conscientious objection

Conscientious objection in East Germany

There was a high level of conscientious objection in East Germany.

Introduction of conscription

In April 1962 the GDR government introduced military conscription. The period of compulsory service was at least 18 months, and adult males between 18 and 26 were eligible. Service in the National People's Army (in German, abbreviated as NVA), the paramilitary forces of the People's Police and the motorised rifles regiment of the Ministry for State Security fulfilled this service obligation. (In the Federal Republic of Germany, conscription was introduced in 1958.)

In the first year, despite the possibility of imprisonment or worse, 231 draftees refused to serve. Most were members of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The number increased to 287 when the second year's cohort was conscripted.

The GDR's communist government viewed conscientious objectors as enemies of the state, and all 287 were arrested. When the country's influential Protestant Church protested, the government decided to provide a legal means for conscientious objectors to serve as non-combatants in the armed forces. It thus became the only Communist state in history to provide a non-combat alternative for pacifist citizens.


On 16 September 1963 the GDR government announced the formation of non-combat construction units, or Baueinheiten, to provide an alternative for conscripts who could not bear arms because of a personal objection to military service. The Bausoldaten lived in barracks and were subject to military discipline, but did not bear arms or participate in combat training. Their uniforms resembled those of the regular infantry with the symbol of a spade on their shoulder patches. Normally, construction units were isolated from soldiers in regular units to prevent the spread of pacifist ideas.

Though outwardly peaceful in appearance, soldiers in Baueinheiten were obliged to make a promise of loyalty in which they stated that they would "fight against all enemies and obey their superiors unconditionally", though this was replaced by an oath to "increase defence readiness" in the 1980s. Some units, however, were used to repair tanks and military equipment.

As of 1983, 0.6 percent of the NVA, about 1,400 people, served in Baueinheiten.

In a way, the NVA had found a way to channel pacifism into the development of the military.

However, once a soldier who had served in a construction unit re-entered civilian life, things were still difficult. Former construction soldiers were not allowed to pursue certain careers and were often turned down for university courses, despite the assurances of Communist leader Erich Honecker and the Minister for National Defence, Colonel General Heinz Hoffman, that these pacifist veterans were not subject to discrimination.

Reasons for the NVA's lack of tolerance of conscientious objectors

There were numerous reasons that the NVA needed as many soldiers as it could get.

On a practical level, the West German Bundeswehr was nearly three times the size of the NVA. Also, the NVA, as the second largest force in the Warsaw Pact, needed to remain strong as it had come to be viewed as the secondary protector of the Eastern Bloc, after the Soviet Union.

Ideologically, East Germany wished to appear democratic. It knew that most of its citizens yearned for the civil rights that West Germans enjoyed, and so needed to make East Germany look superior to stop this. A large military was one way to show this "superiority".

The East German Constitution acknowledged freedom of religion, and the government wished to make this freedom appear to be in force by allowing people to choose to serve in Baueinheiten.

Prague Spring

In 1968 Warsaw Pact states, with the tacit support but not direct involvement of East Germany, invaded Czechoslovakia and deposed Alexander Dubček in what came to be known as the Prague Spring.

This invasion appalled people all over the world, but especially East Germans, many of whom felt guilty for letting their government support it. Following the Prague Spring, many young East German men refused to serve even in Baueinheiten, as they felt that something akin to another Prague Spring could be just around the corner, and they wished to play no part in it.

Leaving East Germany

Between 1984 and 1985, 71,000 East Germans were expelled from the country for participation in civil rights movements. Many people who wished to emigrate from East Germany would do things such as refuse to serve in the NVA to be put on the "black list" and expelled.

By the late 1980s, the vast majority of conscientious objectors were people who wished to emigrate.



  • Bernd Eisenfeld: Kriegsdienstverweigerung in der DDR - ein Friedensdienst? Genesis, Befragung, Analyse, Dokumentation. Haag+Herchen, Frankfurt 1978. ISBN 3-88129-158-X.

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