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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bosnia Revives German Arms Angst

BERLIN -- Step by step, mission by mission, token force by token force, the German military is inching its way back toward the battlefield, 50 years after it lost Hitler's war and bid a humiliating farewell to arms.

As NATO defense ministries put together a rapid-reaction force for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the postwar German army is on the verge of its most politically charged extra-territorial undertaking yet: 2,000 soldiers, 12 C-160 transport aircraft and about a dozen Tornado attack planes are being readied for possible action in the Balkan war.

"Bundeswehr [German army] soldiers might die in such an operation," warns German Defense Minister Volker R--he, who has been trying to prepare the German public psychologically for the potential sight of young compatriots returning home in body bags.

Germany's creeping return to the arena of international conflict started in the 1970s, when Bonn began sending the occasional military instructor into the developing world, "to teach our understanding of the role of the armed forces in a democratic society," as the justification went. Germany took a semi-plunge in 1991, sending air crews to eastern Turkey and warships to the Mediterranean during the Persian Gulf War.

In 1993, the first German soldier since May 1945 was killed on active duty in a foreign country -- a 26-year-old medic stationed in Cambodia -- to the astonishment of his countrymen, few of whom had realized their government had sent 170 Germans to the Southeast Asian country's infamous killing fields.

And last year, the German constitutional court upped the stakes once again with a landmark ruling that there was no legally compelling argument for keeping the Bundeswehr out of foreign combat forever, provided the German Parliament approved each overseas mission in advance.

Germany's proposed contribution to the NATO rapid-reaction force is notable for its relatively low numbers -- Britain, by contrast, already has a 1,500-troop commitment to Bosnia and is expected to send another 5,500 soldiers.

The German contingent is striking simply because it comes from Germany, a U.S. ally struggling for the past half a century to atone for what its soldiers and leaders did in World War II.

Germany has a firmly rooted democratic government, an economy that dominates the European continent, the world's second-largest volume of arms exports and more soldiers under arms than any other nation in the European Union -- but it also remains shackled by the fear that the minute those troops move beyond its borders some militaristic German habits may come back.

"Don't people ... realize that you shouldn't offer liqueur-filled chocolates to an alcoholic who has finally gone dry?" asks Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democratic Party governor of the state of Saarland and a longstanding opponent of any renewed overseas role for the German army.