In the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kiev government issued a decree that men between the ages of 18 and 60 were prohibited from leaving the country so as to be conscripted into military service. This was a ratcheting up of Ukraine’s conscription requirements which had already been expanded in 2015 in the wake of the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Not surprisingly, at least some Ukrainians have emigrated instead of submitting to conscription.
Certainly, there is nothing unique about these Ukrainian refugees in this regard. Especially in modern-day war-torn countries we can find populations of men who were at least in part motivated by a desire to avoid “the draft” in their respective nations of birth. Many young men have left Syria in recent years, for instance, rather than be forced into fighting in the civil war there. In response, the Syrian regime has attempted to force potential male conscripts back to the country by confiscating the property of the families of men who don’t comply.
Conscription also often blurs the line between economic migrants and refugees. After all, men who have been conscripted often earn little to no compensation for their labors. This means many potential conscripts flee not only to avoid military service, but to find employers who will actually pay for their labor. This is the case in Eritrea where open-ended conscription can mean years of lost wages. Many have emigrated to avoid this fate.
But emigration as a common means of conscription avoidance certainly transcends both time and space. Moreover, for those of us who live in frontier nations largely populated by immigrants over the past two-hundred years, many are likely to find at least one ancestor who left for the New World in order to avoid “the draft.” Indeed, Americans who research family history might have noticed that guides to finding records of one’s ancestors—such as this one from the Center for Family History and Genealogy—cite documentation of conscription avoidance as a possibly fruitful source of information on one’s ancestors.
Ethnic Minorities Prone to Emigration
Ethnic and cultural minorities have often been the most prone to emigrating to avoid conscription.
Many Jews in central and eastern Europe were denied full legal rights in their home countries, yet were often nonetheless required to provide military service. Many thus chose to emigrate.
In the Ottoman Empire, Christians in the early twentieth century suddenly found themselves in the position of being forced to fight for the Muslim-controlled regime. This minority, of course, included the Christian Armenians who emigrated in sizable numbers as a result. As historian David Gutman writes: “After October 1909, non-Muslims could no longer pay an exemption tax …to avoid mandatory military service as they had been permitted to do since 1856.” The regime at the time claimed
“those who benefitted from the constitutional order that provided liberty to all citizens regardless of their religious or ethnic background should be willing to defend it with their lives.” …
…Draft dodging appears to have been a significant driver of emigration from the Ottoman Empire between 1910 and 1914, although it is not clear to what degree this was the case. Both Ottoman and American archival sources attribute much of the spike in overseas migration in this period to the escape of military-aged men. Meanwhile, figures provided by the United States Immigration Commission for the years following the 1908 revolution show a dramatic increase in Armenians entering the United States from a low of three thousand in 1911 to more than nine thousand in 1913 …More tellingly, between 1909 and 1915, a greater percentage of Armenian migrants admitted to the United States were male when compared to the period preceding 1908.
These emigrants were more farsighted than even they knew. The true absurdity of providing military service to the Ottoman state would become abundantly clear with the commencement of the Armenian Genocide just a few years later.
Nor was it just the Armenians. Many citizens of the Ottoman empire in Palestine—many of them Christians—also sought to leave. Yasir Suleiman writes that while economic factors were a common motivation also important “was the desire to avoid conscription in the last days of the Ottoman rule and the uncertain political situation in Palestine since then.” Emigration of this sort was also popular among Palestinian Christians because a common destination for emigrants was the United States—and elsewhere in the Americas—where Christianity was the majority religion. This naturally eased what was a difficult transition.
Some immigrant groups in America, such as the Volga Germans, are practically defined by their avoidance of conscription. Specifically, the Volga Germans in America are descended from Germans who emigrated from Germany to Russia in the eighteenth century on the condition they would not be subject to conscription into the Czar’s army. When these exemptions were revoked in the nineteenth century, many Volga Germans emigrated to the United States where they today constitute a sizable portion of the ethnic German populations of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oregon, and Washington. Anabaptist subgroups of the Volga Germans also fled to America to avoid conscription. Groups such as the Hutterites and the Mennonites were explicitly opposed to military service.
Germans, Spaniards, and Japanese
But one need not be from an ethnic minority to pursue the benefits of draft avoidance via emigration.
Before the Volga Germans, many other Germans had fled the German kingdoms. In the nineteenth century, a large percentage of Germans in Chicago had arrived “during the 1830s … to avoid conscription in the army.”
In Spain during the 1860s, unknown numbers of young men fled to avoid military service to the crown, even in spite of the watchful eyes of government agents seeking to prevent emigration. Wayne H. Bowen writes:
Given the poor conditions for troops, conscription was always a challenge for the central government. Many potential soldiers did their best to avoid service, even through leaving Spain. Emigration was a serious problem, as the families of young boys tried to send them to the colonies or encouraged them to emigrate to Latin America or the United States in order to avoid conscription. The Guardia Civil, Spain’s national paramilitary police, had orders to watch the coast and port cities for young men trying to leave, and colonial governors were prohibited from issuing passports to boys who could no prove service or exemption.”
Membership in an ethnic minority in Spain likely provided an added impetus to exit, and “Evasion of military service was…widespread among Spanish Basques.”
Meanwhile, in Japan, “Militarization [in the early twentieth century] and the initiation of the so-called blood tax or national conscription also encouraged many young Japanese males to emigrate to avoid the draft.” Many went to Peru and Brazil.
Of course, things did not always work out for immigrants as planned. Many immigrants to the United States found themselves caught up in Civil War conscription. Moreover, as the US tightened immigration rules, and as the US itself more frequently adopted conscription mandates after 1917, it is likely that many saw less advantage in exiting to the Americas to avoid conscription at “home.”
This, did not make the issue quite disappear, however. As noted by Douglas Wheeler and Walter Oello, Jr “the largest flow of Portuguese emigration in history occurred after the onset of the African colonial wars (1961) and into the 1970s, as Portuguese sough emigration as a way to avoid conscription or assignment to Africa.”
And we continue to find examples in the war torn regions of today, or in nation-states where the regime suffers problems of establishing legitimacy.
Should those emigrants have stayed in “their” countries and performed their alleged “duty” to fight? Certainly for modern-day Americans, few are in a position to even venture an opinion about whether or not Volga Germans owed military service to the Czar in some war now-long-forgotten by virtually every descendant of the Volga Germans in America—and by all their neighbors. Should the Jews of Eastern Europe have stuck around to make good on their “duty” to the anti-semitic local princes? Did the young men of the Ottoman Empire owe a debt for the “benefits” they allegedly received from their country? Precisely because so many of these regimes and their wars proved to be so petty, futile, immoral, and ultimately forgettable, many are surely inclined to conclude “no.”
In these cases the passage of time has helped make it clear how presumptuous it would be for us today to pass judgement on those who chose freedom and emigration over conscription and “service” to the regime in the lands of their birth. Yet, it is equally presumptuous to pass judgement on those who made the same decision the day before yesterday.