War and Peace: Germany and the Kosovo (Century of German History, #3)

Welcome to the third installment in my series Century of German History! Every post in the series sheds light on a focal event of German history in the 20th century and illustrates this event with precisely one board game. You can find the two previous posts here and here.
The first half of the 20th century was a storm of blood in Europe, and Germany was right at its center. After the Nazi atrocities, long decades of peace followed in Europe, and Germany – especially the political Left committed herself to a non-violent foreign policy. When ethnical tensions flared up again in Kosovo, a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and new mass carnage loomed to break out in the Balkans, how would the newly constituted center-left government of Germany deal with it? Let’s go back 20 years and find out. Our game will be This War of Mine (Michał Oracz/Jakub Wiśniewski, Awaken Realms).

Crisis in the Balkans

The old multiethnic Yugoslavia which stretched from Italy in the northwest to Greece in the southeast fell apart after the Cold War. Several of the individual Yugoslavian republics declared their independence. Bitter wars between the nationalists of the newly declared independent countries and the forces of the Serbian-dominated central government scarred Croatia and Bosnia. When the wars ended in 1995, more than 100,000 people had died. In the most gruesome instance of the wars, the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo had been under siege for almost the entire duration of the war – four years during which all public services ceased, food and medical supplies were in short supply, and the civilian population lived under the constant threat of sniper fire. Much shorter, but equally shocking was the massacre at Srebenica, where Serbian forces killed 8,000 Bosnians in just a few days.

Diorama Destroyed House

Diorama of the destroyed building in which the characters from This War of Mine live, reminiscent of the urban destruction in Sarajevo during the siege. Image ©Jakub Wiśniewski.

When the wars ended, there were still local ethnic majorities who wanted to break away from Serbia – including the Albanian Kosovars in the south of Serbia. In addition to their political efforts they also employed armed militants, the so-called UÇK (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës, Kosovo Liberation Army), which got into ever more violent altercations with Serbian forces.


Pacificism under Pressure

After World War II, the new German leadership was committed to bringing Germany back into the “family of nations” by an ostentatiously cooperative approach. The West German forces were reconstituted during the Cold War and committed to defending the crucial border with the Eastern Bloc, but they were never deployed abroad. Even when the Cold War waned and a broad multinational force under US leadership liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in the 1991 Gulf War, Germany did not send forces (and instead made a large financial contribution to the mission).
The German Left was especially committed to this cooperative approach and also deeply pacifist. “Never again war” had been their slogan since the end of World War II. The Social Democrats had been the leading critics of West Germany’s remilitarization and NATO membership in the 1950s, and 20 years later the protest against the nuclear arms race was instrumental in the founding of the Green Party, which declared non-violence one of its four basic principles.
Joschka Fischer, the de facto leader of the Green Party, had been highly critical of potential German involvement during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia and declared: “I am firmly convinced that deploying German soldiers where once Hitler’s warbands ravaged would fuel, not deescalate the conflict”. Four years later, when a coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens was formed, Fischer became foreign minister. Now the lesson he – as well as many others on the German Left – drew from their country’s history changed. The Serbian repression in the Kosovo and intelligence reports of an impending massive Serbian crackdown which might kill and displace hundreds of thousands Kosovars (“Operation Horseshoe”) convinced the German government that war might be acceptable as the ultima ratio. “Never again war” was replaced by “Never again Auschwitz” – the most infamous Nazi concentration camp as a stand-in for genocide and other forms of mass slaughter. War, so the argument went, could be legitimate as a form of humanitarian intervention.

The Kosovo War

The general feeling about intervention in the Kosovo conflict within NATO was lukewarm at best. The United States were committed to intervention, but many other member states did not want to embroil themselves in an ethnical conflict in the Balkans (or just feared loss of public support before elections). So, for the time being, NATO just commenced negotiations with the Serbians and the UÇK in the French town of Rambouillet. At first view, these negotiations were unsuccessful, as Serbia did not ratify the drafted agreement. However, from a US standpoint, they fulfilled their primary goal of stiffening resolve within NATO and achieving the unified view that it was the Serbian government which stood in the way of a peaceful solution. In the end, however, it was only the escalation of hostilities in the Kosovo in March which convinced the members of NATO to act.

A multi-national bombing campaign against Serbia commenced on March 24. And, for the first time since the end of World War II, German soldiers saw combat.
The half-hearted bombing campaign (whose primary concern it was to avoid NATO casualties) failed to bring about results. Only when NATO stepped up their commitment, massively increased the number of sorties flown and targeted the civilian infrastructure (like the Serbian power grid) in addition to the Serbian armed forces and purely military installations, Serbia faltered. In addition to the bombing campaign, a German diplomatic initiative to Russia (April 14) opened the door to G-8 negotiations which yielded a peace plan. After a prolonged bombing campaign, Serbia accepted the plan in June.


The Kosovo was granted more autonomy under the peace agreement. UN troops were deployed there to keep the peace. In 2008, the Kosovo declared independence, but only about two thirds of the other countries in the world have recognized it – those who have closer ties to Serbia and/or Russia usually do not.
The new German center-left government faced intense criticism over the decision to intervene, especially from their own supporters. Fischer defended the decision at an extraordinary party conference under tumultuous circumstances: He was attacked with a paint bomb which soaked his jacket and injured his eardrum. Despite the strong pain, Fischer gave an emotional speech in support of the intervention, which, in his words, was based on the dual principle of “Never again war – never again Auschwitz! Never again genocide – never again fascism!” The delegates were convinced and voted in support for Fischer’s policy.
The Social Democrat-Green government had shown Germany to be a reliable NATO ally, while at the same time re-defining German foreign policy. The country would (under the same government) also participate in the NATO intervention against Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attacks, but refused to take part in the war in Iraq in 2003.

A War Game about the Civilians: This War Of Mine

Is This War Of Mine a war game? – Of course it is. (Board Game Geek says no. For my gripes about this, see this article.) The player(s) control a group of a civilians in a war-torn city, struggling to survive and maybe even avoid some of the (plentiful) misery coming their way. They lack food, medicine and many other things and are facing many potentially dangerous encounters with soldiers and other civilians. The game does not specify in which war it is set, but the Balkan Wars of the 1990s are an important inspiration, particularly the siege of Sarajevo (you can read a review of the game written by a survivor of the siege here). That kind of deprivation and misery of war is what Western policymakers feared for the Kosovo, and why they chose intervention.

TWOM Cover

Box cover of This War of Mine. Image ©Awaken Realms.

Further Reading

For an account of the Kosovo War focusing on NATO decision making and strategy implementation, see Daalder, Ivo H./O’Hanlon, Michael E.: Winning Ugly. NATO’s War to Save Kosovo, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC 2000.
For the consequences of the Kosovo War on the German government, see Wolfrum, Edgar: Rot-Grün an der Macht. Deutschland 1998—2005 [Red-Green in Power. Germany 1998—2005], C.H. Beck, München 2013, p. 64—109 (in German).


12 thoughts on “War and Peace: Germany and the Kosovo (Century of German History, #3)

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thank you for reading and your kind words! Germany’s history of perpetrating a genocide and losing the war linked to it has made her quite different in that regard from other Western European countries (in the words of some German historians of the 20th century, she has walked a “particular path” (Sonderweg)). What we see since 1990 is a Germany that is slowly approaching the French or British way of handling things not only when it comes to military interventions, but also assuming a European/global leadership role.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. BoardGamesChronicle

    Thanks for article. I also have the mentioned game – playing it was really a shocking experience. This is War, a true war seen from civilians perspective. I encourage everybody to play it – computer game will of course never fully reflecting the reality, but at least that title makes you to stop for a moment and appreciate all the good things we can enjoy. There is a lot of not so fortunate people out there…

    Liked by 1 person

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