Germans May Enter First War Since 1945

But antimilitarist tradition stays strong

GERMANY'S decision to make planes and personnel available to a possible NATO-led mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina will not necessarily bring an end to the Balkan conflict.

But the move could be a turning point, putting Bonn in a position to bring its diplomatic clout in line with its economic power and become a greater force for security in Europe. It is a giant step for the German national psyche, however, steeped in an antimilitarist tradition since World War II.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government announced Monday that the Bundeswehr, or German Army, would back up the British- and French-led Rapid Reaction Force now establishing a presence in the former Yugoslavia. The German contingent could also join a NATO force being assembled, possibly to help extricate United Nations peacekeeping troops from the Balkans. If deployed, it would be the first time since the defeat of Nazism in World War II that German troops could engage in combat beyond German borders.

The government's decision now must be approved by the Bundestag, or lower house of Parliament, in a vote set for tomorrow. More so than the Cabinet's action, the vote will reveal German resolve on "out-of-area" troop deployments.

The pacifist Greens, the third-largest party in the Bundestag, firmly oppose using the Army for anything but defense. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party, the main opposition party, appears split. The leadership opposes deploying fighter jets to the combat zone, while other Social Democrats would sanction that.

Members of the governing coalition, which enjoys a slim 10-seat majority, say the motion will pass. But they are still striving to broaden consensus on the issue. Passage by a small majority could leave Germany vulnerable to domestic tension and protests, especially if casualties resulted from the deployment.

"A large majority would be better. It's a question of national interest," said Ulrich Irmer, a parliamentary leader of the Free Democrats, the junior member of Kohl's coalition.

The contemporary German reluctance to deploy troops abroad is rooted in the legacy of Nazi atrocities committed during World War II. But since the end of the cold war, and especially since the flare-up in the former Yugoslavia, Germany has found it increasingly difficult to rely on historical arguments to keep the German military out of harm's way.

The German Constitutional Court cleared the way for out-of-area deployments last summer, when it ruled that its Basic Law (which established the postwar West German state) did not prohibit such use of the German Army.

German troops already have participated in multilateral peacekeeping missions, for example in Somalia. But the Germans so far have always served only in a support role.

But as the Bosnia imbroglio deteriorated, it became clear to the Kohl government that either the Bundeswehr had to raise its profile, or Germany risked stirring tension with its closest European allies, Britain and France, which both have large combat contingents in Bosnia.

"It is very important that Germany show its solidarity," German Defense Minister Volker Ruhe said at a news conference.

If Germany does not contribute troops in Bosnia, it could diminish Bonn's ability to influence the future course of the European Union. Germany's vision for Europe - strengthening political and economic ties in the EU, as well as expanding into formerly communist Central Europe - stands little chance of realization without British and French backing.

German willingness to send troops abroad also boosts Bonn's claim to a greater global diplomatic role, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The German contribution to the Bosnia force includes medical personnel, staff officers, transport planes, and most controversially, Tornado fighter jets equipped with jamming devices that could render Bosnian Serb antiaircraft missile batteries useless.

German officials stress the contingent won't include any ground combat troops.

"The question is, would a German contribution help solve a problem, or create a new one?" asked Mr. Irmer, the Free Democrat leader, while discussing the role of the Nazis in atrocities committed against the Serbs during World War II. "Germans on the ground would create a new problem."

Another potential problem for Kohl could be domestic public opinion. While recent surveys show relatively strong support for the use of German troops on theoretical humanitarian missions, when it comes to specifics, enthusiasm dwindles. On the issue of using Tornado jets in Bosnia, 55 percent opposed the idea and 37 percent supported the idea, according to a poll by the Emnid Institute, a research group in Bielefeld.

Such numbers would indicate that Kohl's ruling coalition could find itself on shaky political ground if troops engage in combat and things go wrong.

"We all hope it won't happen. But we should now tell everyone about the dangers," Irmer said. "Casualties may happen and everyone should be aware of this."

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