NEW YORK — The holes being punched in the Berlin Wall are stunning testimony to how much events have overrun the experts. And those events have also overturned the assumptions of nearly 40 years. How to order the strategic center of Europe--the two Germanys--is now a question for today, not tomorrow.
Since the postwar division of Europe and Germany, hardened in the early 1950s, the assumption--among Americans and Soviets, East and West Europeans alike--has been that the separation was permanent. All felt able to give lip service to the idea of German reunification because all presumed it would not happen. Reunification was a subject only for speechifying by a few German politicians on Sundays.
The European status quo that no one quite intended turned out to be remarkably stable. Dividing Germany and embedding the larger, western part in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Common Market not only engaged the United States in Europe, it solved the problem the Continent had grappled with for a century: the "German question." In its different guises, this question turned on what to do about a Germany too big for Central Europe. If this stability was built on the backs of the Eastern Europeans, that was a shame, but one the West could do little about.
There was also a fallback assumption. If Germany were reunified in some form, that would occur only at the end of a long process of East-West detente in Europe. West Germany accepted that logic in the 1960s. Reunification would follow, not precede, an overall settlement in Europe.
Now, both the assumption and the fallback are dubious.
Predicting what next in East Germany is fool's play. The new leader, Egon Krenz, is improvising. In the short run, he is likely to hope that the euphoria surrounding the opening of borders will buy some time. He has brought in to the new Politburo such of his colleagues as could be called "reformers"--men such as Gunter Schabowski, formerly a local party leader--and may appoint to his government less-political types including professors, economists and other technocrats. With such actions, he is perhaps hoping that the Communist Party--SED in its German initials, the Social Unity Party, an ever more ironic label--can somehow stay in control.
A month ago he might have pulled it off. The opposition remains unorganized--neither solidarity nor a Solidarity is yet visible--and relatively moderate in its demands. But now it will not be bought off with unrestricted travel to the West. The rush of emigrants has shifted the focus to those who have stayed. They are saying, in effect: "We don't want to leave. We want things to change here at home."
No doubt the emigration, damaging as it is to East Germany's reputation and economy, is a safety valve for discontent. Most who have left do not seem especially political. Their clothes and cars--even the flimsy "Trabi," the butt of so many automobile jokes--testify to their prosperity in Eastern Europe. They are mostly young people with marketable skills, technicians and craftsmen, who have simply come to feel that gambling on things getting better at home was too risky. Unlike others in Eastern Europe, they had a place to go--West Germany.
Perhaps some reform and hopes for more will buy Krenz time. Now, though, a bettor would lay money against it. With a party conference called for mid-December he faces a deadline, for he must have results before. A good indicator of just how serious Krenz is will be whether discussions about change are confined to the SED and its allied parties, or whether he reaches out to the opposition groups he has shunned, such as the New Forum.
The chances are great that reform will soon move beyond his control. Almost anything is possible--a crisis, a collapse of the SED, even violence. The 400,000 Soviets soldiers remain in East Germany, but Mikhail S. Gorbachev will do anything to avoid using them. That must be his nightmare. In the past, when Soviet tanks rolled in Eastern Europe, reformist heads rolled in Moscow. Now, the head, metaphorically at least, is Gorbachev's.
Krenz seemed a transitional leader--a bridge between the old guard and a generation of reformers. The embrace between Gorbachev and Krenz's predecessor, the hard-liner Erich Honecker, during East Germany's ill-fated 40th anniversary, looks more and more like the kiss of death. Perhaps the transition will be brief, impelled by events.
Or maybe Krenz will surprise everyone and turn out to be the reformer, a sort of Prussian Gorbachev. It seems improbable--but then so did Gorbachev-as-reformer at first. It does seem less probable, given Krenz's background in the security service, but so, too, was Gorbachev a man of the system, a protege of the KGB chief. He, too, was selected by the old guard, although it took three tries to get to him.