shattering experience of the second world war in Germany led to a renewal of the German national idea, one that was firmly based in the idea of a democratic and united Europe. The armed forces of western European countries were no longer seen as threats to each other but rather as a common resource to resist threats from outside.
And in that spirit, Germany now proposes to reduce the size of its army. By doing so, it can save money and also create greater capacity for action on an expeditionary basis, making it easier to support stability in countries on the borders of the European Union. Britain and France have already done this: that Germany is making the move is welcome.
But think of the historical resonances. Go back 100 years, and the size of the German military was a matter of major concern for Britain. The rapid expansion of the Germany navy, for example, was seen as a substantial strategic threat to the British empire and the Royal Navy’s ability to protect it. It even seized the attention of popular novels such as “The riddle of the sands”.
Today, the reduction in the size of the German army and the ending of conscription get modest notice in the newspapers rather than celebration. That’s how far Europe has come in burying the fears of the past, in building a new unity together. It is easy to take it for granted.