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As Cold War Ebbs, Talk of German Reunification Gains; Is This Good News?

September 10, 1989|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin)

NEW YORK — The German, wrote the Roman historian Tacitus almost 2,000 years ago, is either at your feet or at your throat. For a generation after World War II, Germany was at least metaphorically at the feet of the triumphant Allies--but no more. Not everyone is certain that this is good news.

"I love Germany so much," said a 20th-Century observer, "that I want there to be two of them." Some attribute this quotation to the French, some to the Russians, others to the English; in truth the sentiments would be shared by most of the peoples of Europe.

Modern Germany was only united for 75 years--between Bismarck's 1870 proclamation of the German Empire in occupied France and the Soviet 1945 conquest of war-shattered Berlin. Twice in that era, Germany launched unprovoked attacks against neighbors--Belgium in 1914 and Poland in 1939--that it had treaties of peace with. Both attacks brought on world wars. Since 1945, Bismarck's Reich has been divided and, while nobody likes the Berlin Wall, Europe has seemed to many to be a kinder and gentler continent since the division.

Now, however, even as the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of the start of World War II, the subject of German reunification is back. President George Bush is on record saying he believes the Berlin Wall will come down while he is in the White House. From the Soviet side, too, come murmurs of reunification. The gradual decline of superpower tension and the breakdown of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, have led to a general perception that reunification is at most a few decades away and perhaps may come much sooner.

The trouble, suddenly, is that 50 years after World War II, the two superpowers are leaving Europe. Their rivalry is becoming a thing of the past; and without the United States and the Soviet Union there is nothing to keep the Germanys apart. While no one expects reunification overnight, the German Question is moving toward the front burner.

Germany is a problem because it is so big and so rich. East and West Germany are each already the second strongest powers in their respective blocs; the 80 million citizens of a single German state would inevitably play the leading role in Europe. The combined German gross national product of almost $1.5 trillion is roughly half of Japan's, but a united Germany would rapidly become an economic superpower.

West Germany never officially accepted the postwar division of the country--it confers automatic citizenship on any East Germans fortunate enough to cross the border. Attitudes have been more fluid in the East. In the 1950s, the Communist Party supported reunification; today, the regime opposes the idea.

The United States and its Western allies have always officially supported West Germany's view--the more easily because they were sure unification would never happen. The Soviets, the French and British thought, would never consent to any form of unification that the Germans would accept.

But Soviet attitudes have never been as rigid as they seemed. As Valentin M. Falin, the former Soviet ambassador to West Germany reminds visitors in his Moscow office, Josef Stalin proposed a united, disarmed German state that would be free to take a capitalist road.

In Cold War days this offer was dismissed as a diversionary trick to lure West Germany from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But there are signs that the Soviets might now be prepared to sweeten the offer, and NATO is not what it was. The old West German consensus believed that it needed an army and NATO allies to hold the Soviets at bay. Today, there is a good deal less worry about the Soviet threat.

Germany's neighbors remain distinctly unenchanted by the prospect of a united Germany--even a disarmed and democratic Germany. Some worry about the prospect of German disarmament and disengagement from NATO at the time when the Soviet Union retains a formidable military presence--and the Soviet's peaceful intentions could alter if Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his reformist allies were to lose power.

Others are more worried about the Germans. After all, the Weimar Republic was democratic and disarmed, and in the end Adolph Hitler took power--legally--under its constitution.

And then there is the question of frontiers. About 40% of what is today Poland was part of Germany until Hitler's defeat. Stalin gave these provinces to Poland as compensation for the territories he took when he and Hitler partitioned Poland in 1939. These Polish "lost provinces" were once German to the core and many West German citizens were born and raised in them. Some Germans still refer to the Communist half of the nation as "Middle Germany"; East Germany, to them, is in Poland.

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