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Europe Today

Letter from Berlin - Rob Broomby on Germany's emerging international role. (Monday, 13 May, 2002, 10:29 GMT)

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's foreign policy goal remains the "normalisation" of Germany so it can operate on the international stage without arousing suspicion. But the combination of rights and responsibilities that brings is both expensive and controversial for many Germans.

The policy lost its edge with the departure of his key foreign policy advisor, Michael Steiner, last year - but the principle stands. On the war on terror, the talk is no longer of "unqualified solidarity" with the United States but the commitments are evident. It's now known that the KSK, Germany's crack troops, were directly involved in Operation Anaconda against the remaining Taleban units in the Tora Bora hills.

Germany has also contributed over a thousand troops to help the policing of the Afghan capital Kabul - a quarter of the international stabilisation force itself. The Chancellor now agrees that that mandate will have to be extended beyond June.

A step at a time the commitments are growing. Germany even has frigates patrolling the Horn of Africa, intercepting boats suspected of gun-running for the al-Qaeda network. Add to that the thousand or so troops committed in or around Kosovo, and it's clear the days when German forces stayed at home have long gone.

His Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, has positioned himself as a trusted go-between in the Middle East; though concern is mounting over the lack of criticism for Israel, another taboo is being challenged.

At home the German leader still treads in the shadow of the Holocaust. Chancellor Schroeder courted controversy by sharing a platform on Wednesday with Martin Walser, a writer who has said that Auschwitz was often used as a "moral cudgel" against Germany for "current-day purposes." It was a daring, some would say ill-advised outing for the chancellor. He said Germans needed " a self-critical self-confidence".

The meeting prompted protests from pro-Israeli groups, but the fact that the Chancellor engaged in debate with Walser at all suggests increased confidence. Historically a new debate has begun. The Nobel Prize winning author Guenter Grass has kick-started a debate about German suffering in war-time, particularly the fate of the refugees expelled from Germany's eastern territories. That's all the more significant coming from an author who has spent his life warning about German nationalism.

Modern Germany faces difficult times. For over a half a century, the nation has defined itself in the negative, what it mustn't do, what it mustn't be. Finding a new self confidence without endangering an identity produced by that sense of humility won't be easy. The ingredients have brewed over time, but the pot has only recently been stirred.

For Europe Today this is Rob Broomby in Berlin.

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