The European Union's highest legal body ruled today in favor of a German woman who claimed that a constitutional ban on women bearing arms in the German armed forces amounted to unlawful sexual discrimination.
The decision, announced by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, could have dramatic consequences for Germany's large conscript army and possibly require a change in the country's constitution to bring it into line with EU norms on sexual equality.
The court, which serves as the supreme legal authority for the EU's 15 member states, upheld a human rights complaint filed by Tanja Kreil, a 23-year-old electrical engineer whose efforts to join the German military in 1996 as a weapons technician were rejected by the Defense Ministry.
The judgment is expected to accelerate a trend among Western armed forces to provide a greater combat role for women, particularly as the revolution in military technology places a premium on mastery of computer skills rather than sheer physical force.
A majority of NATO's 19 member countries, including the United States, now allow women to serve in most arms-bearing posts except aboard submarines or as part of commando regiments specializing in hand-to-hand combat. Only Germany and Italy do not allow women to carry weapons; Luxembourg has no women in uniform, and Iceland has no soldiers.
"It is a tremendous relief to me," Kreil said after hearing the verdict. "I am very proud that I accomplished this." She said she is still interested in working as a tank technician in the German army, despite having been treated in a manner she found humiliating. "I could not believe it when my application was first rejected," she recalled. "It made me feel as if I were living in the Middle Ages."
Germany's postwar ban on women bearing arms is deeply rooted in the nation's history. The notion of keeping women out of war was honored even in the last months of World War II, when the Nazis forced adolescent and elderly men to fill the ranks of Germany's depleted army but exempted women from combat duty.
That prohibition has remained in force in postwar Germany. The 355,000 soldiers in the country's armed forces consist mainly of male conscripts; all German men are required to serve 10 months in the army after turning 18, but women are exempted. Those women who volunteer for military service are restricted to such positions as medical orderlies or army band musicians.
The Luxembourg court based its judgment on supranational law, arguing that Germany's proscription on women bearing arms "is contrary to the European Union's principle of equal treatment for men and women." But the court also ruled that some exceptions may be legally permissible "where sex constitutes a determining factor for access to certain special combat units." In October, the court ruled that Britain did not have to admit women to the Royal Marines, all of whose members must be qualified in hand-to-hand combat.
The German decision is expected to cause further turmoil in the army, where a debate is raging about the future of conscription and how to shift from Cold War defenses to more a mobile and streamlined force. Even while its allies shift to professional armies, Germany has long considered obligatory military duty as an important element of social cohesion, and it remains hesitant about projecting military power beyond its borders.
Defense Ministry officials said the government would seek to comply with the court order by trying harder to integrate women into the armed forces without having to resort to the difficult and time-consuming process of changing the constitution.
But Verena Wohlleben, a military adviser to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's governing Social Democrats, said she believes a change in the constitution would be preferable as part of the reform process aimed at clarifying the post-Cold War mission and structure of the nation's military.
CAPTION: The EU court upheld a human rights complaint filed by Tanja Kreil, who was rejected when she tried to join the German army as a weapons technician.