News Digest: Booming Bundeswehr

By David Hudson

Now that Chancellor Schröder has declared a greater international role for the German army, Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping seeks to ensure that the Bundeswehr can be all it can be. Also: Peter Handke bombs.

"We no longer have any excuse for not taking part in international military engagements," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder announced in a television interview Friday morning. The German army, of course, has had a perfect excuse since the end of World War II. No other nation in the world has been anxious to see Germany regain its former military might.

The post-war occupying Allied powers only conceded to a substantial German army when it became clear that the eastern and western zones would not be unified any time soon. Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, pursuing a pro-western policy at the cost of unification, offered to send German troops to support US forces in the Korean War but his offer was declined.

The German army would serve only to defend the young republic. That's the way the world wanted it, and the way most Germans wanted it, too. Many protested German soldiers making up part of the mid-90s peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, an event which was perceived as a turning point in the role of the Bundeswehr.

In retrospect, it certainly seems so. This weekend, 8,500 German troops, an increase of 2,500 over Germany's previous commitment, will join the 50,000 strong KFOR force marching into Kosovo following Germany's first active post-war military engagement during NATO's freshly concluded bombing campaign. German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping warns that this will be "an especially risky operation, particularly in the beginning," due to the mines Serbs are assumed to have buried throughout the province.

The operation has also led Scharping to call for a redefinition of the army's mission and structure. Specifically: "We spend too much maintaining the material we have instead of investing in new material." Scharping is expected to call for an increase in the defense budget to match the German army's new role on the international playing field.

Switching to the arts, the 17-day "Theater of the World" festival kicks off in Berlin next week, but the most controversial premiere of the season has already been unveiled -- and pretty much fallen flat, according to SPIEGEL ONLINE's Erna Cuesta. On Wednesday evening, Peter Handke's "The Journey into the Dug-out, or the Play of the Film of the War" debuted in Vienna's Burgtheater under the direction of Claus Peymann. (Photo)

The play could hardly measure up to its significance as an event. This was Peymann's farewell to Vienna after 13 contentious years at the Burgtheater before he moves on to the Berliner Ensemble this fall.

But most of the noise surrounding the play must be credited to its author. Throughout the battle of the intellectuals over the war in Kosovo, Handke has stood alone as Serbia's staunchest supporter, once claiming that the Serbs have suffered more this century than any other European people. Later, reminded of the Holocaust, he apologized for his "slip of the tongue."

Nevertheless, he has traveled frequently to Belgrade, written lengthy harangues denouncing the "NATO criminals" in major German papers, handed back Germany's top literary award, quit the Roman Catholic church and just done about anything else he can think of to show his support for Serbia.

To round out the controversy, "Journey into the Dug-out" takes place in a desolate hotel room in the Balkans ten years after an unnamed war has ravished the region. But Cuesta reports Peymann's direction is "embarrassingly loyal to Handke's stage directions" and that the story itself, or at least what little there is of one, "fades as an overblown narrative in a single static, melancholy tableau." Adds Roland Koberg in the "Berliner Zeitung", "The text hardly profits from being performed."

Handke attended the premiere, and though the audience politely applauded Peymann, they booed the author who replied with silence, "as if there was nothing more to say," notes Cuesta.

In other artsy news, Japan's "Praemium Imperiale", widely regarded as the "Nobel Prize for the Arts", is to be awarded this October in Tokyo to Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, US sculptor Louise Bourgeois, Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki - and two Germans: Choreographer Pina Bausch and artist Anselm Kiefer. (Photos)

Germany and Europe on the Web today:

Following Tuesday's photo op in London during which British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promoted a "Third Way" for European Social Democracy (see Wednesday's "Digest"), UK Liberals claimed Labour's Blair was hardly a Social Democrat at all, but instead, secretly one of them. And Schröder met with the expected catcalls from the left wing of his own Social Democratic Party (SPD). Most disappointing to the two leaders, however, is the reaction from French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who has refused to sign on to the "Third Way". Paul Webster quotes Jospin in "The Guardian": "There is a certain originality in French socialism that must be preserved." (Free registration required)

"The Economist" tracks the growing power of the European Parliament as marked by the series of treaties on which its founded (Luxembourg in 1986, Maastricht in 1992, and Amsterdam in 1997), but sees its relationship with the voters trapped in "a potentially vicious circle. So long as voters know and care little about what goes on in the parliament, that institution can only make a weak case to be given more powers in the name of democracy. But until and unless the parliament gains more powers, it will not command the attention or allegiance of voters."

The German economy has weighed heavily on British minds recently. But after a special survey in "The Financial Times" on June 1 and a cover story in "The Economist" the following week, "The Guardian's" financial editor, Alex Brummer, argues that "the negativism about the future of the continent's economic powerhouse audible in recent weeks has been overdone." (Free registration required)

Reporting from Cologne, Christopher Lockwood, diplomatic editor for "The Daily Telegraph", outlines "NATO's gamble" and the increasingly important role of the G8 nations in European policy-making: "At one point, Mr Fischer was caught on a closed-circuit television telling Mr Cook that it was worth trying to cut the verification period right back. He said: 'If it doesn't work, we can always go back to bombing.'"

Also in Cologne is art historian Barbara Weidle, who checks out the "'Premierentage,' the traditional spring openings of the Cologne galleries," which seem to lean quite a bit on computer-generated art this year.

It's been weeks since the last lengthy magazine article on all the changes Germany's new capital has gone through over the past ten years, but "Civilization" has come through in its current issue with William Sertl's "Once and Future Berlin."

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