Europe Is Giving Compulsory Military Service Another Look

Europe Is Giving Compulsory Military Service Another Look
A soldier speaks to young men to promote military service at the start of obligatory medical qualification for military service, in Myslenice, Poland, Feb. 1, 2024 (photo by Dominika Zarzycka for NurPhoto via AP Images).

In February 2022, Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves across Europe, prompting in particular a major rethink of European defense and security arrangements. One of the options currently under serious consideration in several states, including Germany and France, is the reintroduction of compulsory military service, a defense policy long abandoned by Europe’s major powers. 

The origin of conscription dates back to the Napoleonic era, when large conventional forces were required to shore up relatively weak nation-states. It was also employed extensively in the run up to both world wars and throughout the Cold War. With the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, the threat of interstate war in Europe receded, leading most states to see conscription as an increasingly anachronistic approach to security and defense planning. Between 1990 and 2013, 24 European countries abandoned conscription in favor of wholesale professionalization of their militaries, while just 10 retained some form of compulsory military service.

But after a lengthy period in which interstate war appeared to be a thing of the past, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has quickly put it back at the top of the European security agenda. As a result, and in light of the industrial warfare that has characterized the conflict there, many European observers have argued for a return to more traditional defense arrangements, including larger conventional armies.

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