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Bundeswehr Gears Up for Balkans Duty

Army's expanded role in Bosnia-Herzegovina is an important factor in debate in Berlin about whether to abolish conscription.


SIGMARINGEN, Germany — In these highlands that were the stamping grounds of occupying Allied forces after World War II, German soldiers are learning to give as good as they got.

With their deployments to the Balkans, Bundeswehr troops are now the ones keeping the peace among the betrayed and the vanquished, half a century after the Allies nursed this country back from despair and ruin.

From drills on the arrest of war criminals to the disarming of illegal paramilitary forces, the grandchildren of those who benefited from the aid and security provided by French, British and U.S. soldiers are learning the lessons of benevolent postwar occupation at their foreign-mission training center here.

Germany has contributed to Bosnia-Herzegovina's peace enforcement effort since it began five years ago and has deployed units to international operations in Kosovo province since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of Yugoslavia ended 11 months ago. But the first German troops specially trained and equipped for the particular hazards of the Balkans will set out only this month, when a 7,200-strong contingent begins replacing their colleagues in the two peacekeeping forces.

"Restrictions on our involvement abroad ended in 1990, and politicians have had to learn gradually to accept that we Germans are now a completely normal member of the [NATO] alliance," said Maj. Gen. Karl-Heinz Lather, who is in charge of foreign deployments that were prohibited until Germany's unification.

By taking a lead role in the Balkans, European forces have shown they can take care of their own problems on the Continent, which has long been dependent on direction from NATO's U.S. contingent for security matters, Lather said.

The expanded role for German forces in the Balkans has become an important factor in a political debate in Berlin about whether the Bundeswehr, already reduced from 370,000 members to 330,000 over the last five years, should do away with conscription.

Conscripts serve only 10 months and are ineligible for foreign missions unless they agree to extend their service to at least 18 months. But an end to the draft would seriously deplete the number of contract or professional troops available for the high-profile Balkan mission that has freed Germany from its shackled postwar status.

Because German military service after World War II never involved the hazards and hardships of foreign assignments until the Balkan deployments, some career soldiers lament that the evolution of the Bundeswehr's European profile means personal sacrifice as well as recovery of national honor.

Capt. Stephan Holzhauer is due to deploy for his third six-month stint in the Balkans, a mission he sees as vital to the reputation of the German army. But even as the army has changed over the years he has served in it, so have his personal life and his sense of duty.

"I have a little 1-year-old daughter now . . . [so] it won't be so easy to be away from home for so long," Holzhauer said. "But I lived through the Cold War, and I'm glad to see Germany finally accepted as an equal partner in NATO."

Younger troops destined for duty in the volatile Balkans pay little heed to the role reversal for Germans, expressing the same interest of soldiers the world over for the extra pay that comes with a hazardous assignment and what passes among the uninitiated as a chance for adventure.

"I've heard the people there react very positively to us, on both sides," Pvt. Christoph Albietz said of the Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who are focused on distrust of one another more than of the Germans whose predecessors several generations ago spread Nazi terror to the Balkans.

Germany has long been the No. 1 destination of migrant labor from the Balkans, and hundreds of thousands of Yugoslavs have spent years working in this country earning marks and learning German.

"We have it easier there than some might think because so many people in Kosovo speak German," said Capt. Michael Schierenberg, noting that improvement of Germany's image in the Balkans began long before the recent military deployments.

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