Conscientious objection in East Germany

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Shoulder board of East German soldier Construction Unit (Bausoldat)

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


Introduction of conscription

In April 1962 conscription began in East Germany. This conscription was for at least 18 months and adult males between 18 and 26 were eligible.

Facing the possibility of imprisonment or worse from the Stasi, 231 draftees, almost all of them Jehovah's Witnesses, refused to serve. By the time of the second draft, that number had risen to 287.

The communist government viewed conscientious objectors as enemies of the state, and all 287 were arrested.

However, nearly 80% of East Germans were, at least nominally, Protestants, and when the church protested, the government decided to take a different approach to dealing with conscientious objectors.


On September 16, 1963, the National People's Army (German: Nationale Volksarmee or NVA) introduced Baueinheiten, construction units, who wore grey uniforms with spades on their shoulder patches. Draftees who served in Baueinheiten did not use weapons. Soldiers in Baueinheiten, however, 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. They still, however, repaired tanks and other things that were used in military operations.

As of 1983, 0.6% 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, even once a soldier who had served in a Baueinheit reentered civilian life, things were still difficult. Former Baueinheit members were not allowed to pursue certain careers and were often turned down for university courses, despite Erich Honecker and Heinz Hoffman's insistence that the opposite was true.

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, East Germany, along with other members of the Warsaw Pact, 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 carry it out. 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.

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