Berlin gives army a hot reception

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The Independent Online
Germany's militaristic past collided yesterday with its ambiguous present when pacifists disrupted the first all-German army parade in Berlin since the Nazi era. A swearing-in ceremony for 300 Bundeswehr recruits in front of the Hohenzollerns' palace resounded to the chant of "Murderers" as more than a thousand protesters stormed the police cordon.

The demonstrators lobbed stones, tried to break through the barrier and staged sit-ins on the tarmac. Riot police at first dragged them away and then tried to douse the inflamed passions with water cannon. There were several arrests, though no injuries.

President Roman Herzog, who now resides in Germany's official capital, greeted the Bundeswehr as the "army of democracy", provoking yet more gibes from the uninvited guests. The government has recently tried to ban the "murderer" epithet being attached to soldiers but its attempt was ruled unconstitutional by the country's supreme court.

A move to forbid demonstrations against yesterday's parade was also foiled by a local court. Protesters were allowed to gather about a third of a mile from the venue, Charlottenburg Palace, near the Brandenburg Gate. The pacifists warmed event by spreading butyric acid, the substance that gives butter its rancid smell, on the parade ground on Thursday night.

That had been cleared up by the morning but the foul air was soon replenished by smoke bombs. One went off as President Herzog was speaking, the dark mist eliciting anxious looks among the mostly uniformed audience.

"You protect and defend the freedom of our land ... even the right of people to protest against you," President Herzog told the new soldiers of the 42nd Panzer Division. The army as the upholder of democracy was a recurring theme. The Bundeswehr had "no responsibility for the crimes of the past and nothing to do with sable-rattling," Mr Herzog said.

The military oath was itself an outpouring of democratic sentiment. "I pledge loyally to serve the Federal Republic of Germany and to defend with courage the rights and freedom of the German people," mouthed the soldiers, their oath barely audible in the chorus of whistles. Berlin's conservative Mayor, Eberhard Diepgen, said: "We don't hide our soldiers but are proud of them." But many of his compatriots are still uncomfortable with people marching in German uniforms and anti-militaristic sentiment runs highest in Berlin. Before the fall of the Wall, West Berlin, as a demilitarised city, became a haven for draft-dodgers.

The tradition lingers. Whilst "only" a third of potential German conscripts opted for a civilian service last year, in Germany half the men of military age proclaimed themselves conscientious objectors.

Unease with the spectacle of marching German soldiers in the former Prussian capital extends across the country. Criticism of yesterday's ceremony had come not just from the vociferous youth of Berlin but also from political groups ranging from the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism in the east to the Greens and Social Democrats in western Germany.

With the abolition of conscription in France, the Bundeswehr is set to become West Europe's largest standing army, with a mission still undefined.

Opinion polls indicate that Germans continue to mistrust soldiers and that fear of a revival of Germany as a military power runs as high within the country as among its neighbours in Europe.

But those who were looking for humility in yesterday's parade could hardly be reassured by a triumphant remark by Volker Ruhe, the Defence Minister. "The reunified Berlin is once again a garrison city," he said in his speech.