How were conscientious objectors treated in World War II

Third Reich, Federal Republic, GDR Conscientious objection in Germany

On August 9, 1941, the 39-year-old conscientious objector Ernst Volkmann died by guillotine in the Brandenburg-Görden prison. The Catholic from Bregenz in Vorarlberg had refused to take the oath of Adolf Hitler after being drafted into the Wehrmacht and described the oath of the "Führer" as a "violation of his moral freedom" before the Reich Court Martial. On the same day, two other religiously motivated conscientious objectors, a Jehovah's Witness and a Reform Adventist, were beheaded in Brandenburg.

"Decomposition of the Defense Force"

In all three cases, the guilty verdict of the Reich judges was "undermining military strength", a criminal offense that the National Socialists only created in 1938 with the so-called War Special Criminal Law Ordinance. Those who are found guilty face execution.

In addition to tens of thousands of people accused of defeatism or self-mutilation by the Nazi regime, around 8,000 conscientious objectors were convicted of "undermining military strength" in the course of the war. A large number of them are executed. The exact number is not known. It is known, however, that by May 1945 at least 20,000 death sentences were carried out in the Wehrmacht alone. Around 15,000 concern deserters, including conscientious objectors.

Basic right to conscientious objection

Above all, the experience with the rigid war criminal law of the Nazi regime after 1945 ensured that conscientious objection and conscientious objection took on a previously unknown status in West Germany. In 1946, the states of Bavaria, Berlin and Hesse enshrined the right to refuse military service in their state constitutions. After fierce controversy, when the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949, the right to conscientious objection was even enshrined in the Basic Law. The Federal Republic is the first state in the world to declare such a right a fundamental right.

Alternative civilian service in the west

After the creation of the Bundeswehr in 1955, the Compulsory Military Service Act of 1956 stipulates that conscientious objectors should do alternative civilian service outside the armed forces instead of military service. Alternatively, a service without a weapon in the troops can be requested. In 1960 the Federal Constitutional Court made it clear that military service training, i.e. military service, could also be refused.

However, West German objectors have to pass an examination of their conscience for almost three decades. Only after a change in the law in 1983 is this only demanded if soldiers apply for conscientious objection during or after their military service. For this, the civil service in the Federal Republic is increased from 16 to 20 months in the same year. It thus lasts five months longer than the military service at the time, which has been reduced from the original 18 to 15 months.

Voluntariness in the east

In contrast to the Federal Republic of Germany, from the beginning there was no right to conscientious objection in the GDR. However, there is initially no conscription in eastern Germany. In coordination with the leading Soviet power, the GDR government decided not to introduce general conscription even after the National People's Army was officially founded in 1956.

The NVA initially remains a pure volunteer army. However, the specified commitment figures cannot be reached at any point in time. The pressure on young men in eastern Germany to join the armed forces "voluntarily" is therefore so great that thousands are encouraged to flee to the west. As long as the borders with the Federal Republic of Germany are open, the SED therefore shies away from the step of introducing general conscription, which has existed in the Federal Republic since 1956, also in the GDR.

GDR conscription after the wall was built

Only with the construction of the wall on August 13, 1961 did the conditions suddenly change. In the same month, on August 28, 1961, the National Defense Council of the GDR decided to introduce general conscription.

One month later, the People's Chamber passed the Defense Act, which stipulates the strengthening of defense capabilities. On January 24, 1962, the GDR's compulsory military service law was passed by the People's Chamber. It sets the basic military service to 18 months. The GDR leadership consciously orientates itself on the military service time of the Bundeswehr, which one does not want to exceed under any circumstances.

No service without a weapon

Unlike in western Germany, it is not initially possible in the GDR to legally evade service with a weapon. A civil service as in the Federal Republic is not provided. Opponents of military service and conscription are flatly ostracized by the SED as "enemies of peace and socialism". Social pressure is exerted on them. Anyone who sticks to their stance of refusal faces jail.

When the first conscripts entered the NVA barracks in April 1962, the Ministry of Defense registered 231 conscientious objectors and 60 refusal to oath the pledge. In the years to come, the numbers will even increase. In 1964 1,500 conscripts were registered who refused to work with weapons. Most of them give reasons for belief. As in the Third Reich, there are many Jehovah's Witnesses among them.

Prison sentences for objectors

The GDR leadership is nevertheless determined to enforce compulsory military service by all means. Refusals are handed over to military justice. If convicted, there is a risk of up to three years imprisonment. Usually the judgments are slightly above the basic military service period of 18 months. The period of imprisonment is, however, not counted towards the military service to be performed, so that after the release from the penal system a renewed call-up and, in the case of repeated refusal, a renewed conviction to a further prison sentence can follow.

Construction soldier service is introduced

It is above all the churches in the GDR that have protested against these conditions from the start. They are soon calling for legal protection for those who refuse military service with a weapon because of their moral or religious attitudes. The imprisonments also cause unrest among the population and damage the image of the GDR to the outside world.

Two years after the introduction of compulsory military service, the political and military leadership of the GDR reacted. On September 7, 1964, the National Defense Council ordered building units to be set up in which conscripts could do military service without a weapon. The GDR is the only country in the Warsaw Treaty in which something like this is possible. However, there was no real community service like in the West until 1989.

Total refusals and denials of pledge

Instead, the construction soldiers, who can be recognized by a spade symbol on their epaulets, are regular soldiers of the NVA, who also have to take a special vow. In addition, they are initially mainly used in the construction of military facilities. That is why there are still young men who refuse such service. These total objectors - here too, the majority of Jehovah's Witnesses - must continue to face criminal prosecution. On top of that, not everyone who is ready for unarmed service in the NVA is also drawn into a building unit. Ultimately, the alternative defense organs decide on this. Anyone who finds himself in a regular armed unit against his will and refuses to serve there will also be prosecuted by the military justice system. The same applies to those construction soldiers who refuse to take the pledge they have asked for.

6,000 objectors by 1989

Against this background, the problem of total objectors remains for the GDR. In total there are around 6,000 conscripts who completely refused to serve in the NVA between 1962 and 1989. More than half of them are convicted for it. Again, most of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

From 1985 onwards there were also more and more people who wanted to force an exit to the West through total refusal and imprisonment. In the same year, however, the number of convictions fell significantly. The political leadership around state and party leader Erich Honecker feels compelled to mediate between the interests of the military leadership, which wants to enforce conscription consistently, and the protests of the churches. The result is unsatisfactory for all parties. So there is still action against total objectors, but only some are sentenced to imprisonment, while others go unpunished. Only after the peaceful revolution in 1989 did the persecution of conscientious objectors in the GDR end.

The end of conscription

After German reunification in 1990, military service in the enlarged Federal Republic was initially reduced to twelve, then to ten and finally to nine months. The length of community service is also being reduced more and more, before it is also only nine months from 2005. In 2011, general conscription will be completely suspended in Germany.