Soldier's death evokes soul-searching Germany ponders its military role

BERLIN — BERLIN -- The death of Sgt. Alexander Arndt is the nightmare that the German government had long feared, his fate precisely what it had desperately hoped to avoid.

Sergeant Arndt, a 26-year-old army medic, on Thursday became the first German soldier to die on duty in an area of tension since World War II. He was shot by an assailant near the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.


For a German people still traumatized by the violence of their past and deeply divided on the question of their military role in the world, Sergeant Arndt's death has hit hard.

"We now have the bitter experience other nations have had before us," Defense Minister Volker Ruehe said, referring to other U.N. peace keepers, such as U.S. soldiers in Somalia, who have been killed.


Although the news broke too late to make Friday editions of some national daily newspapers, the final editions of several newspapers carried the news with banner headlines.

Within hours, virtually every major national politician had commented on the death and its implications. Television news and current-events programs concentrated on little else late Thursday and Friday.

As pressure builds, one fact is clear: The incident will test Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ability to continue committing German forces to U.N.-sanctioned missions despite a questionable legal basis for such action under the German Constitution.

At stake is the global peacekeeping role for one of the world's best-trained, best-equipped armies.

In the past two years, Mr. Kohl has brushed aside legal uncertainties, public disquiet and the protests of political opponents to push through approval for limited German involvement in U.N. operations.

Within a few hours of Sergeant Arndt's death, Karsten Voigt, the opposition Social Democrats' chief foreign affairs spokesman, appeared on national television to call for the withdrawal of the 1,700 German peacekeepers in Somalia and clarification of the constitutional wording governing such deployments.

For years before unification, successive West German governments had interpreted the ambiguous wording of the constitution as limiting German military actions to the NATO areas -- a judgment that the former victims of German military adventurism heartily endorsed.

Only with unification and the changing global security climate have these same neighbors and allies prodded Germany to join U.N. operations. With legal challenges to deployments of German forces in Somalia pending before the Constitutional Court and rhetoric to bring troops home certain to rise, Sergeant Arndt's death will be a test of the public mood in the new Germany.