Five years ago, NATO began air raids on Yugoslavia to stop violence in Kosovo. It was an important and controversial event for German foreign policy: For the first time since 1945, German soldiers participated in combat.
Keeping the peace after participating in the war.
Kosovo wasn't the first postwar foreign mission for the Bundeswehr, as the German military is called. German soldiers had participated in UN missions since the early 1990s, mainly offering humanitarian assistance.
However, the use of military force abroad in Kosovo helped redefine German foreign policy in a way that continues today. Germany's leading role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and deployment of naval power off the coast of Africa to combat international terrorism are the best examples of how things have changed.
Only a decade ago, those missions would have been unthinkable. In 1994, Social Democrats, who were in opposition at the time, and some Free Democrats, who formed part of the governing coalition, filed a complaint with the constitutional court against foreign missions by the Bundeswehr. Helmut Kohl, Germany's Christian Democratic chancellor at the time, and his cabinet of ministers had approved the missions without the parliament's consent.
The plaintiffs asked the court to clarify the legislature's rights in deciding about military missions. They also wanted to know whether the constitution allowed German soldiers to participate in such actions at all, as the Bundeswehr's scope of activities had been limited to defending Germany so far.
Clearing the way for Germany's participation in military strikes, the country's highest judges ruled that such an involvement was constitutional as long as a UN or NATO mandate existed.
Warming up to military action
Bundeswehr soldiers in Bosnia
The Bundeswehr went to the Balkans, where German soldiers became part of NATO's IFOR operation in Bosnia from 1995 to 1996. The mission gave the Bundeswehr a chance to get experience in conflict resolution, according to Hans Frank, a former vice admiral who now heads the Federal College for Security Policy Studies in Berlin.
"We participated in stabilization efforts after military action, but never in the action itself," Frank said. "Kosovo showed that sometimes the use of force is necessary to squelch a developing conflict and return to stability."
Using military force was the point in question. Until that time, German soldiers abroad had only used their weapons for self-defense. Now NATO decided to bomb Yugoslavia to end the atrocities that state forces were committing against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The German parliament voted in favor of Bundeswehr participation in October 1998, and the bombing began on March 24, 1999, exactly five years ago.
A first for Germany
Gerhard Schröder standing in front of a Eurofighter jet.
Germany wasn't waging a war but had been called upon to secure peace in Kosovo with military force, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder explained to the nation in a television speech. By doing so, he articulated a new and important basis of German foreign policy: The deployment of force and -- German -- soldiers can be a last resort to resolve a crisis.
At the same time, the federal government turned reunified Germany into an equal and serious NATO partner. Fourteen Bundeswehr Tornado fighters took off on 500 missions -- mostly for reconnaissance purposes but also against Yugoslav anti-aircraft stations.
It was a decisive and completely novel step for the Bundeswehr, which has to be seen in the context of its history, Frank said.
"But first and foremost it was a political decision, and a very important one," he said. "No government of the federal republic had been asked to make that decision to enter a war so far."
Even after NATO air raids began, all parties, except the post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), supported Germany's participation in the war. Seven of 47 Green parliamentarians called for an immediate end to the mission, but the party leadership surrounding Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer backed the decision.
After the war, the Bundeswehr almost immediately went from taking military action to trying to stabilize the situation; The UN's Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeepers took over once NATO had ended the bombardments on June 10, 1999.
Shortly after, Klaus Reinhardt became the first German general to lead a NATO mission outside the alliance's territory. Today, the Bundeswehr, which is sending an additional 600 troops to Kosovo after last week's violent clashes, remains one of the biggest forces within KFOR.