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Germany sheds its pacifist role

Joining strikes on Serbs, Bonn shelves reservations, and restrictions,

By Lucian KimSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1999


The somber face of Chancellor Gerhard Schrder flickered across German television screens last week, only minutes after President Clinton went on the air to announce NATO's decision to bomb Yugoslavia.

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"For the first time since the end of World War II, German soldiers are on a combat mission," the chancellor said. "We cannot exclude dangers to life and limb for our soldiers."

Mr. Schrder's words were not just remarkable for the message they carried, but for the historical inevitability they seemed to convey: The chancellor was declaring a definitive end to the pacifism that has dominated German foreign policy for more than half a century.

Since reunification in 1990, the country has been following a gradual course to take on a military responsibility more befitting its economic might. As Schrder spoke, German fighter planes were flying in the first wave of the NATO attack.

In office for only five months, Schrder's shaky coalition of Social Democrats and pacifist Greens has suffered a series of stinging domestic setbacks. Yet faced with a European crisis, the German government - with its Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, once a fierce critic of NATO - rallied to the side of its international allies.

Other than a handful of Greens and the ex-communist Party of Democratic Socialism, the German parliament has overwhelmingly voiced its support for the NATO attack. Some 60 percent of Germans support German involvement, according to recent public opinion polls.

Unthinkable less than a decade ago, this participation in a combat mission reflects the evolution of Germany's own view of its role in the post-cold-war world. And it mirrors the rise of a younger generation of politicians less burdened by the memories of war than its predecessors.

Beginning with the dispatch of medical orderlies to a United Nations hospital in Cambodia in 1991, unified Germany sent military personnel to foreign soil for the first time since World War II. Taking an increasingly active role, German soldiers participated in international peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Bosnia.

During the government of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Greens and the left wing of the Social Democratic Party at first bitterly opposed these missions, arguing that they violated restrictions on Germany's military activity under the postwar constitution. Opponents harked back to Germany's pacifist commitment based on the guilt for the Nazi past.

"This argument has been overtaken by another one, namely that because Germany holds this particular past, it is the moral duty of Germans not to tolerate it elsewhere," says Christoph Bertram, director of Foundation Science and Policy, a think tank on international affairs near Munich.

"It was much easier to commit to pacifism in the old East-West and nuclear context," says Mr. Bertram. "Pacifism today would mean tolerating brutality in the Balkans. The cold war has ended ... so has old-style pacifism."

Many in the Western alliance were frustrated by Germany's nonparticipation in the 1991 Gulf War, adding pressure on Germany to contribute armed forces in the future.