Germany's coalition shaken by bombing of Yugoslavia

Nation's aversion to war is rooted in Nazi past

April 30, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BONN, Germany -- The Kosovo conflict has awakened the ghosts of Germany's past, and the question here is not so much whether bombing will bring down Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as whether it will topple Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's coalition government.

The bombing campaign, in which the Luftwaffe is engaged in combat for the first time since World War II, has support from all political parties except the former Communist Party of Democratic Socialism and the small, extreme right-wing Republikaner Party. But the campaign has created severe angst in various sectors of the German population.

While a majority of voters in western Germany supports such action, a majority in eastern Germany does not. Pacifists who make up much of the membership of Schroeder's Social Democrats, and an even higher percentage of the Green Party, his coalition partner, are deeply perturbed.

Germany's political and social fabric will be even more shredded, however, if NATO leaders conclude that ground troops will have to be sent to Kosovo. Opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of Germans opposes the use of ground troops, and no political party supports such a step.

These sentiments make Germany the most fragile of the 19 NATO nations waging war against Yugoslavia, in the view of many European security experts.

A test of whether the coalition government can survive will come May 13, when the Greens hold a special congress in Hagen, near Duesseldorf, to decide whether to continue supporting the bombing.

While most Green members of parliament back NATO and the deployment of 14 German Tornado bombers in the conflict, antagonism among grass-roots members has reached the stage of open rebellion. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a Green, warned last week that a vote against the bombing policy would "mean the end of the road for this coalition."

After such a vote, Schroeder would have to look for a new coalition partner or call elections.

"The party is under strong pressure, and all things are possible, including the fall of the government," said Helmut Lippelt, who was one of the founders of the Greens in 1978. "A lot can change in a few weeks, and nobody knows what will happen."

Even if Schroeder manages to stay in office with a new coalition, the Kosovo conflict still will have the potential to cause him serious trouble. Should a majority of NATO members decide to send ground troops to Kosovo, the chancellor would have to make a tough choice to go along or to veto the decision. Schroeder told the NATO summit in Washington last week that he would not agree to sending ground troops.

Peter Zumkley, a security expert in Schroeder's party, said that if it comes to such a choice, "Schroeder will guarantee alliance solidarity. We will go with the alliance."

Germany currently holds the presidency of the European Union. While the government would find it difficult to support a decision to send ground troops, it would also be reluctant to stand apart from Britain, France and its other EU partners, Zumkley said.

The conflict in Yugoslavia arouses a greater emotional response among Germans than many other Europeans for a number of reasons, all rooted in Germany's Nazi past. After World War II, when Germany again became a democracy, the nation adopted two guiding principles: War never again, and a Holocaust never again.

In the Yugoslav campaign, those two principles have come into conflict. Germans who abhor war are having to ask themselves, in many cases, whether war is not necessary to prevent atrocities against the Kosovar people that recall the crimes of the Holocaust.

Many on the left have concluded that war cannot be justified for any reason. Other Germans are deeply troubled by participation in a war against Yugoslavia especially, because they remember the Nazi invasion of that country and the fact that the Luftwaffe flattened Belgrade in World War II.

Milosevic's propaganda machine has tried to exploit that lingering sense of guilt, repeatedly accusing the German government of having returned to fascism and a Hitlerite wish to subjugate Yugoslavia.

"The remembrance of the German past is very strong in my generation," said the Greens' Lippelt. "As a small child, I experienced air raids, and the use of the Luftwaffe against Serbia disturbs many of the elderly."

An additional factor in German thinking, said Karsten Voigt, a Foreign Ministry official and a Social Democrat, is widespread sympathy for the Serbian people. More than 600,000 Serbs live in Germany, the largest community outside Serbia.

"Germans feel we can't give in to Milosevic, but they feel pity for the people," Voigt said.

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