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Many East Germans Just Want In From the Cold : Germanys: While the East German revolution continues, with demands for revenge, citizens on both sides grapple with the idea of unification.

December 17, 1989|Michael Sturmer | Michael Sturmer, a historian, is director of the Institute for Science and Politics, a policy organization that advises the West German government and the Bundestag

EBENHAUSEN, WEST GERMANY — If you intend to convert from dictator to democrat, have another look at a classic: Alexis de Tocqueville in his "L'Ancien Regime et la Revolution" in 1856 stated that authoritarian regimes are not in danger when they are at their worst but when they begin to lift the iron lid over society and try to reform. Egon Krenz, the stopgap East German leader of seven weeks' duration, can add a new variation to a familiar theme.

The East German revolution is now in its second phase, with more to come. The first one was soft, ironic, good-humored, relentless and characterized by a consensus on reform socialism--the traditional Social Democratic "third option" between the hardships of the free marketplace and the rigid authoritarianism of central planning.

This second phase, dating from the end of November and still continuing, has changed pace and tone.

There are demands for revenge, and some of the collaborators of the Staatssicherheitsdienst--the East German equivalent of the KGB--are having a hard time. The churches and what is left of the old authorities warn against attacks on state security buildings, the police and the army. The masses are upset about a massive corruption at the top and cover-ups, about feudal privileges among the deposed leadership of the Socialist Unity Party (SED, as the Communist Party is known) and about numbered Swiss bank accounts.

The SED, which initially tried to postpone the elections in order to recover its footing, has in its current condition nothing to lose. The political opposition groups are confident they can build themselves up quickly enough and perhaps form pre-election coalitions. For its part, the SED is trying to adopt a new personality and coin a new name. Those changes are the theme this weekend for the second installment of the party conference begun last weekend.

The important thing to observe now in this second phase is a change in the mood of the demonstrators in the streets. Good-humored slogans of the first four weeks are giving way to more pronounced political demands, above all for German unity: "Deutschland einig Vaterland" ("A unified German fatherland") is the not-uncontested cry of 20-year-olds in Leipzig, citing the long-suppressed official text of the German Democratic Republic's hymn.

What do they mean? As one of their posters stated unequivocally: "Life is too short to spend it in the GDR." So the option is to leave the impoverished country or make the GDR disappear through German unity.

Concerned editorials in the world press or angry noises from Moscow or elsewhere do not much impress people emerging from crisis and peaceful revolution. German unity for them is not the glory and the gloom of Prince Otto von Bismarck's German Empire, or its aftermath. For them it is the only chance of leading a life of their own beyond poverty and inefficiency, and of realizing their right to the pursuit of happiness. What drives them is not nationalism, but the simple desire to come in from the cold.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the Bundestag two weeks ago put forward a 10-point plan for "confederative structures," to be realized in stages. This was an attempt to give a name and a direction to a dynamic process already under way. No Bismarckian empire is envisaged--that is clearly a thing of the past. Not even reunification. For the time being, the relationship between the two Germanys is characterized by a paradox.

On the one hand, there is the new unrestricted freedom to travel. Together with the undivided legal nature of German citizenship, including the right of the East Germans to full participation in West Germany's welfare state, a dynamic force is now setting hundreds of thousands into motion.

On the other hand, the GDR was called a "strategic ally" by the Soviets when the old leadership showed symptoms of weakness. Gorbachev, after Malta, warned against "artificial acceleration" of the German-German rapprochement. No one should ignore the warning noises from Moscow.

At the moment German mouth-to-mouth reanimation looks to the rest of the world like a passionate embrace. But is it really? Unity will be a divisive issue in next year's parallel election processes in East and West Germany. On both sides, it seems today, clear majorities want it. Should the rest of the world also want it, if it cannot be avoided? And under what conditions?

First of all, neither world opinion nor four-power control will be able to stop the process if the Germans, in their vast majority, insist upon it. The question, however, is how much choice is still left. There is no desire on the part of Bonn and East Berlin to upset the world balance, nor do the West Germans seriously aim for an isolated solution to the German problem.

What is called the Germany question is not, and has never been, the Germans' exclusive property.

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