Munich, 29 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time since World War Two, German aircraft have gone to war, joining the U.S. and other NATO allies in attacking targets in Yugoslavia.
Once this would have prompted an agonized debate in Germany on what the armed forces were doing in a country where an earlier generation of German troops committed untold atrocities between 1941-44.
But, to the surprise of many outsiders, there has been almost no debate in Germany. With few exceptions, Germans appear to stand solidly behind NATO's military intervention and Germany's participation.
A Defense Ministry spokesman told RFE/RL: "The debate took place nearly four years ago, in the Fall of 1995, when Germany decided to commit 3,600 ground troops to the peacekeeping force in Bosnia." The spokesman noted that was, quoting, "the first time Germany sent troops into a region where our forces had behaved badly in World War Two." The spokesman said that "when the time came in 1997 for a new peacekeeping force [for Bosnia to be established] it was taken for granted that Germany would participate and there was little opposition," adding "It's the same now".
The Kosovo operation is considerably more risky than the previous ones in Bosnia. Germany is represented in the NATO force with four Tornado fighter-bombers flying daily operational flights. As Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping said yesterday (Sunday): "They have been shot-at and have shot back." Germany also has more than 4,000 ground troops across the border from Serbia in Macedonia. Their commander said last night that they will fight if attacked by Serb forces.
Opposition to the present mission is relatively subdued in Germany although there is open concern that there may be casualties among the troops and pilots.
Yesterday, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, expressed his "understanding" of the military air strikes in a Palm Sunday sermon preached in the Munich Cathedral. A debate in Parliament last week ended with four-fifths of the deputies voting to support the NATO mission, with the opposition backing the government. Opinion polls show a majority among the German population also support it.
A psychologist, Albrecht Kister, said at the weekend that this acceptance reflected a change in the country's psyche. Kister said that "for years Germans who lived through the devastation of Hitler's Reich swore that Germany would never again become militarily involved in foreign operations". But, he said, "Now the country has matured. Germany wants a leading role in Europe and in the world. It wants to be respected as a full partner in all aspects of European foreign and defense policy together with Britain and France as partners with the United States." Kister said that "to achieve this, it must be ready to take on military as well as political responsibilities."
The psychologist also recalled that opinion polls show that most Germans under 50 believe the time has come for the nation to stop defining its policies on a feeling of shame for what happened during the war. He said people of this age were not born in 1945 and do not feel responsible for what their parents did. Opposition does exist to the NATO mission and Germany's role in it. The strongest comes from the East German ex-communist party, the PDS, which has organized protest rallies in several cities. Most of the protestors are Serbs living in Germany. In a television debate last night (Sunday) the party's leader, Gregor Gysi, argued fiercely that German participation in the NATO operation was illegal because the Constitution forbids the country to participate in a war of aggression. Gysi brushed aside arguments that NATO and Germany were engaged in a humanitarian mission to save the lives of civilians.
Opposition had been expected from the Green environmental party, which shares power with the Social Democrats. Until recently the Greens were vocal pacifists, including the present Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. Just seven years ago, at the start of the Bosnian war, Fischer opposed any deployment of German forces in Bosnia, and indeed any Western military intervention.
But in last week's vote in Parliament, Fischer said: "It cannot be permitted that in the middle of Europe at the end of the 20th Century the predominately Albanian population of Kosovo is deprived of its rights." At the end of the debate, all but seven leftwing Greens joined the governing Social Democrats and the opposition Christian Democrats in backing the NATO intervention.
In a television interview last night (Sunday) the Foreign Minister described the current treatment of Kosovar Albanians by Serb forces as "barbaric". Fischer said the German government had collected eyewitness reports from refugees and had no doubt that whole families, including children, were being killed, and whole villages destroyed.
Fischer passionately denounced the ethnic cleansing reportedly underway in Kosovo and said it appeared that Serbia is trying to drive away all ethnic Albanians. He repeatedly stressed that new talks on a settlement could begin when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stopped the crack down and said he was ready to grant genuine autonomy to Kosovo under the protection of international peacekeepers.
All German television stations, both State-owned channels and private stations, are devoting hours of coverage to the NATO intervention and to the heavy criticism by Serbs living in Macedonia of the German role. Many of the demonstrators in Macedonia are shown waving Nazi flags and banners recalling the past wartime atrocities.
In addition to its current military role in the Balkans, Germany is also participating in relief operations for Kosovar Albanians. It has donated an initial 34 million Marks (about $20 million) in food, medicines, and other forms of aid.