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Yugoslavia: Germany Debates War Medals For Kosovo Pilots

Munich, 3 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's military operations in Yugoslavia have opened a debate in Germany on whether military medals should be awarded to German pilots participating in the alliance's daily air raids.

The Kosovo conflict marks the first time since World War Two in which Germany has contributed a fighting force, in this case fighter aircraft and crews, for military operations outside its own borders. The discussion has once again stirred the well-known divisions in Germany on whether the country should stay out of military conflicts because of its history in World War Two or whether involvement is part of its responsibility as one of Europe's strongest nations.

At the weekend, Germany's highest-ranking soldier, General Naumann, said he personally believed Germany should award medals for bravery. General Naumann, a former Inspector-general of the German armed forces, is now chairman of NATO's chief military committee. In a newspaper interview, he said "other countries, such as the United States and Britain, award medals for those soldiers who risk their lives in war. I personally believe Germany should do the same."

Germany has contributed 10 Tornado fighter jets and four reconnaissance aircraft to the allied force flying missions over Yugoslavia. Their task is to attack Serb radar systems with rockets, making it safer for NATO bombers to operate. A brief report on their activities is presented on German television almost every night, ending with the words "all our aircraft returned safely." Base is a NATO airfield at Piacenza, in Italy.

The unit's commander, Colonel Peter Schelzig, also supports medals for his pilots, particularly those who engage in especially-dangerous actions. In a recent interview, he said he was actively lobbying for the award of medals with his superiors in the defense ministry. He told the interviewer the flights are "not normal duty," adding that "these men are risking their lives for their country and the ideals of the free world."

Schelzig also offered the argument that the old Nazi and Prussian traditions of the German armed forces would only disappear if they were replaced by new traditions, including the bravery of airmen over Yugoslavia.

The other side is the German pacifist lobby, whose political strength is uncertain although it has many supporters in the Green environment party, which is a partner in the governing coalition. Its views were summed up by one of those participating in a recent television debate, Laura von Wimmersperg. She told the audience "to award medals is to encourage war."

In fact Germany -- or at least Prussia -- is believed to have been the first to create a medal for combat bravery. In 1740, Frederick the Great, who turned Prussia into a military power, created the Pour le Merite, commonly known in Germany as the Blue Max.

Military medals disappeared when the Allies forced Germany to demilitarize after World War Two. In 1955, western Germany was allowed to rearm itself and become a member of NATO, but no new medals were created. As time went by Germany did participate in some international missions, but mostly by sending medical units. It never contributed troops to even such large-scale operations as the Gulf war. In Bosnia, Germany contributed 4,000 men to the international peacekeeping unit created after the conflict was over.

Politically, most analysts believe the average German would support the award of medals to the pilots. Opinion polls suggest that most Germans support the government's participation in NATO operations in Yugoslavia, largely because of the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees forced to flee their homes. The Greens party is divided, but many echo the comment of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who is a prominent member of the Greens. Fischer has said repeatedly that to do nothing would be worse than dropping bombs.

Experts believe that if medals are reintroduced in Germany, they will have to be completely new with no shadows of past tradition. Some military men have suggested reviving the Iron Cross, which was introduced by Prussia in 1813 during the Napleonic wars and continued to be awarded after Bismarck unified Germany at the end of the 19th Century. But for most experts, the Iron Cross is indelibly related to the Nazi regime and should not be revived. Adolph Hitler himself won an Iron Cross for bravery in the First World War.

Some Germans have suggested modifying a civilian award called the Federal Service Cross. They suggest it could be given a military dimension by adding some tiny swords. Others, however, reject this on the grounds that the Federal Service Cross has been awarded to minor actors and actresses and others whose achievements do not match putting their life on the line in a war.

A German military expert, Jurgen Buchhholz, has suggested that one way out of Germany's dilemma would be for NATO to create a medal for bravery. Buchholz said in a recent interview that "that way, Germany would not be criticized". But NATO does not appear enthusiastic. A spokesman in Brussels told RFE/RL today that during the Bosnian campaign NATO awarded so-called "participation medals" but it has no medals for exceptional military service or for bravery.