From- U.S. News & World Report 21 October, 1996 page 56



It took Hitler's Wehrmacht just 11 days to finish off the Yugoslav Army after its invasion on April 6, 1941. But it was what happened next that explains why, a half century later, the sum of Germans plus military uniforms plus the Balkans remains emotionally combustible to Germans and Yugoslavs alike.

Fighting one of the most brutal guerrilla wars in history, the Nazis slaughtered 1 in 7 Yugoslavs in an orgy of reprisals against partisans and civilians.

Until now, troops from the Bundeswehr, the German federal defense force, have participated in U.N. missions only on the fringes of the battleground in the former Yugoslavia. German troops have dropped humanitarian aid from the skies over Bosnia, flown reconnaissance in support of Allied combat sorties or provided medical services in the Croatian hinterland.

But necessity may be the mother of amnesia. With a speed that has astonished many, Europe's long-standing taboo against the deployment of German troops across its borders--even to the very scene of its wartime crimes in Bosnia--has vanished. NATO defense ministers meeting recently in the Norwegian city of Bergen said that Germany, which has both the largest population and the largest army in Western Europe, will likely be asked to contribute 2,000-3,000 troops to the follow-up peacekeeping force in Bosnia. That force, IFOR II, is scheduled to take over December 20, when the current U.N. mandate runs out.

Salamitaktik. It's no coincidence that this comes at a time when Germans are fundamentally rethinking their own attitudes toward the military. The unprecedented catastrophe the Germans brought upon themselves in the Second World War gave a knockout blow to the prestige of the armed forces, and a lingering suspicion of the Army became part of the postwar consensus in the Federal Republic. When the Bundeswehr was born out of cold war necessity in 1955, its planners spoke pointedly of citizens in uniform and a culture of restraint. The new Army had only one mission: to deter an invasion from the east.

Unification changed all that. As the most powerful country in Western Europe, the new Germany has regained full sovereignty and is quietly but tenaciously pushing for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Now the political elite in Bonn are marveling over a sea change in public attitudes about use of the military, with more than 65 percent supporting the IFOR mission. Much of the credit belongs to Defense Minister Volker Rühe's Salamitaktik, which sliced away one taboo after another beginning with a token presence in the U.N.'s Somalia mission and embargo enforcement in the Adriatic. Parliament is now preparing to approve IFOR II with none of the public agonizing that once dominated such discussions. The consensus extends even to opposition socialists, Greens and Communists who a year ago made headlines describing the Balkans as Germany's Vietnam. "If the IFOR troops are there, I see no reason Germany shouldn't participate," says Communist deputy Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel, who, as a Luftwaffe pilot, was shot down by the Russians in 1942.

It's too early to worry about a goose-stepping revival of Prussian militarism, but there is no mistaking the new tone of confidence among Bonn's security establishment. Rühe startled NATO colleagues at the Bergen conference when he told reporters that the next IFOR mission should be more aggressive hunting down suspected war criminals. Kohl's Christian Democrat confidants are not above hinting to other members of the European Union that Germany might pursue foreign policy aims on its own if European integration doesn't continue as Germany would like. On the conservative fringe, one can hear mutterings about using the armed forces to pursue national interests--though that phrase remains officially beyond the pale in the Germany military.

Of greater significance are the changes that have been going on within the 360,000-man Army itself. A new Crisis Reaction Force could command as much as a quarter of the Army, a third of the Air Force and 40 percent of the Navy. More than 75 percent of its personnel would be professional soldiers--in contrast to the conscripts who make up the body of the Army. Senior officers stress that these new units would be used only with allied consent and that much of the pressure for reform comes precisely from NATO's decision earlier this year to strengthen Europe's role within the alliance.

As for the nuclear option, modern-day Germans are happy to leave it in other hands. When France proposed sharing its nuclear deterrent with the Germans last year, the response from Bonn was a resounding thanks, but no thanks. Some taboos definitely remain.