The last of the Zivis

Today, the last of the Zivis finished their last day at work. Calling this The End of an Era wouldn’t be overstated: From 1973 to 2011 (today, actually), more than 2.7 million young men served in Germany. (More stats and history in German on Wikipedia.) Only instead of serving in the military, they worked at mostly social institutions like hospital, elder care homes and the like.


I was just about 19 when I put in my year of Zivildienst, roughly from mid-1999 to mid-2000. It was certainly one the most transformative years of my life, potentially also one of the worst, and I’m sure I’d be a very different person today had I not learned what I learned there.

Memories of details are a bit blurry by now, but there are a few things I remember very clearly.

Zivildienst in the Black Forest

My Zivildienst was in a small Black Forest town at the local branch of a large social institution, and the Zivis were used in a variety of context. Shifts in an retirement home, driving both elder people around and disabled kids to school, helping people in need with their chores, as well as elder home care were all part of the tasks we had.

My role was largely as a driver, at least that was my initial assignment. That was good. Often, home care for old or disabled people was part of that deal. Not as fun, but I got to learn a lot, empathy not the least bit of it. Whenever there was trouble back at the HQ, I was placed on some nightshift or another in the retirement home, which I hated.

There was a lot of trouble.

First day

When you were drafted, some of your basic civic rights are revoked. No more freedom of movement (if you went on vacation, you had to let your superiors know), no more civil police (in case of job-related trouble like, say, you not showing up, it was the military police that would come get you). None of that goes down particularly well with a 19-year old. But it’s part of the deal, and I didn’t think much about it. If I did, I grumbled, but shrugged.

Alas, the moment I started my service I know there was trouble on the horizon. On my very first day – I had hardly been briefed on what my job would be – the phone in the common room rang. The same common room where I and the other 15 or so Zivis would hang out for a good deal of the rest of the year. I picked up the phone, because I was the only one around, not having a job yet and all. It was the boss, telling me to come see her at her office.

I went upstairs, expecting my first task or something. Instead, she was clearly in a bad mood and started talking to me, then yelling at me. It became clear that she was pissed off at some other Zivi, or all her Zivis in general, for not showing up at work, or screwing up in other ways.

Even today I remember that conversation quite clearly. I replied quietly, that it was my first day, and that I could not take responsibility for the actions of the others. That I hadn’t yet met them, even. She kept yelling. I distinctly remember replying, still quietly, another three or four times that I don’t see how I could help, but that I also didn’t see myself as the person to blame. After all, it was my first day.

Then, after another five minutes of being yelled at, I snapped. I still remember being very clear that moment, thinking that this is probably not a good idea and that I’d regret it. But I snapped anyway, and started yelling back.

That was the first day of my service, and it didn’t get much better than that.

Vodka, painkillers and a Playstation

I was lucky. I was a home sleeper since I lived nearby, so I had natural breaks where I got out of the context of this work, or rather that office. Others had to stay there, a year at a time. And I remember what it did to a number of my colleagues. People from all walks of life, and everybody coped differently. Some didn’t cope at all. One guy had resorted to painkillers and vodka as his daily routine. Most stuck to a slightly healthier mix of beer and long nights at the Playstation.

During the day, we’d all be in our social role: Taking care of people in need. It’s sometimes hard, often times even gross, where too many bodily fluids are involved. But it’s an enriching, maturing experience that I’m thankful to have made.

But once back the HQ, the mood was different. Morale was often low with a mix of tristesse, anger and desperation. Tristesse because of the routine. Anger about the boss, the unfair and intransparent treatment. And desperation about the lack of power to defend against the mobbing.

And it was mobbing, I see that even more clearly today than I did back then. Vacations were cancelled the day before they’d start on implausible pretexts, certain jobs used as sticks, others as carrots. Legal threats were nothing unusual, which in this context means the same as for soldiers: Jail time is comparatively easy to come by. When you’re hardly 20, you don’t want to take chances and bank on the real probabilities. It scares the shit out of you.

Just as an example, I remember one time where I had cleared a long weekend to go to an IT fair in another city. I was half-way through my service, and hadn’t managed to line up a spot at university, so I wanted to go look for a job. It was 1999, and IT jobs were incredibly attractive. All papers had been signed months in advance. The night before I was supposed to leave, I get a phone call.

I couldn’t go, the boss said. Why?, I asked. Too many people might be sick the next day to keep the service running, she told me. Had anyone called in sick, I asked, suddenly worried. No, not a single person had, she continued. Yet, you’re grounded. Your vacation’s done.

I remember going a few rounds with her, explaining to her how that was an important career thing for me, and pleaded for a while, but to no avail.

The next day, and I’m not proud of this, I called in sick. That didn’t help me though. It didn’t take long and she threatened me with the military police if I didn’t show up – either healthy, to work. Or sick, in which case I’d be forced to move into the HQ until I was back on my feet. She had called my bluff and made me face legal prosecution. I guess you could call it heavy handed management.

This was the kind of atmosphere that marked my service.

On the other hand, so did the camaraderie that sounds like a bit like a cliché, but is a strong bonding force. Throw 15 young guys into an intense shared experience and you get yourselfs some strong bonds, no matter if they last beyond the service or no.


So you’ll understand why I feel a bit torn about my personal Zivildienst experience.

And yet, I’ve always felt like a government or community service of some sort is a good thing that can strengthen democracy.

People should be able to choose between military and social service. It should be gender-balanced, and include 100% of the people of the respective age bracket. And you should probably get credits for school, or tax incentives, or something. But I think a service year can be a rich experience, and it can give young people a year to get their head straight about what they want to do afterwards, while doing something societally useful, instead of internships in ad agencies.

As things stand, I’m not going to romanticize or miss the old service. However, if the government introduced a service like that, as a smarter, more balanced follow-up to the service that ended today, I think I’d approve of that. It’s not a bad thing at all. And social institutions across the country would benefit quite a bit.

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