1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Tornado fighter jet
Germany used fighter jets to bomb Serbian targetsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Combat Troops

March 24, 2009

Ten years ago, German fighter planes participated in NATO air strikes against Serbian targets. As the bombs dropped, Germany’s armed forces joined in their first modern combat mission.


Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had only been in office for a few months when he was called to explain Germany's participation in a NATO bombing operation.

"Overnight on Thursday, NATO launched air strikes against military targets in Yugoslavia. The alliance was compelled to take this step in order to prevent further heavy and systematic infringement of human rights in Kosovo," Schroeder told the parliament.

It was the first time since World War II that German soldiers had taken part in a combat mission. For Germany, the timing was complicated. Schroeder's Social Democrats had just won a parliamentary majority together with the Green party, forming a so-called Red-Green Coalition.

One of their first decisions was whether to have the Bundeswehr, which is what Germany's federal armed forces are called, participate in NATO fighting. From the beginning, Schroeder was confident that he had political and public support for the mission.

"We are united and in agreement with the large majority of the German people and also -- thank God -- with a large majority of the German parliament, which cuts across all party lines," Schroeder said.

NATO pressured Milosevic

Yugoslav army troops rest next to their tank in the Drenica area of Kosovo
Yugoslavia eventually pulled troops out of KosovoImage: AP

The weeks leading up to Schroeder's speech before parliament was had been turbulent ones. The Kosovo crisis was intensifying at the same time that the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Helmut Kohl was coming to an end. Schroeder's new coalition had not even had a chance to settle in before being hit with a series of major foreign policy decisions.

NATO was turning up the heat on Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, warning that it would launch air strikes if the expulsions and killings in Kosovo continued. NATO General Secretary Javier Solana issued a warning in the fall of 2008: "Just a few moments ago, the North Atlantic Council decided to issue activation orders - ACTORDs - for both a phased air campaign in Yugoslavia and limited air operations."

NATO expected Germany to make a contribution to the fighting. The newly-elected parliament held a special meeting in October 1998 in Bonn, Germany. A large majority of the delegates decided to allow Bundeswehr troops to take part in NATO air strikes, even without a United Nations mandate.

Deployment without a UN mandate

Negotiations continued. Yugoslavian representatives meet with Kosovo-Albanians and NATO in search of a solution. Germany's new government, inexperienced in foreign policy, took a low-key approach, yet threw its support behind NATO.

Rudolf Scharping, the Secretary of Defense for the Social Democrats, said at the time: "We want to do everything in our power to keep corpses from piling up in the Balkans and to ensure that there isn't a new stream of refugees into Europe."

After Yugoslavia refused to accept the Rambouillet Agreement, NATO began bombing targets in Belgrade and other Serbian cities. Fourteen German Tornado fighter planes were used for air reconnaissance and to attack Serbian air defense positions. This meant not only that German soldiers took an active role in fighting for the first time since the end of World War II, but that they did so without a UN mandate. The German government justified its participation by saying it could not close its eyes to the suffering of the civilian population in Kosovo.

Not easy being Green

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, right, with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer
Schroeder, right, and Fischer, left, both supported the Kosovo warImage: AP

This policy change was particularly difficult for the Green party, which historically has had close links to the peace movement. Angry demonstrators called top Green politicians "murderers" as they arrived with police escorts for a party meeting in May of 1999.

Many long-time Green supporters vehemently reject the use of military force, yet Parliamentarian Angelika Beer defended party leaders from criticisms and insults being hurled at them. The critics were cowardly, she said, and had no good alternatives to offer.

"Those of you who are now yelling ‘warmongers,' would you have wanted us to turn a blind eye?" she asked. "How would you have wanted to justify it?"

Joschka Fisher, the Green's Foreign Minister, found himself at the center of the criticism for his support of the war. At one point a paint bomb was lobbed at his head, injuring him slightly.

"At this moment in time, I regard a one-sided, unlimited cessation of the bomb attacks as a wrong signal," Fischer said at one point.

Germany still in Kosovo

KFOR soldiers on patrol in Kosovo
KFOR still has soldiers in KosovoImage: AP

June of 1999, Milosevic withdrew his troops, allowing NATO peacekeeping troops KFOR to move in. Bundeswehr General Klaus Reinhardt was the commander of KFOR for several years. The deployment was important, Reinhardt said.

"In Kosovo, external stability was important because Milosevic had said each day: ‘I will take my country back by force,'" Reinhardt said.

Only when the situation is stable can political and economic conditions improve, the general said. However, bringing stability to Kosovo has taken much longer than anyone expected at the time. The Red-Green coalition has been out of office for nearly four years, but there are still more than 2,500 German soldiers stationed in Kosovo.

Author: Nina Werkhäuser (th/nda)

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (L) and Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov in Kyiv, pictured on February 3, 2022

Ukraine updates: Kyiv to replace defense minister

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage