In May 1955, Europe's military blocs were laid down when West Germany joined NATO and East Germany became part of the Soviet's Warsaw Pact, resulting in two German armies which opposed each other until 1989.
"For Germany, NATO was a guarantee for peace in Europe"
Joining NATO gave West Germany binding ties to the West, as well as the military protection of the United States. And for NATO, which was founded in 1949, the move was equally important. The former West Germany was a key area of concentration along the Iron Curtain which divided Europe into its eastern and western blocs, and it was strategically important that West Germany be integrated in the West both politically and militarily.
By the time West Germany joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on May 6, 1955, France had gradually let go of its original concerns about entrusting an armed forces to Germany -- it was, after all, just 10 years since the brutal end of World War II. But 50 years ago, West Germany had no army to speak of -- this was slowly built up over the ensuing years.
Divided Germany:a poster for the Warsaw Pact
Only eight days later, on May 14, 1955, East Germany became a founding member of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led military alliance. On a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels earlier this year, German President Horst Köhler called NATO's development at the time "life-sustaining."
"For Germany, NATO was a guarantee for peace in Europe," Köhler said. "The alliance partners, and especially the United States, gave us Germans the calming certainty that friendly nations wholeheartedly stood for peace and freedom in our country."
Defending NATO's ideals
After German reunification in 1990, the former East Germany also became a part of NATO. In 1995, the German military participated in a NATO-led foreign operation for the first time -- in the former Yugoslavia. Today, around 5,000 German soldiers are serving under the NATO flag, mainly in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
"Politically, Germany had come a very long way before it decided to take part in a NATO peacekeeping operation outside of German territory," said Köhler. "In the Balkans and in Afghanistan, Germany now makes up the largest contingent of soldiers and staff, and is making an invaluable contribution."
Germany is the biggest contributor of troops for foreign missions and, after the US, the second biggest financial contributor to NATO. But only once has a German been NATO's general secretary, when Manfred Wörner served from 1988 to 1994.
Split over Iraq war
The cracks have been paved over, but the Iraq war caused a bitter division between US President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder
Until the conflict over the Iraq war, Germany was known in NATO for being a loyal ally of the US. That once harmonious relationship now bears deep scars. At the last NATO summit in February, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder demanded more say for the Europeans in NATO's decisions.
"I have the impression that NATO and the other European institutions are very interested in improving the transatlantic dialogue, also when it comes to a pending decision" Schröder said. "We can only defend together what we have also decided together."
Fifty years after the former West Germany's entry in NATO, the organization's role has changed dramatically. The main focus is no longer on deterring enemies threatening to start a nuclear war. Rather, NATO's priority is defending common values and security interests all over the world. Its forces have been transformed into flexible units capable of responding quickly to a crisis.
For the German army, this has meant a seemingly endless restructuring marathon. But Germany has every reason to stick by the alliance, according to a German general at the Brussels headquarters, as Germany's membership in NATO signified its return to the civilized world.