Goodbye to RAF, hello Somalia: New era in Germany as troops prepare to join UN in Africa and the British depart

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HE WATCHED the flypast, he shook some hands, he gave a distinctively royal twiddle-the-hands wave, and then he was off, in a green Rolls Royce. And RAF Germany was no more.

The Duke of Edinburgh's presence at yesterday's ceremony at British joint armed forces headquarters, in Rheindahlen in north-west Germany, marked the end of a long road. Theoretically, he was also here to baptise the newly created Number Two Group Royal Air Force. But everybody agreed that this was, above all, an end rather than a beginning.

In the wake of German unity, the RAF presence is to be halved, from 12,000 to 6,000. The British army presence in Germany is also to be more than halved, from 55,000 to 26,000 by 1995.

The British will still be here but, the relationship will be different. Above all, the Germans will be equal partners, rather than an occupied and protected country.

Despite occasional friction, the relationship between host and guest-protector has been good. In towns such as Rheindahlen, the departure of the British is cause for some regret, partly because the relationship was genuinely warm, and partly because of the benefits for the local economy.

Rheindahlen will continue to be an important base, of a different kind. The British will be part of a joint force, of five Nato countries, including the Germans themselves, as well as the Belgians, Dutch, British and Americans.

The farewell to RAF Germany, attended by the regional prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Johannes Rau, came on the very day that powerful and frightened Germany took another angst-ridden step towards playing a fuller role on the world stage. The German government coalition announced it was ready to accede to the request of the United Nations, to send German soldiers to Somalia.

The opposition Social Democrats have been wary about an increased German military involvement, even at the request of the UN. But they, too, made it clear yesterday that they did not oppose the decision on Somalia.

Germany is coming to terms with the need to make its own decisions on military questions for the first time in almost 50 years. A commentary in Die Woche suggested: 'Perhaps it is now, not when the Wall came down, that the post-war era has ended. A new, uncertain era has begun, into which we are stumbling - naive, lost and unprepared.'

It is difficult to quarrel with the last part of that assessment. Endless wrangling over whether or not German crews could be allowed on Awacs planes to help enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia was only resolved this month after the politicians passed the buck to the constitutional court, which was allegedly supposed to rule on the legal niceties of the matter. But the constitutional court, which gave the green light, explicitly referred to politics, not legal expertise.

Many in Germany regarded Bonn's action as an absurd cop-out. To understand it, one needs to sense the lingering paranoia about how Germany may still be perceived by the outside world. Even when a dozen world leaders say that they would like Germany to take a more active part in UN actions, German politicians still worry that they will internationally criticised if they show too much enthusiasm about jumping into the fray. Among the Social Democrats especially, there is also a lurking pessimism about German tendencies, a subtext that Germany, if allowed to go too far, will slide back into behaving like the monster of the past.