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Bonn outraged by 'Prussian' torch-lit tattoo

A Prussian "Grand Tattoo" in the heart of Bonn celebrating the new German army's 40th birthday whipped up more than a little storm yesterday, as opposition politicians snubbed the ceremony, accusing Chancellor Helmut Kohl of harking back to the country's worst military traditions.

The torch-lit parade, which was first introduced by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1813 and went out of fashion in 1945, was disrupted by noisy demonstrators who booed the national anthem and yelled abuse at the assembled dignitaries.

A force of 3,000 police was at hand to protect the soldiers marching among the linden trees in front of the university from potentially violent peace protesters.

While they were able to keep the hard core outside metal barriers, even they were powerless to stop the cacophony of whistles and chants competing with the brass band's rousing harmonies. The musicians did their best to please the crowd, even including in the 30-minute programme a rendition of Rod Stewart's I am sailing - Prussian-style.

The protesters' banners - "Legalised murder is still murder" and "A Federal republic without an army" were pushed to the edge of the square. All the Chancellor could see was a banner by his own Christian Democrats proclaiming "Yes to the Bundeswehr".

Mr Kohl's decision to hold the tattoo in the middle of the sleepy little Rhineland town had rekindled debate about the role of the German armed forces and their place in a society that would rather not notice their existence.

"This is a provocation against the town's civil community," complained Manfred Stenner, the head of the Bonn Peace Bureau. "The Chancellor wants to demonstrate to the citizens of Bonn that the Bundeswehr [federal army] is the biggest peace movement in Germany today."

The peaceniks were particularly incensed by the choice of the venue, accusing the army of desecrating their most hallowed ground. It was at the same university lawn that the legendary Petra Kelly rallied demonstrators against the stationing of Pershing nuclear missiles in the 1980s.

Traditionally, the Bundeswehr's birthday parties have been tucked away at quiet barracks, lest they offend foreigners and the many Germans who still feel nervous about manifestations of German military power. It was not until last year's farewell ceremony in Berlin to Allied soldiers that the army first came out of the closet.

Now Mr Kohl wants to make a habit of it. "It is absolutely crucial that we celebrate this birthday in public," he said. "It is self-evident that we stand by our soldiers."

Many Bonn residents, unswayed by the fuss, think he is right. "The Bundeswehr is part of the state and is needed," said Philipp Wolff, a 25-year-old student. "It must be integrated into society. It is dangerous to hide soldiers out of sight. That's how you get third world tendencies - dictatorship."

Bringing them into the open is one thing, but do they have to perform a ritual choreographed by a Prussian emperor and perfected during the Third Reich, some locals asked.

"The most problematic thing is that the Nazi Wehrmacht and even the Waffen SS celebrated this kind of procession," says Mr Stenner, a peace campaigner.

Echoes of such concern could be found even among those who supported the decision and to turned up for the spectacle. "The torches are a problem," said Patrick Neuhaus, a 21-year-old law student. "I think they could have done it without the torches."

But torches it was to be, Mr Kohl decreed, and he was going to take no nonsense from anyone trying to spoil his party. So when Bonn council, ruled by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, gave permission to a counter-demonstration, the Chancellor's fury was boundless. "I shall take the Ministry of Defence to Berlin," his office threatened churlishly. Following reunification, the Bundeswher was one of few national institutions to be retained by Bonn after the move to the new capital in the year 2000.

"Take your soldiers," the burghers of Bonn countered. "Maybe the Prussians there will appreciate your parades." Mr Kohl, a Rhinelander himself, should have known that Prussians in this part of the country are not exactly role models.

In the event, his ill-tempered response merely stiffened the opposition's resolve not to grace Mr Kohl's moment of glory. While the foreign ambassadors invited could hardly duck out, Rudolf Scharping, leader of the Social Democratic Party, did refuse to turn up for the parade, though he attended a soldier-free jamboree at Bonn's concert hall.

The Greens also made their excuses, the best coming from Volker Beck, a member of the national parliament. Mr Beck and wife had received a handsome invitation from the Chancellor's office. "Unfortunately, there is no Frau Beck in my menage," Mr Beck replied. At least he had the courtesy to offer to bring his boyfriend along.