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Marching into a state of normality; WITNESS

German troops in Bosnia would be a welcome sign, says Steve Crawshaw
What was off-limits yesterday is taken for granted today. What is off-limits today will be perfectly normal tomorrow. Germany is in the midst of turning into an ordinary country. And many Germans don't like it one bit.

It now seems likely that German troops will be sent to Bosnia, to provide cover for the withdrawal of United Nations troops - if or when things get that far. The involvement may come to seem a turning point. After Bosnia, there will be no going back.

The extent of Germany's agonisings can seem remarkable. The mass-circulation Bild talks of "Day X coming nearer". The weekly Die Zeit talks of Germany standing "before the abyss of history". Germans repeatedly complain of being stereotyped abroad as though they were genetically conditioned to be militaristic monsters. Yet many Germans still seem enormously reluctant to let their troops go abroad, because of the country's history - as though German soldiers were bad, period. Even now, barely a third are in favour of allowing German armed forces to be used in Bosnia.

Partly this is a form of self-censorship: the belief not that German participation is wrong, but that others might disapprove. For 40 years, conditioned by its history, West Germany avoided involvement in any military adventures. Difficult moral questions about the international use of armed forces could be avoided: action outside the Nato area was off limits, and that was that.

And then the world as we knew it came to an end. The Wall came down, Germany was united - and the difficult questions began. Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, came to Bonn in 1993, with a Kitchener- like message: We Need You. Germany said: Yes, but ...

There has been much hypocrisy, on all sides. The Free Democrats - junior coalition partners in the German government, with joint responsibility for cabinet decisions - challenged the legality of sending German planes to enforce the UN no-fly zone over Bosnia. The judges of the constitutional court, the highest court in the land, thought long and hard, before issuing a clearly political ruling last year, in favour.

Now, for the first time, there is talk of German troops being sent in to a war zone - in an area where the soldiers' grandfathers committed war crimes. The German cabinet yesterday put off a final decision, pending an official request from the UN Security Council. In effect, however, the decision has already been taken.

The opposition believes that it occupies the moral high ground, by arguing against greater German involvement. "War must never again go out from German soil." Meanwhile, mixed in with the moral-high-ground argument is the more familiar worry, heard in every country, that "our boys" might lose their lives.

None the less, the balance has changed in recent years - and will continue changing, in the years to come. As European defence structures grow stronger, it seems unlikely that the most powerful country in Europe will simply be able to stand apart. One day, the German army will be an ordinary army once more. Even the most bullish politicians are quick to insist that Germany would not dream of taking part in a full-scale UN armed assault. But, despite today's denials, German troops in Bosnia would almost certainly only mark the beginning of a long road. For the moment, the fears about German participation are almost all on the German side. Many Germans still seem to be convinced that the rest of the world is just waiting for an opportunity to criticise Germany for its aggressive tendencies.

In just a few years' time it may seem remarkable that there could ever have been such a fuss. Germans keep insisting that they want their country to become normal. A German presence in Bosnia would be the clearest sign yet that they believe their own words.