Conscientious objection

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Conscientious objection is a person's choice not to participate in acts of war . In countries with a military it is also called conscientious objection exercised because of military service constitutes for military service. If alternative services are also refused, one speaks of total refusal, even if it is essentially only about refusing to make warfare possible.

In democratic constitutional states , conscientious objection is a legally protected civil right . However, its exercise is usually tied to certain procedures and requirements, the failure of which will result in criminal penalties . In dictatorships , in a state of emergency (martial law) and for soldiers in a professional army , conscientious objection is often illegal and is treated as a criminal offense . If legally unlawful conscientious objection is combined with political goals, it is considered a form of civil disobedience .

Where people are forced to do military service against their will , conscientious objection is only possible as desertion . For a long time this was the historical norm. It was only as a result of the European Enlightenment that individual non-participation in war and military service was gradually regarded as a civil right. In the nation-states of the 19th century, movements were organized that demanded this right along with other civil rights. After the First World War in 1918, some states introduced such a right for the first time. Since 1945 it has been legally recognized and protected in more and more states. In 1987 the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) recognized the right to conscientious objection as a universal human right . Since then, the UN Human Rights Commission has been fighting for its verifiable application and constitutional validity, which is not guaranteed in many member states of the UN.


Late antiquity

The Christianity of the first two centuries saw military service in general as incompatible with being a Christian. Because their baptism obliged the Christians to unconditionally keep the commandments of Jesus ( Mt 28.20  EU ). The biblical central commandment of charity precluded the followers of Jesus from any killing force of their own, especially against enemies ( Mt 5,39,44  EU ), for self-defense ( Mt 10,10  EU ) and the defense of faith ( Mt 26,52  EU ).

Baptism was seen as binding the baptized to the "supreme command" of Jesus Christ and thus incompatible with military oath of the ensign. The voluntary registration of a baptized person for military service in a professional army - the Roman Empire knew no conscription - was regarded as an apostasy from unconditional obedience to faith (Canon Hippolytus 14.74). Soldiers who became a Christian and still remained a soldier had to expect excommunication (exclusion) from the church (Canon Hippolytus 13:14; Basil the Great , Letter 188). The Traditio Apostolica , an early Christian church order, formulated around 200 as a requirement for baptismal applicants (catechumens) in sentence 16:

“A soldier under orders shouldn't kill anyone. If he receives the order to do so, he should not carry it out, nor may he take an oath. If he is not ready, he should be rejected. [...] The catechumene as well as the believer who wants to become a soldier must be turned away because he has despised God. "

Many theologians of patristicism contain critical statements about military service and the war, which was rejected as inevitable murder and bloodshed: for example Justin ( Dialogus 110,3) and Cyprian ( Ad Donat. 6). Lactanz wrote in Divinae institutiones :

“Religion does not mean defending oneself by killing, but certainly by dying, not with aggressiveness, but with patience. [...] However, if you want to defend religion with bloody means, with torture and with evil, then you do not defend it, but you poison and desecrate it. "

Tertullian ( De corona ; De idolatria ) taught that Christ forbade Christians to carry a sword. He strictly rejected the service of soldiers for Christians, also because of the associated imperial cult as idolatry:

“It does not go together to stand under the oath of oath of God and man, under the standard of Christ and the devil, in the camp of light and that of darkness; one and the same person cannot be bound to two: Christ and the devil. "

But he saw wars to preserve the Roman state - and thus the church - as necessary and therefore included the imperial army in Christian intercession .

For Origen , any use of force, including a legitimate defense, was an injustice that required divine forgiveness. He pointed out that Christians “received the teaching not to defend themselves against their enemies” so that they were forbidden to use weapons. He expected the abolition of all wars through the spread of the Christian faith ( Contra Celsum VIII, 69f). When asked to assist the emperor in defensive battles in the army, he emphasized that Christians do this by putting on God's invisible armor and praying unarmed for the government. He emphasized the special task of church officials as “priests and servants of God” in contrast to officials and soldiers as servants of secular power (ibid., 73ff).

The Councils of Chalcedon and Nicea forbade the clergy and monks to hold any state office. In doing so, they pioneered the later Catholic two-tier ethics, according to which only church officials and ascetic monks were exempt from military service. At the same time, the proportion of Christians among the Roman soldiers grew, so that the last state persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian began as a purge in the Roman army. In this situation, many Christians refused to do military service. B. the martyr Maximilian , who was executed on March 12, 295.

The Constantinian turning point (from 313) quickly pushed the original Christian pacifism into the background. Emperor Constantine I had the soldiers excommunicated by the church return to the Roman army with a higher rank. Thereupon the Council of Arles (314) excluded all deserters, including those of conscience, from receiving the sacraments . Athanasius and Ambrosius praised the service with arms for the fatherland . After Orthodox Christianity had been elevated to the status of Roman state religion (380), Theodosius II issued an edict in 416, according to which only Christians were allowed to join the army.

This made conscientious objection to military service a rare exception, which was also jointly rejected by the state and church and later rigorously persecuted. The Church doctrine of Just War formulated by Augustine of Hippo in 420 justified the military service of Christians and non-Christians. In numerous modifications and expansions, it has remained the decisive ethical basis of the major churches for their relationship to military service and military operations.

middle Ages

In the Middle Ages , conscientious objection was a rare attitude among Christian fringe groups such as the Cathars and Waldensians . They were persecuted as heretics by the papacy and Catholic rulers . Only Francis of Assisi obtained the approval of his order, the Minorites , who lived without possession and without arms. He explained this to church representatives as follows:

“Lord, if we owned any property, we must have weapons for our protection. But this gives rise to disputes and quarrels. As a result, love for God and for one's neighbor is usually severely inhibited. And that's why we don't want to have anything earthly in the world. "

The rule of the Third Order of the Franciscans , founded in 1221, contained a ban on weapons:

"They are not allowed to receive or carry deadly weapons against anyone."

Because penance and the soldier's trade are incompatible, members of the Franciscan Third Order also refused military service and oath. Therefore, some Italian city and regional princes had to cancel their campaigns due to lack of participation.

Early modern age

During the Reformation , there were newly formed groups who wanted to orient their coexistence entirely to the Bible: the Bohemian Brothers ("Moravians") and parts of the Anabaptist movement such as the Swiss Brothers , Hutterites and Mennonites . The later Quakers , the Church of the Brethren , the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Christadelphians also refuse military service.

Their attitude repeatedly forced the Mennonites to large migrations, which in the 20th century still led them via Russia to the USA and from there to Canada and South America . Princes only exempted them from military service in individual regions of Europe: In 1577, for example, William of Orange ordered the authorities of Middelburg to exempt the Mennonites who lived there from military service. The Duchy of Schleswig allowed them to do so in 1623. In 1647, the year before the end of the Thirty Years' War , the Agreement of the People declared for the first time any compulsion to military service as a violation of natural human rights.

Frederick the Great granted the Prussian Mennonites a "grace privilege" on March 25, 1780, which was supposed to exempt them from cantonal obligations "forever". Each refuser had to pay an annual fee of 5000 thalers for this; their rights to settle and acquire land were also restricted in many regions. The privilege was renewed in 1789, 1840 and 1844; after that it was gradually restricted. The conscription law of the North German Confederation of 1867 no longer provided for an exception for conscientious objectors; Individuals could only be exempted from military service through simple cabinet orders.

19th century

Since the formation of nation states with general conscription, the peace churches fought for the state recognition of freedom of conscience . In 1802 the English Quakers achieved their first exemption from military service. Influenced by them and the philosophy of the Enlightenment , so-called peace societies first emerged around 1815 in the USA , Great Britain and Switzerland . They also affirmed conscientious objection as one of several possibilities for enforcing an international order of peace and international law . The peace societies of continental Europe, which emerged a little later, however, mostly rejected conscientious objection until 1918. These were practicing only Christian Special Communities as the Reformadventisten , Doukhobors , evangelists , Molkianer , Nazarenes and Tolstoyan movement . All of these groups remained numerically insignificant and without influence on state politics.

Conscientious objection only gained political effect in the context of the growing European labor movement . At the conferences of the First International ( International Workers' Association ) in 1891 and 1893 , anarchists introduced resolutions that called for general conscientious objection and strikes in declarations of war . The majority of the IAA, on the other hand, believed that wars would go away once capitalism was eliminated. The German Peace Society (DFG) was founded in 1892. Karl Liebknecht formulated a polemic against the anarchist position in the IAA in 1907 in his program publication Militarism and Antimilitarism .

20th century

The early social democracy was theoretically determined to prevent a war between the European hegemonic powers or at least not to support it. The Socialist International repeatedly made such decisions , especially in 1907, 1912 and 1913. In the Balkan crisis of 1913, Rosa Luxemburg called for conscientious objection, refusal to give orders and resistance to the foreseeable European war at mass rallies by the SPD . As a result, like other anti-militarists, she was imprisoned for almost the entire duration of the war.

The First World War also put pacifist groups on the defensive and reduced their membership numbers considerably. The few conscientious objectors were persecuted in all the warring states and often severely punished.

In Great Britain , since 1914, when men who were fit for military service were registered by the state, an organized refusal movement that wanted to work politically emerged: the no conscription fellowship . It was followed by around 16,000 objectors. After the introduction of compulsory military service in 1916, the English Quakers achieved that they were allowed to perform civilian substitute, medical or unarmed army services. About 10,000 men did this. A further 6,000, as absolutists , refused any alternative service and were sentenced to mostly long prison terms by courts-martial. Due to inhumane prison conditions, 3750 of them decided to do alternative civilian service after all; ten of the rest died in custody, 59 of exhaustion shortly after their release.

But this movement achieved that conscientious objection for ethical and religious reasons of conscience was recognized for the first time as an individually possible, not generally anti-subversive and criminal attitude. For example, from 1917 onwards, some European countries introduced the first exceptional laws for exemption from military service and alternative services for refusals:

  • the Netherlands by army order in 1917, by law in 1922. Only 10–20 people referred to this annually until 1930, and between 40 and 400 people annually from 1931 to 1939.
  • Denmark 1917. Alternative service there lasted three times as long as military service until 1933.
  • the USSR from 1918
  • Sweden 1920 and 1923
  • Norway and Finland in 1922. Since 1931, refusal has only been possible there in peacetime.

In the USA in 1916, with conscription, a civil alternative service was also offered for members of peace churches and pacifist sects. Of 2.8 million drafted men, 56,800 were recognized as conscientious objectors, 20,800 of whom were drafted into alternative service.

In neutral Switzerland, the politician and anti-militarist Elisabeth Teslin supported the conscientious objectors. The total proceeds from her writings were intended to support draft evaders and fighters against all military work. In 1917 she wrote:

“The workers should produce artillery, rifles and ammunition, build fortresses, build warships, submarines and flying machines. The workers are to serve in the armies, shoot and cut each other down at every opportunity, on the battlefields as well as during internal unrest in the country. These are the real, living deeds that the working class is doing. In doing so, however, you keep talking, adopt head-racking resolutions, take sharp decisions and believe that these are revolutionary acts. "

In 1921, the international resistance organization Paco was established in Bilthoven , which in 1923 was renamed War Resisters International (WRI, German international of war opponents ). By 1939 their membership grew slowly but steadily to 54 sections in 24 countries. These support objectors morally and financially, but also fight against general conscription and strive for the political elimination of the causes of war. At the conference in Lyon on August 1, 1931, the German anti-war day , Albert Einstein welcomed the WRI delegates from 56 countries with the words:

“I am addressing you ... because you represent the movement that most surely guarantees the abolition of war. If you act wisely and courageously, you can become the most effective community in the greatest of human endeavors. The men and women you represent can become a greater world power than the sword. All the nations of the world speak of disarmament . You have to teach them to do more than just talk about it. The peoples must take disarmament out of the hands of statesmen and diplomats. The peoples must achieve disarmament themselves. "

In the time of National Socialism , German conscientious objectors faced the death penalty even before the beginning of World War II , which was carried out in hundreds of cases (mainly against Jehovah's Witnesses and also against Reform Adventists ). Against this background, the conscientious objection right was the 1949 fundamental rights in the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany added. ( Art. 4 para. 3 GG):

“No one may be forced into military service with a weapon against their conscience. The details are governed by a federal law."

There was no such right in the GDR . Further developments are dealt with in the article Conscientious objection in Germany . The legal basis is laid down in the Conscientious Objection Act.

In some states that had a basic right to refuse military service, there were no constitutional minimum standards for exercising it. Often the military service could no longer be refused after a draft; Alternative service was often of a military nature and lasted much longer than military service, so that it was like a penalty for conscientious objection.

Such shortcomings, which practically disregard the basic right to conscientious objection as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights , found a report by Amnesty International dated April 15, 1997 in 22 European countries . Many of these states imposed prison terms on those who refused to be sentenced, including:

  • the Balkan Republics
  • Bulgaria : 10 months for a Jehovah's Witness 1996
  • In Greece all conscientious objectors were brought to justice and up to 100 of them were sentenced to prison terms of up to four years each year. Some were deprived of their civil rights and forbidden to vote or be elected, to work as civil servants, to open businesses and to obtain passports for up to five years after their release. This particularly affected 300 to 350 Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned under inhumane conditions. The Greek parliament has rejected four civil service bills since 1994; the fifth was accepted and provided for alternative service twice as long as military service.
  • Russia : In 1995 a monk was threatened with seven years imprisonment for desertion after he was conscripted into the military despite his previous conscientious objection, ill-treated there, taken home by his relatives from the hospital and called up again.
  • In Austria conscientious objectors had to pass a conscience test before a commission until 1991, which was intended to determine whether the objections were justified. People who could not make credible that they want to refuse military service for reasons of conscience faced imprisonment if they did not comply with the draft order. In 1997, civilian service was extended from eight to twelve months and thus lasted four months longer than military service. Community service must be applied for within a period of time. Refusals who submit their application too late and do not take up military service face imprisonment for up to one year or a fine.
  • France did not give conscientious objectors the option of conscientious objection after being drafted. The civil service lasted 20 months, twice as long as the military service. Conscientious objectors who did not apply for their community service in due time were not recognized as conscientious objectors; however, only one has been sentenced to prison so far.
  • Italy and Spain no longer gave drafted conscripts the option of conscientious objection.
  • Portugal processed conscientious objection applications from those already doing military service only after their military service ended and did not allow them to leave it early. The alternative service there lasted seven months, almost twice as long as the military service.

In most of these states, a conscript's refusal to wear a uniform can result in several years in prison. In France, up to 1995, this affected up to 500 Jehovah's Witnesses per year who had properly reported to the barracks, but then refused to wear uniforms and weapons for religious reasons. Alternative service providers who terminate their service prematurely in protest against the duration are treated as deserters and punished with up to three years in prison.

In Italy there is no longer any military service; no change was made to the constitution calling this “sacred duty”, but the last (partially) convened class was that of those born in 1985. In France and Spain there is no longer any compulsory military service either.

Current situation

International right

Since the founding of the UN in 1945 , the UN Charter initially forbade war of aggression, apart from two precisely defined exceptional cases. However, it was not until 1987 that the UN General Assembly recognized the right to conscientious objection with only two votes against ( Iraq , Mozambique ) as an international human right.

In August 2004, the UN Human Rights Commission issued two resolutions calling on the UN member states to regulate and comply with the right to conscientious objection in their national legislation in accordance with existing human rights norms. Conscientious objectors who have already been punished should be amnestied and rehabilitated when peace agreements and ceasefires have been reached after military conflicts. Conscientious objection to military service has thus been established as an international human right since 1987, but it is still disregarded or restricted in many countries.

In February 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that a deserter ( André Shepherd ) only enjoys refugee protection if the applicant has sought recognition as a conscientious objector, unless such a procedure was not available to him.

States without the right to conscientious objection

States that do not know the right to conscientious objection are today u. a .:

Some states, which do have a right to refuse to serve in peacetime, restrict this in a war situation by means of martial law or cancel it entirely. In the event of forced recruitment , conscientious objectors then only have to desert, which is prosecuted and punished by the state. Persecuted conscientious objectors who try to evade punishment by fleeing abroad are often not recognized there as political refugees and are not granted asylum in the Federal Republic of Germany either .

Human rights organizations therefore campaign for the international protection of conscientious objectors and deserters. In Germany this is done e.g. B. Connection e. V. For this the organization received u. a. the Aachen Peace Prize 1996.

States with a limited right to conscientious objection

Compulsory military service has currently been abolished or suspended in most countries in the world. In the countries with remaining compulsory military service, there are still disadvantages from some states, due to strict deadlines, longer service periods and other regulations. Often, military service can no longer be refused after being drafted; alternative service is also of a military nature and lasts much longer than military service, so that it is like a penalty for conscientious objection. Often the conscripts are not given access to their legal options for conscientious objection. There this often leads to punishment and imprisonment.

Such shortcomings, which practically disregard the basic right to conscientious objection as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights , found a report by Amnesty International dated April 15, 1997 in 22 European countries . Many of these states imposed prison terms on those who refused to be sentenced, including:

  • In Austria civil service was extended from eight to twelve months in 1997 and thus lasted four months longer than military service. Since 2006, community service has lasted nine months and military service six months. Community service must be applied for within a period of time. Refusals who submit their application too late and do not take up military service face imprisonment for up to one year or a fine.
  • The Switzerland allows conscientious objectors half times as long substitute service made as soldiers. However, admission to community service no longer depends on passing a conscience test. Admission to community service excludes punishment for refusing to do military service or failing to do military service; However, the prohibition of disregarding a public notice must be observed (Art. 81 ff. MStG ).



  • John W. Graham Kelley: Conscription and Conscience: A History 1916-1919. USA 1969 (English), ISBN 0-678-00507-9
  • Orhan Aldanmaz: Conscientious objection as a human right. Roderer TB, 2006, ISBN 3-89783-548-7 .
  • Walther Bienert: War, military service and conscientious objection according to the message of the New Testament. (1st edition 1952) Brunnen-Verlag, 2nd, expanded edition, Gießen / Basel 1985, ISBN 3-7655-9701-5 .
  • Claus Bernet : Conscientious Objection in the 19th Century. In: Military and Society in the Early Modern Age, 12, 2, 2008, pp. 204–222; on-line
  • Wolfram Beyer (Ed.): Refuse military service - pacifism current. Libertarian and humanist positions. Oppo-Verlag, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-926880-16-1 .

Web links

Commons : Conscientious objectors  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Conscientious objection  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Single receipts

  1. quoted by Wilhelm Geerlings: The position of the pre-Constantine Church on military service , Barsbüttel 1989, ISBN 3-927320-03-X , p. 17f.
  2. Dag Tessore: The Holy War in Christianity and Islam. Patmos Verlag, Düsseldorf 2004, p. 30
  3. De idololatria 19, quoted from Gerhard Lohfink: The Christian denial. In: Gerhard Lohfink: How did Jesus want the church? On the social dimension of the Christian faith , 8th edition, Freiburg im Breisgau 1982, p. 190 ( Excerpt online )
  4. Origen: Against Celsus (Contra Celsum) , u. a. P. 127 and 444 (pdf; 2.8 MB)
  5. Helmut Gollwitzer, article War and Christianity , in: The religion in history and present, 4th edition, p. 67f
  6. ^ Walter Ludin: What did Francis of Assisi want? Kanisius-Verlag, Freiburg 1986
  7. Stefan Federbusch: Elements of a Franciscan Spirituality
  8. CCFME-News, Volume 18, December 2005, No. 12 (pdf) ( Memento of November 8, 2011 in the Internet Archive )
  9. ^ Hellmuth Hecker: Conscientious objection in German and foreign law , Frankfurt am Main 1954, p. 8ff
  10. Wolfgang Huber: War, military service, conscientious objection. In: Evangelisches Staatslexikon Volume I, 3rd expanded edition, Kreuz-Verlag, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-7831-0810-1
  11. ^ Eberhard Röhm: Die für den Frieden , Calwer Verlag, Stuttgart 1985, p. 148
  12. ^ RH Bainton: Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace , New York 1960, p. 161
  13. Wolfram Beyer: Refuse War Services - Pacifism Today , Humanistischer Verband Deutschlands, 2000, ISBN 3-924041-18-0 , p. 13f.
  14. Eberhard Röhm: Dying for Peace , p. 147f
  15. ^ Elisabeth Teslin: New Times, New Tasks, New Solutions. Verlag W. Trösch, Olten 1917
  16. WG 2001 §48ff.
  17. ^ Claudia Oberascher, Amnesty Germany, May 1997: Conscientious objection in Europe. A human right to the test ( Memento from October 28, 2010 in the Internet Archive )
  18. ^ Der Tagesspiegel, August 31, 2007: Background: Conscription in other European countries
  19. Resolution 2004/35 of the UN Human Rights Commission of February 16, 2004 (pdf)
  20. Beck Online: ECJ: High demands on the asylum claim of a deserter of the US armed forces , February 26, 2015.
  21. - ( Memento from April 15, 2013 in the web archive ) Human Rights Without Frontiers: "Maximum penalty for conscientious objection to military service"
  22. Connection e. V .: Overview of the club's activities
  23. WG 2001 §48ff.