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.
"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.
Nevertheless, while most Greens in parliament have backed the government, discontent at the party's grass roots has increased as NATO bombing goes on. If the party remains split on Kosovo, it may continue to lose support in elections, says Klaus Linsenmeier, a foreign policy expert at the Heinrich Bll Foundation in Berlin, which is close to the Greens.
"I am ashamed for my country, which is now again dropping bombs on Belgrade," Hans-Christian Strbele, a dissenting Green representative, told parliament last week. His reference to Hitler's savage campaign in Yugoslavia during World War II struck a chord in the conscience of many Germans.
Since the decline of Turkish rule over the Balkans in the last century, Germany has been deeply involved in determining the fate of the area's emerging nations.
At the Berlin Conference of 1878, the European powers carved up much of the region into spheres of influence. But even then, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck made the famous observation that "to me, the Balkans are not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier."
The Balkan nations' bloody efforts to alter the lines drawn in Berlin eventually led to the outbreak of World War I. And when Hitler directed his armies at the Soviet Union 25 years later, he found much needed divisions bogged down in a brutal guerrilla war in Yugoslavia.
As NATO's Operation Allied Force began, Milosevic's propaganda machine targeted Germany, digging up old war movies and branding it the "Fourth Reich."
To most Serbs - and many outside observers - Germany's 1991 decision to recognize the independence of Slovenia and Croatia sped along the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Today Germany's ties to the Balkans remain inextricable, with more than a million people from former Yugoslavia living here permanently, half of them Serbs.
Kosovo Albanians, who number 100,000, have been instrumental in supporting the independence movement at home.
Likewise, in numerous demonstrations against the NATO airstrikes, Serbs living in Germany have protested together with far-left political groups.
Widespread antiwar sentiment, so evident here during the Gulf War, is still missing. But if thousands of refugees arrive in Germany or NATO launches a ground attack, attitudes may quickly shift.
Such a reaction, however, would not be unique to Germany. Much of the German political elite has expressed misgivings about the goals of the NATO airstrikes and pressure from the United States to push the crisis to the brink.
"The Germans reacted soft as wax, probably out of necessity," Rudolf Augstein, publisher of the Hamburg newsmagazine Der Spiegel, wrote this week. "The troops go into action without grumbling; not participating in this war would have been held against us."
However, few others have criticized Germany's participation in an international military coalition.
As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, unification, and the "inner wish for normalcy," Germany has finally become a European power like Britain or France, says Mr. Linsenmeier, the foreign policy expert. The last taboo, he speculates, may now be the question of whether Germany joins the ranks of the nuclear powers.