German military struggles to recruit
September 7, 2023 03:57 PM
Sports student Max Mueller is young, able and fit -- exactly the kind of recruit the German army could use. But he won't consider signing up, with the prospect even less appealing since the start of Russia's war on Ukraine.
"In the case a war breaks out, one is obliged to go," the 23-year-old told AFP.
"It could be that I will die."
For many young Germans, a military career is out of the question, highlighting the huge challenges for the Bundeswehr as it races to find new recruits.
Attracting new talent is an urgent task as officials seek to boost troop numbers and implement a much-needed overhaul of the armed forces following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Data highlight the challenge, with Defence Minister Boris Pistorius recently revealing the number of actual applications to the Bundeswehr fell by seven percent in the first five months of this year from a year earlier, even if requests for advice on signing up rose.
Desperate to turn the tide, the army has rolled out a slick advertising campaign, both online and offline, in recent months to get new blood in.
While German forces are not fighting in Ukraine, the proximity of the conflict has awoken old fears long buried in the decades after World War II.
Germany's participation in the NATO defence alliance also means that the country's troops have been called on to help police the fringes of the bloc bordering Russia, heightening the prospect of active combat.
Even among soldiers, there are reportedly few volunteers for a deployment to the eastern flank. Only one in five have willingly signed up for the fighting brigade that Germany is planning to station in Lithuania, according to a recent Spiegel report.
Not surprising then that in a post-war Germany that has long championed a pacifist stance, it was all the more difficult to get young people, used to comfortable lives in the prosperous EU nation, to enlist.
- 'Spoiled' generation -
Some remain enthusiastic nevertheless. Miguel Aydogan, 18, said he intended to pursue his "childhood dream" of joining the army.
Nor had the war in Ukraine, and the possibility he might one day be sent off to fight, put him off, he said -- far from it.
"That is why I am here -- so I can help," he told AFP, after a recent advice session at a military career centre in the western city of Essen.
The session that he attended is one of the first steps to joining the Bundeswehr, and involves officers running potential recruits through various options.
Beyond the traditional route of becoming a soldier, the military is seeking to fill other jobs ranging from technical roles to working as a chef, some "in uniform" and others in its civilian branch.
Lisa Hoffmann was also considering joining the Bundeswehr, possibly in the healthcare field. She "wants more" than her current job as a nurse can offer, she said.
But she recognised the difficulties for the military in attracting the younger generation.
Life in the barracks "simply scares off many young people," the 23-year-old told AFP after a visit to the Essen centre.
"No more 'Hotel Mama' -- that puts a lot of people off. Our generation is a little more spoiled."
- Demographic challenge -
Efforts to boost the military had actually already started before the Ukraine war, with a goal set several years ago of increasing troop numbers to 203,000 by 2031, from around 181,000 currently.
But Pistorius, who took up his post in January, last month conceded the figure was "ambitious" and said it was being reviewed.
Decades of underinvestment have left the Bundeswehr in a sorry state, with the scale of the problem laid bare in March when a top lawmaker tasked with scrutinising the military said it had too little of everything.
In the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has unveiled a special 100-billion-euro ($107 billion) fund in a bid to repair the longstanding issues.
The Bundeswehr also suffers from a reputational problem, after high-profile cases of far-right sympathies among members of the special forces.
And like for other sectors, the army is recruiting from a shrinking pool, as society ages.
"Demographic change is of course a huge (challenge)", said Captain Heiko O., a career adviser in Essen, whose work includes attending events to drum up interest and meeting potential recruits.
"We have fewer young people looking for jobs and many more employers, simply because the older generation is now retiring."