Ties that bind the liberated Germany: Europe uber alles is the message in a week that saw America's best friend emerge on to the world stage

IT WAS, as Bill Clinton might have described it, eine deutsche Woche - a German week. Three events seemed to encapsulate the liberation of Germany from its tormented past, and to define a turning point in European history.

On Tuesday, the US President strode through once-divided Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate and showered praise on the united German state, urging it to shoulder new world responsibilities commensurate with its strength. 'Alles ist moglich,' he proclaimed - everything is possible.

On the same day, Germany's highest court gave the green light to armed German peace-keeping operations abroad. The court thereby buried restrictions on the role of the military which, since 1945, the Germans themselves had endorsed as keenly as any of their former enemies.

Finally, on Thursday, in a ceremony heavy with symbolism, German troops paraded down the Avenue des Champs- Elysees in Paris to mark Bastille Day. They took the same route along which Nazi soldiers marched every day during the occupation of Paris five decades ago.

If you like your history neatly trimmed and packaged, this was certainly a week to remember. In three strokes, it appeared that the world as known since 1945 had come to an end and a new era had started. Goodbye to inhibited, guilt-stricken Germany, a country that spent half a century honing an image of respectable obscurity. Welcome to refreshed, forward-looking Germany, a country that is America's best friend and will lead from the front an ever more closely united Europe.

It is, of course, not that simple. For one thing, in the seamless flow of events that makes up history, Germany's moral rehabilitation and accumulation of political power to match its economic might has been a steady process over several decades. For another, many Germans and other Europeans would contend that Europe, not Germany, was the issue at the heart of last week's events.

The Champs-Elysees parade buttresses that point. Its significance lay not so much in the fact that 200 men from a German Panzer division rode in armoured personnel vehicles down the most famous street in Paris. It lay in the fact that the Germans were there with Frenchmen, Belgians and Spaniards as part of the so-called Eurocorps, the embryo of a future pan-European army. The essential message was one of European integration.

'It is the presence of the Eurocorps on the Champs-Elysees that we are celebrating,' said France's Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur.

His Defence Minister, Francois Leotard, said that people demonstrating against the German presence were 'referring to an absurd concept, that of an hereditary enemy. The Germans are our partners, our friends, and we are working with them to build Europe.'

Similarly, Mr Clinton's enthusiastic embrace of Germany was not meant to imply that the Germans should strike out on their own in world affairs. For the United States as for everyone else, including the Germans themselves, the whole point about a dynamic Germany is that it must exercise its strength in harmony with its European neighbours and in alliance with the US.

It has been an axiom of post-1945 US foreign policy that European countries should draw closer together. Originally, this was conceived as a contribution to the containment of the Soviet Union.

In these post-Soviet times, the US sees European integration as the best way of fostering stability on the continent.

The third event of last week - the constitutional court's decision to permit armed German peace-keeping missions abroad - might be construed as clearing the way for a special German role in the world.

But no sooner had the court announced its verdict than Chancellor Helmut Kohl observed: 'It is not as if a new mood has broken out that says, 'Germans to the front]' ' He might have added that, if his centre-right Christian Democratic Union loses next October's national parliamentary elections, it is far from certain that Germany will take part in any missions abroad.

The court's decision made German participation in such operations dependent on parliament's approval, and such approval could easily be denied by a Bundestag that contained a Social Democratic and Green majority.

Even if Mr Kohl remains in office after October, he will have to take account of public opinion. Surveys indicate that, 49 years after the fall of the Third Reich, Germans are still extremely wary about the deployment of German military power abroad, even for peaceful purposes.

'The Bundeswehr will not become an interventionist army. That is not the point of the ruling or the intention of any responsible politician,' said the German chief of staff, General Klaus Naumann.

In some parts of the world, such as the former Yugoslavia, history is still too recent to permit German troops to form part of United Nations peace-keeping forces. In the immediate future, the likelihood is that the US, France and Britain will continue to be more active than Germany as far as military operations are concerned.

GERMANY'S gradual accretion of strength is likely to be reflected, by the turn of the century, in its promotion to permanent membership of the UN Security Council. This step was first advocated by the US, and initially drew a frosty response from France and Britain (which, with Russia and China, comprise the exisiting members). But it is now regarded as all but inevitable in Paris and London.

In such circumstances, it makes no sense for German policy-makers to be shy and humble anymore. As the British specialist Timothy Garton Ash notes in his new book, In Europe's Name: Germany and the Divided Continent: 'An elephant does not win trust by pretending to be a dove. It merely invites doubt about its sanity - and honesty.'

But once again, for Germans the European context is everything. Anchored in western European democratic institutions and values by Konrad Adenauer after the Second World War, Germany has no desire at all to return to the older Bismarckian tradition of acting as the main continental power while playing off other countries against each other. A collective Europe is the only filter through which Germany feels it is safe to express itself.

Naturally, Germany's invocation of the European ideal sometimes disguises the more prosaic pursuit of national interest. But it is equally true that the imperative to co-operate with other European countries sometimes causes Germany to compromise on matters of considerable national importance.

Thus Germany, as the easternmost member of the European Union, bordering on a region of fragile political stability, has good reasons to press for the early inclusion of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia into the EU. But for the moment Germany has accepted the French argument that the 12, soon to be 16, existing EU members should draw even closer together before expanding to the east.

The Germans are under no illusions that the underlying reason for the French approach is the desire to lock Germany into European institutions so that it can never again act as a loose cannon on the continent. But since Germany itself does not wish to be a loose cannon, there is little resentment at the French strategy.

For the Germans, however, increased European integration does not mean expanding the powers of the unelected executive European Commission. Still less does it mean creating a centralised supranational state governed from Brussels. Drawing on its successful experience of devolving power to its Lander (states), Germany is an opponent of overcentralisation.

It also supports increasing the powers of the European Parliament, arguing that popular support for the European ideal requires a real legislature accountable to electorates.

Ironically, those who dislike this proposal and prefer a Europe in which national governments retain more power could well end up with a Europe in which Germany is able to throw its weight around the most.

'The Germans always make the mistake of aiming at everything or nothing, and of embracing rigidly one single method,' Bismarck once said.

Perhaps he was right. But since 1945, the single-mindedness of the Germans has been devoted to enlightened liberalism, peace and European construction. There are surely worse things to embrace rigidly.

(Photographs omitted)