A short report on the situation in Germany before and during the First World War: Why people refused to serve their country; how they avoided military service and what punishments were issued for disobedience.

By Kristin Winkler



Most people living in Germany during the beginning of the 20th century were tired of the German Empire and disenchanted with its politics. When the Empire declared war on Russia on 1 August 1914, sources reported a nearly euphoric nation. With propaganda propelling the public’s enthusiasm and willingness to participate, millions of German men volunteered to fight for their “fatherland”. Furthermore, not supporting your country was deemed dishonourable and resulted in public shaming.

Reasons for conscientious objection and desertion

Officially speaking, conscientious objection didn’t ‘exist’ at the start of the war.

Fear of injury or death, needless killing and cruelty were primary reasons for men objecting to fight. Those who fought previously, had witnessed great horror: bloodbaths, raping, mass killing and were often left traumatised. What’s more, men often experienced bullying from their superiors which led to their desire to desert.

Pacifists refused military service on grounds of avoiding weaponry use, Anarchists rejected the idea they were fighting for “their” country and Jehovah’s witnesses declined due to religious beliefs, instead finding roles in divisions without combat such as manual labour and in military hospitals. Those originally from Poland, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary returned to their native homelands to avoid supporting a Third Reich.

How was it possible to avoid military service?

German men could avoid army service in four ways:

  • Via sickness: as well as genuine sickness, some went as far as self-infecting, deliberately contracting Sexually Transmitted Diseases in order to be deemed ‘unfit’ and discharged.
  • Via mutilation: soldiers created self-inflicted wounds, for example shooting themselves through the hand, in order to be excused from service.
  • Via exemption: a way out of the military service for those already serving, involved applying to leave the military for personal reasons, such as sick relatives, children needing care or missing workforce on the fields.
  • Via desertion: for those without family commitments, the easiest route of escape was to travel to neighbouring neutral countries. Some soldiers, already serving, chose not to return from holidays or hid within inner Germany. Missing your conscription enrolment or subsequent medical examination automatically also counted as desertion. Finally and most dangerously, was escape via surrender to the enemy. Foreign countries issued instructions on how to safely do so, which included showing a white flag on approach.

In response, the German government issued further propaganda – this time heralding the honour of joining the war and lamenting the poverty of those who deserted, which was seemingly effective for the first few years. An officer division dedicated to retrieving deserters and bringing them to justice was also flagshipped.


Those who deserted were careful not to contact friends and family, as it would have incriminated them in the deception. The government halted financial support to families of deserters and as a result of this it was largely single men who attempted escape.

However, no one knew how long the war was due to last and as such it was unclear how long they would need to live without their loved ones and homeland.

Those who attempted surrender to the enemy risked getting shot or being taken in as a prisoner of war – living and working in prison camps or detention centres.

Even men successfully reaching neutral countries faced more challenges on arrival: Switzerland, for example, precluded legal employment to deserters and inevitably this led to men accepting illegal work and descending in to poverty.

Germany also built a 2,000-volt electric fence along the Dutch-Belgium border, to prevent deserters (amongst others) from crossing over to the Netherlands border by foot. Approximately 2000 people (including deserters) died in attempts to leave the country during the First World War.

Punishment for desertion was up to ten years imprisonment and in some cases resulted in the death penalty [execution by shooting], depending on the intention of the soldier.

Final years of war: combat fatigue sets in

Initially, desertion was not common. German men were proud to fight for their country and fulfil their duty. The nation expected a short war and soldiers were largely volunteers. However, by the end of 1914 soldiers on the front line realised this war wasn’t going to end anytime soon.

Those at home not yet called to serve became aware they soon would be, attempts to flee exponentially rose – with those who did show up to serve often traumatised by their first experience in combat.

Three years in and people were tired of war, poor living conditions and the supply crisis. Spring 1918 saw a spike in soldiers deserting – with the realisation that the war couldn’t be won. At least 200,000 soldiers refused their military “duty”and without soldiers, there was no war. Military officials villanised this refusal as ‘collective shirking’, Historians called it ‘a covered military strike’ that led the way to the November revolution. It is for this reason some refer to military deserters as heroes.

Once war was over, those imprisoned in Germany due to conscientious objection [now a recognised stance] or desertion, were released. Deserters in foreign countries were informed they would not face penalties on return to their homeland.

1914 to 1918 saw 13.1 million soldiers conscripted and by spring 1918, historians estimate 100,000 of these were deserters, a figure that is unlikely to ever be truly known.



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