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The Balkan decision

December 28, 2010

Burdened by the genocidal legacy of National Socialism, Germany swore never again to wage war. In part two of a three-part series, DW examines how the country returned to military action in the Balkans.

Milosevic on television at war-crimes tribunal, with an elderly woman covering her face as she cries and watches
Reality trumped rhetoric: Germany agreed to use force in the YugoslaviaImage: AP

War returned to Germany's doorstep when Yugoslavia imploded in ethnic violence. During the winter of 1994, German officials agonized over whether to participate in a NATO-led military intervention aimed at containing the war.

Although the nation's highest court had declared such interventions constitutional, Germany remained deeply reluctant to use military force for any reason other than defense. But enormous political and moral pressure pushed the Kohl government and the opposition toward a shaky consensus in favor of military action against Serbia.

This consensus faced its trial-by-fire when the Social Democrats and Greens took the reins of power in 1998. In a twist of fate, the traditionally antiwar parties ordered Germany's first offensive military strike since World War II.

The war next door

By the fall of 1994, the war in Yugoslavia had reached a boiling point as Serb forces began targeting NATO aircraft and UN peacekeepers. The NATO allies feared the worst and drew up plans to rescue the lightly armed peacekeepers in the event that the Serbs launched an all-out attack.

Slavian Tank
Helmut Kohl dragged his feet to avoid intervening in Yugoslavia.Image: AP

As NATO prepared for a showdown, Germany dragged its feet. Chancellor Helmut Kohl argued that since the Third Reich had occupied Yugoslavia, it would be historically inappropriate for Germany to intervene in the current conflict.

Kohl was trying to prevent Germany from getting involved in the conflict too quickly, according to Karl Lamers, the former foreign policy spokesman for the Christian Democrats.

"That was an ineffectual attempt to throw up a firewall," Lamers said. "Kohl was much too intelligent to think that it would hold. But it fit the disposition among the German people."

Kohl's firewall began crumbling as the arrival of Bosnian refugees started impacting German domestic politics, according to Lamers.

And as the humanitarian situation worsened, NATO began to lose its patience with Bonn. The allies pressured Germany to send its Tornado warplanes into the Bosnian firestorm. The Tornados had a unique capability to locate and destroy Serb radar installations, which would help cover a possible UN withdrawal. Germany was the only European country that possessed such aircraft.

Ultimately, strategic realities trumped political rhetoric and the Kohl government assented to NATO's request. But Germany's deeply divided parliament still had to approve the decision.

"You can always argue about the sense of using military force, because you never know what the result will be. That's the risk," Lamers said. "But when all the countries in the community that we belong to say its necessary, we can't just say 'count me out.'"

Winning the home front

For the first time since the World War II, a German government had decided to deploy its military to a war zone. Unwilling to shoulder the full political and moral responsibility for its historic decision, the Kohl government reached out to the opposition Social Democrats and Greens.

Joschka Fischer in Parliament
Even the Greens' Joschka Fischer said force was justified to stop genocideImage: AP

The Bosnian quagmire had thrown the Social Democratic Party into an uproar. The antiwar mainstream feared embarking down a slippery slope that could lead the country away from its peaceful foreign policy. But a more hawkish minority supported using force as a last resort to rescue the UN peacekeepers and stop the ethnic cleansing.

"In a 10-to-1 vote, the foreign and security policy experts supported the government's proposal," said Karsten Voigt, former foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats. "We knew that the party had a different opinion. There was considerable uproar. In the end, around 50 Social Democrats voted with the government in favor of the Bosnian mission and against their own party."

Green revolution

As Social Democrats inched closer to the Kohl government, the Greens were facing a crisis of conscience that threatened to tear their party in two. Traditionally, the Green Party advocated a pacifist foreign policy rooted in the peaceful resolution of conflicts through international institutions like the UN.

But the UN's failure to stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia led to an ideological revolution within certain quarters of the party. After Serb forces massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica, Green Party whip Joschka Fischer declared that force was justified to stop genocide.

"With the Balkan wars we realized for the first time that there are situations in which one has to intervene militarily," said Ludger Volmer, former president of the Green Party who went on to serve as the country's Deputy Foreign Minister. "That was a difficult learning process."

This learning process would end with the Bundestag sending Tornado warplanes as well as peacekeepers to Bosnia. Against the historical and political odds, Germany's divided parties had forged a shaky consensus in favor of military intervention.

Peaceniks in power

After serving 16 years in the opposition, the Social Democrats and Greens defeated the Kohl Government in the 1998 elections. No sooner had the left-of-center coalition come to power than renewed ethnic violence erupted in Yugoslavia.

NATO bomb hitting an electricity station near Belgrade
NATO's air war against Serbia was an allied interventionImage: Picture-alliance / dpa

While NATO peacekeepers secured the precarious peace in Bosnia, the breakaway province of Kosovo careened toward war as ethnic Albanians demanded independence from Serbia. Germany and its NATO allies pushed for a peaceful settlement. But negotiations collapsed when both sides refused to compromise on Kosovo's political status.

In anticipation of this worst-case scenario, the Kohl government had committed Germany to participate in a NATO air war against Serbia. Now, Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had to decide whether they would honor their predecessor's commitment. Air strikes hardly squared with the coalition's platform of a foreign policy rooted in peaceful conflict resolution.

Bombing Belgrade

When the Security Council stalled over Russian and Chinese objections, NATO decided to launch its air war without a UN mandate. The NATO allies accused Serbia of ethnic cleansing and argued that time was of the essence in order to save innocent lives.

Schroeder and Fischer faced a nightmare scenario: an allied military intervention without UN sanction.

"The new Schroeder-Fischer government agreed to participate for purely opportune reasons," said Hans-Ulrich Klose, a leading foreign policy expert and parliamentarian within the Social Democratic Party. "They knew that if they didn't participate, they would face foreign policy isolation from the outset. That's what I call the joke of history. The German position changed irrevocably because the government had no choice but to say yes."

With deep reservations, the former antiwar opposition ordered warplanes to bomb Belgrade in Germany's first overt military strike since World War II. The shaky foreign policy consensus forged during the Bosnian crisis had survived its trial-by-fire in Kosovo.

"Germany is not a military power and it doesn't want to become one," Volmer said. "You cannot help but recognize that there are some conflicts for which you have to arm yourself and that there may be situations in which you have to intervene militarily. But at its very core, Germany has a remote relationship to armed force. That's a lesson from the Second World War, from history."

Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn