Could Immigrants Serve in the German Military? A New Take on Integration, National Identity, and Achieving Critical Security Objectives


After ending mandatory military service, Germany is struggling to fill its military ranks. The pressure to rethink recruitment strategies has led to some surprising policy proposals and raises broader question of whether Germany might consider recruiting non-citizens generally for military service.

This piece was first published by The German Marshall Fund as a follow up to the conference Mission Critical: Inclusive Leadership for the Security Sector.

In 2011, Germany ended mandatory military service for young men, a policy that had been in place since shortly after WWII. Now the country is struggling to fill its military ranks, an increasingly urgent need as international allies look to Germany to take on a larger role in Europe’s security architecture and in military alliances. The pressure to rethink recruitment strategies has led to some surprising policy proposals, including a Ministry of Defence December 2016 report suggesting, among other strategies, that the Bundeswehr begin admitting and actively recruiting citizens from other EU countries. While specific to EU citizens, the proposal raises the broader question of whether Germany might consider recruiting non-citizens generally for military service.

Recruiting non-citizens for the Bundeswehr is an intriguing, if controversial, proposal, particularly at a time when global migration trends are forcing Germany to rethink many aspects of its national identity. Patriotism, service to one’s country, a sense of national identity, and pride and belonging — these are fraught concepts in Germany. Such sentiments carry negative associations of the country’s dark legacy of ethnic and racially-based nationalism. They are also increasingly difficult concepts to define in a society that is no longer the homogenous nation it once was.

Today, more than one in five Germans comes from what is termed a “migration background,” meaning that they or one of their parents were not born with German citizenship. The number is even higher in the country’s schools and kindergartens, where one in three children has a “migration background.” In the same year Germany made international headlines for accepting more than one million asylum seekers, regular immigration rates also skyrocketed; in 2015, in addition to asylum seekers, 860,000 migrants came to live in Germany. And while many asylum seekers may not stay in Germany permanently, at the current rate, about 40-45 percent will receive some form of protected status to live in Germany for the near or long-term future. That Germany is one of the world’s major immigrant-receiving countries is no longer the controversial claim it once was, but a stark demographic fact.

Unlike Germany, the U.S. has a long history of recruiting immigrants to serve in the country’s defense. In World War I, immigrants made up nearly 20 percent of the country’s forces, a crucial contribution to the war effort. In exchange for service, the U.S. military has long offered expedited citizenship. This process was accelerated following September 11, when the US began allowing non-citizen soldiers to apply for citizenship after only one day of honorable service. Since 2009, immigrant soldiers have been able to naturalize immediately after boot camp, with the understanding that they will continue to serve honorably for the following five years (the program began with the Army and has since been expanded to the other branches of the military). According to the Department of Defense, more than 100,000 members of the Armed Forces have become naturalized citizens since September 11. Another 11,600 non-citizen soldiers serve in the forces today.

In 2008, the U.S. military piloted a new recruitment program that allowed — for the first time — immigrants without permanent residency the opportunity to enlist, including recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), asylum seekers, and refugees. The new program, “Military Accessions Vital to National Interest” specifically recruited immigrants to fill critical language and technical skills in the military, particularly those with much-needed medical training. Between 2008 and 2016, MAVNI recruited more than 10,400 soldiers. Approximately two-thirds of the Army Reserve Dental Corps are now MAVNI recruits and the program has been vital in filling the military’s need for French, Arabic, Korean, Polish, Swahili, and Somali speakers. Interviews with MAVNI recruits show that these immigrant soldiers often bring a better work ethic and a stronger sense of loyalty to their chosen country than even their citizen peers, boosting overall morale. In exchange for their service, MAVNI recruits have access to the same expedited naturalization process as other immigrant soldiers. (Note: the Trump administration has not renewed the MAVNI program for fiscal year 2017. According to email correspondence with Department of Defense Spokesperson Johnny Michael, the DoD is currently reviewing the MAVNI program due to “potential security risks.”)

In light of the Bundeswehr’s current recruitment challenges, Germany might do well to consider a similar program. According to analyses of the Defense Ministry’s new personnel strategy, half of active duty members today will retire by 2030, and they will not be easily replaced by new recruits from Germany’s rapidly aging population. Like the United States, Germany also faces a growing need for specialized technical expertise, as well as for language and cultural skills to meet the challenges of increasingly frequent foreign deployments. Training and recruiting non-citizens eager to build a life in Germany could help fill these gaps and provide a highly motivated population of young, working-age recruits.

Providing pathways to training, employment, and citizenship could also be an opportunity for the Bundeswehr to meaningfully contribute to the country’s larger integration challenge. Policymakers have voiced fears about repeating Germany’s approach to the immigrant populations of the guestworker era, when the country neglected to invest in integration in hopes that migrants would return home. Those policies, along with a predominantly ius sanguinis citizenship system, produced multigenerational immigrant communities that grew segregated from mainstream German society. Today, there is new pressure to invest in the speedy integration of newcomers into German schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Beginning in 2000, Germany liberalized its citizenship system to give children born in Germany to parents with permanent residency the right to citizenship. The new national Integration Law, hastily passed after the December 2015 refugee crisis, now facilitates access to the labor market for both recognized refugees and those still undergoing the asylum application process.

The Integration Law’s emphasis on workforce integration recognizes the important role that German employers will play in the integration of newcomers, as well as the economic contributions that this new population of largely young and working age people may make to Germany’s aging workforce. As the military’s new personnel strategy notes, the Bundeswehr is one of the largest public employers in Germany. Its new personnel strategy consequently seeks “to position the Bundeswehr as a competitive, modern and attractive employer.” Given this new framing, it seems rational that the Bundeswehr, alongside Germany’s other major employers, should play a role in the nation’s broader integration policy by opening employment and citizenship avenues for qualified non-citizens, EU and otherwise.

But recruiting immigrants is a polarizing proposal that faces stiff resistance across the political spectrum. Those on the right voice concerns about national identity and security at a time when the threat of terrorism weighs heavily on the public’s consciousness. Many fear that recruiting immigrant soldiers will invite cases like the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, in which radicalized Palestinian American army psychiatrist Nidal Hassan shot 13 fellow soldiers and injured 30 others. Yet, like most perpetrators of domestic terrorism, Hassan was American-born. Moreover, contrary to common perception, attacks by right and left-wing extremists far outweigh those by radical Islamic extremists in both the U.S. and Germany. And there are positive security implications to consider: immigrant soldiers often bring the critical cultural and even religious sensitivities that help prevent unnecessary tensions with local populations in foreign deployments. A multiethnic military that welcomes Muslim soldiers and encourages immigrants to be part of German society offers a powerful counterargument to the “us-versus-them” narrative so useful to jihadi recruiters.

Progressives, too, criticize the recruitment of immigrants as an exploitative and cynical bid for “cannon fodder.” It is a critique often rejected by those soldiers of immigrant backgrounds already serving in the military. Dominik Wullers, former Bundeswehr officer and vice chair of Deutscher Soldat, an organization of minority soldiers advocating for better integration policies, suggests that such progressive critiques harbor the patronizing assumption that minorities do not understand the choices they are making. These assumptions also reflect a lack of knowledge about the range of career opportunities available in the military. Like other recruits, immigrants may well choose to pursue careers as medics, cyber specialists, linguistic experts, pilots, engineers, or any of the myriad career opportunities available. Most importantly, a new recruitment strategy open to immigrants would be one part of the larger societal integration effort already underway, making career opportunities in the military and a path to citizenship through military service one option among many.

To date, the Bundeswehr has launched a handful of pilot programs to train refugees in various technical skills. Yet, it is unclear whether the internal structures exist to more comprehensively support a diverse force. While the German Ministry of Defense’s department for Equal Opportunities, Diversity, and Inclusion has recently been tasked with diversity management alongside its original mission of gender equality, it lacks the structural authority to implement significant changes. The recent case of a right-wing extremist lieutenant who nearly succeeded in carrying out a terror attack has also raised questions about the military’s internal tolerance for discriminatory and right-wing views. The case is one of 275 cases of right-wing extremism currently under investigation in the Bundeswehr — a small but growing number. Broader policies also have not caught up to the military’s contemporary diversity. Anecdotally, Muslim service members report a lack of structural support for everything from dietary needs (hallal food is not automatically provided, but requires careful negotiation with the local cooks) to spiritual counseling (though pastors and priests are available to soldiers, the Bundeswehr does not yet provide imams, due to the smaller number of Muslim soldiers spread out across different units and branches).

Yet on paper, it seems that the Ministry of Defence has begun to recognize the convergence of societal and military trends that make the recruitment of a diverse force — including non-citizens — a promising strategy. In democracies, militaries should reflect the larger society. In a Germany that is increasingly coming to terms with its new identity as a nation of both ethnic Germans and immigrants, the Bundeswehr, too, should reflect that diversity. And in an economy where employers increasingly facilitate the integration of newcomers and compete for diverse talent, the Bundeswehr should likewise contribute to the social task at hand and position itself as a competitive employer able to attract the right talents and skill sets. Though the United States finds itself at a historic nadir in its appreciation for immigrants, Germany has the opportunity to learn from the successful experience of U.S. immigrant soldiers. It has the opportunity to take courageous new steps toward a more pluralistic democracy, one that offers a plethora of pathways to inclusion and benefits from the talents and skills of every member of its society. Doing so will not only help rehabilitate a rapidly dwindling institution, but also send a strong message that integration and inclusion are all-encompassing tasks for the country’s future. We need all hands on deck.