The GDR introduced conscription for all males in 1962. Apart from complete refusal to partake in military service, opting to become a construction soldier offered the only other possibility for unarmed service. Construction soldiers were distinguished by a small shovel on their uniforms and built military facilities, served as orderlies in hospitals, but also later as gardeners, kitchen assistants and finally, as laborers. Construction soldiers were often subject to harassment and their social prospects upon completing their military service were dismal.
The informal network of former construction soldiers offered an important and reliable basis for the peace movement, as well as a bloc which advocated for civil service (instead of military service) and peace education initiatives. Between 1964 and 1989, nearly 15,000 men had served in the National People’s Army as construction soldiers. Rainer Eppelmann (the last Defense Minister of the GDR; „Minister for Disarmament and Defense“), the future mayor of Leipzig, Wolfgang Tiefensee, the poet Bert Papenfuß and the songwriter Gerhard Schöne are among the most prominent former construction soldiers.
- Sonnenberg, Uwe