WASHINGTON — The dramatic elimination of the physical barriers between East and West Berlin and between the two German states has altered the political landscape of Europe like no other event since World War II.
Even as jubilant Berliners chisel out souvenir pieces from the hated wall, planners in Washington, Moscow, London, Paris--plus Bonn and East Berlin--feverishly ponder a host of new issues that have suddenly arisen amid the deafening crash of communism in Central Europe.
The immediate task facing Egon Krenz, the East German communist boss, is to staunch the population flow to the West, stabilize the domestic economic situation and persuade his citizens that a newly enlightened socialism has a future.
It will not be easy.
The open border will vent some popular steam, but thousands will continue to emigrate. Already forced to use Vietnamese and other foreign workers to ameliorate serious labor shortages in key industries and services, and now faced with the prospect of shortages of goods and a growing black market, the East German economy is desperately in need of reforming its price structure and currency.
Massive aid from West Germany is essential, but West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has made free elections in the G.D.R.--along with fundamental economic reforms--conditions for providing this assistance.
If fair elections are held, newly designated Premier Hans Modrow, a popular reformer from Dresden, will retain many votes for the Communists, but with millions of East Germans now sampling the prosperity and political freedom of the West it is difficult to see how the Communists will do better than to continue to lead a multiparty coalition government--and even that is uncertain.
Two weeks before the opening of the border, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, considered the foremost "European" in the Federal Republic, startled many policy analysts when he suggested that a new timetable might be in order: Perhaps the pace of European Community integration should slow to allow some East European countries to climb aboard.
Suspicions that West Germany was shifting its strategy were then fueled immediately after the wall opening, when the director of a West German government institute that analyzes relations between the two Germanys called for speedy reunification, adding that Germans could no longer wait for a united Europe.
Have we been suckered? Has the endless talk by West Germans of reunification only as a long-term goal--and then only in the context of a peacefully united Europe--been a smoke screen for more immediate action? Not really. Basically the West Germans have tried to have it both ways and have succeeded: to be good Europeans and loyal North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies while pursuing the overriding goal of solidifying ties to East Germany and its citizens as a step toward reunification.
This policy inevitably caused disputes with Washington over military strategy in Europe and U.S. policy elsewhere in the world. Henceforth these disputes will become more intra-European, as the community fears a lessening commitment to European integration while Bonn is preoccupied with reunification by economic "osmosis."
German reunification, scoffed at as an illusion only a few months ago, must now be considered a distinct, if not immediate possibility.
If Krenz allows free elections in East Germany, and if--as is likely--a coalition or non-communist government is voted into power, to conduct a subsequent plebiscite on continued independence, some kind of a federation or unification might not be far behind. The result of such a vote is uncertain, but in any case the four World War II allies retain sovereignty in Berlin, and without their unanimous approval, any change in status would be impossible.
Despite misgivings in London, Paris and perhaps Washington, the three Western powers are committed by treaty to working for peaceful German reunification and would not oppose it if both Germanys voted for it.
The key to reunification, though, has always belonged to the Soviets, and for now the Kremlin is keeping it in the cupboard. Despite Mikhail S. Gorbachev's current protestations, it would not be surprising if he offered a grand bargain to President Bush at next month's Malta summit: mutual withdrawal of Soviet and American forces from Europe, the dismantling of NATO and the Warsaw Pact and the eventual go-ahead in a bloc-free Europe for a reunited Germany that would then attempt to rescue the Soviet economy from collapse.
This kind of megadeal would strike terror in the hearts of NATO officials, be hugely popular in both Germanys and stir mixed emotions elsewhere on the Continent. For the United States, such a deal would pose fundamental questions of national purpose and goals for the 21st Century.