If real reform begins in East Germany, with or without Krenz, then the fallback assumption of the last decades might again be tenable. The tide of refugees might ebb, and East Germany become habitable for its young. The German question could then be put where the West German government wants it--deferred until after East Germany has reformed, even democratized.
If the world is not so lucky, the hardest questions will be faced first, not last. Already, immigrants are straining West German social services--though not its hospitality. When I met a German colleague last week, he said how much he, a man who had grown up in postwar West Germany thinking little about the East, had been moved by the arrival of his fellow Germans. Bonn will look to its allies, especially the United States, for company, and probably for help as well.
East Germany will surely be at the top of the agenda when President George Bush meets Gorbachev next month. What can Bush say? It will certainly be the time to make clear how gratifying events in East Germany are for democrats everywhere--a point he has yet to make. At the same time, he can reassure Gorbachev that the United States will not fish anywhere in Eastern Europe's troubled waters. But that is no longer enough. It is time to think, if not yet speak, about prospects unthinkable three months ago. For example, the United States and the Soviet Union, along with Britain and France, retain residual rights in Germany as World War II's victorious powers. If East Germany appeared on the verge of collapse, might four-power cooperation extend to some sort of four-power responsibility for the East?
Meanwhile, it is worth reflecting on why the experts were so wrong about East Germany. In retrospect, that regime's crisis, if not its precise timing, seems predictable. Once Gorbachev had made reform the order of the day in East Europe, it was only a matter of time for East Germany. The regime's bases of legitimacy as an anti-fascist, socialist state on German soil were eroding. Fascists, after all, were long gone, and socialism, however attractive in principle, had to be seen to work.
Germans, former Prussians, were not about to be satisfied for long because their standard of living was better than Poland's. Their basis for comparison was West. What the experts neglected was the power of ideas--if not capitalism in all its trappings, then the idea of a political and economic system that would open human possibilities, not close them.
The power of these ideas in East Germany is a little terrifying to watch even as it is heart-warming. Success brings new problems, new instabilities at Europe's center, the historic cockpit of global conflict. Yet nostalgia for the Cold War is hardly in order. We could not turn back the clock even if we chose. Our new problems are those of success. They are classier than our old ones.