Germans see echo of past in Yugoslavia

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The Independent Online
THERE are likely to be frank and forthright discussions when Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, meets the inflexible Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, in Zagreb today. Mr Kinkel is sharply critical of attacks by Croats on their former Muslim allies in parts of Bosnia. Zagreb has, in effect, washed its hands of the Bosnian Croat violence in recent weeks.

Despite the present anger with Croatia, Mr Kinkel is, however, keen to defend Germany's strong support for Croatia in 1991 and 1992. Britain blames Germany for railroading the rest of the European Community into recognising Croatia and Slovenia in January 1992, and argues that this made the problems worse. Mr Kinkel, however, is quick to deny that version of events: 'This criticism was, is and remains wrong. We should have acted even earlier. If Europe had reacted in 1991 (when Belgrade first used force against Slovenia and then Croatia) as it is reacting now, in 1993, we might have saved ourselves many problems.'

In the past two years, Germany has been much more outspoken than any other European country about the need to put more pressure on Belgrade. Paradoxically, however, just when the possibility of some form of tough Western action has been seriously discussed for the first time, Germany is backing off from its own previous rhetoric.

This is, however, only a reluctant and embarrassed retreat. Because of its constitutional difficulties Germany cannot send its own troops on UN military missions. Yugoslavia is, in any case, out of the question, for historical reasons. Thus, as Mr Kinkel acknowledged, in an interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung yesterday: 'It's their soldiers who would go, so we Germans should refrain from giving advice or making carping assessments. In that respect, we are living in a glass house.'

As the Suddeutsche Zeitung commented, on the occasion of the recent visit by Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State: 'Chancellor Kohl and Kinkel have agreed to resist the temptation of going it alone with the Americans.' A newspaper cartoon, entitled High Noon, showed 'Sheriff Christopher seeking helpers for Bosnia': all the Europeans, including Germany, scurried behind closed doors as the sheriff walked down the street. Germans are not happy with that renunciation of responsibility: a recent poll suggested that a majority of Germans were in favour of intervention of some kind.

In West European capitals, one can sometimes hear, sotto voce, the 'Fourth Reich' argument that is vigorously aired in Belgrade: a suggestion that Germany's support of Croatia and Slovenia is an echo of old alliances, when the Germans created a pro-Nazi puppet state in Croatia, responsible for hundreds of thousands of Serb deaths. There is talk, too, of a strong Catholic lobby.

But Germans on left and right argue that the anger over the destruction of Croatia in 1991 had little to do with religion, and less to do with Nazi alliances. The mood may reflect German history in a different way. In Mr Kinkel's words: 'Others used military means - because there was no alternative - to free us from the tyrant Hitler.'

Freimut Duve, one of the most outspoken voices on Yugoslavia within the opposition Social Democrats, also insists that there is no hidden power-play. On the contrary, he points out, 'Germany today has a huge fear of being seen as having too much influence.' Mr Duve believes that Germany's experience of history meant that people strongly identified the horrors in Croatia and Bosnia, as seen on their television screens, with their own past.

'We are very influenced by the images of Hitler and Auschwitz. We're more prone to view the world in a moral than in a practical way.' Mr Duve argues, too, that the apparent pragmatism of realpolitik can backfire in the longer term. The Western negotiators, he says, 'made a terrible mistake - negotiating with maps, instead of lives'.

British officials suggest that, even if Germany's policy on Yugoslavia is not self-serving, then it has been naive. Maybe, as some Germans acknowledge, they were naive to think that recognising Croatia would stop the killings. The recognition of Croatia came in the wake of the brutal destruction of Vukovar, and after the bombardment of Dubrovnik, and was intended to imply a kind of legal protection for Croatian territory.

But it is a moot point who was more naive in their overall understanding of the conflict. Was it the Germans, who argued that Slobodan Milosevic should be stopped, by whatever means necessary, before the Serb-launched war got worse? Or was it the British, who kept insisting that just a few more rounds of talks were needed to reach a settlement? Britain's self-congratulation after last year's London Conference on Yugoslavia showed a tenuous grasp on reality; when I interviewed Mr Milosevic, a few hours after the conference ended, he did not hide his scorn for the toothless unanimity against him.

Now that the Serbian conquest has gone so far, it will be difficult to reverse. Any just (and therefore lasting) settlement will be painful and humiliating for Serbs. As the Germans know better than anybody: when a demagogue encourages his people to commit hideous crimes, it can take years before the nation comes to terms with its guilt. Germany has done so. Serbia will have to, one day.

(Photograph omitted)