WASHINGTON — Recent conversations with two politically involved Europeans dramatically demonstrate the difficulties Germans face in unifying.
The first was with a Lutheran pastor and former activist in Democratic Awakening, one of two leading citizens' groups whose mass protests last fall led to the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of the communist regime in East Germany. He left Democratic Awakening for the East German Social Democratic Party.
The pastor was full of righteous indignation at what he considers the "sell-out" of his country to West Germany. If unification is achieved on the basis of equality, East Germany could bring several important advantages to a united Germany, he felt. Among them being a bridge to Eastern Europe, an anti-fascist tradition, a strong respect for women's rights and a thriving publishing industry. But with the East German Christian Democratic Union opting for absorption into West Germany largely on Bonn's terms, he foresaw all these and other benefits being swept away by the rich, dynamic West Germans.
The East German campaign leading up to the March elections especially galled the pastor. A political neophyte unfamiliar with the rough-and-tumble of Western democracy, he complained bitterly that the East German conservatives had "stolen the election" through misleading slogans, personal and financial intervention by their West German colleagues and the West German press' manipulation of campaign news. The deliberate simplifications of the campaign, he lamented, now meant that in East Germany you could no longer speak of socialism and democracy together.
His prognosis was grim. Recent events in East Germany, he believed, had rekindled an extreme German nationalism and hatred of foreigners. Like most other East Germans, he expected a wave of bankruptcies, serious unemployment and rapid inflation on the heels of currency reform and the introduction of free-market mechanisms. Anything less than a one-to-one exchange rate between the East and West German mark, the pastor argued, would spell catastrophe for retirees whose pensions are already meager. (Last week, Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed to exchange one East German mark, up to 4,000 per person, for one West German mark on wages, pensions and some savings. Anything else would be converted at a rate of two East German marks for one West German mark.) The final act of the "sell-out," he feared, would be droves of West Germans showing up in East Germany to claim property seized by the communists 40 years ago.
A few days later, I spoke with a retired ambassador of a Central European country. Unlike the East German, he was a cosmopolitan, multilingual professional with decades of experience and wide knowledge of Germany. His view of German unification, not surprisingly slanted toward its international ramifications, was every bit as gloomy as the pastor's.
Both shared a unshakeable pessimism about the dichotomy of the German character, which has given the world Goethe, Kant and Schiller--and Hitler, Himmler and their minions. The former diplomat was similarly appalled at the West Germans' domination of the East German election campaign. To him, the most troubling event was the condescending and humiliating treatment of East German Premier Hans Modrow by Kohl when the two met in Bonn. It reminded him of Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg's visit to Hitler in Berchtesgaden on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938. German political style and behavior, the ambassador felt, had apparently not changed much.
When American and Soviet forces are withdrawn from Europe, he predicted that a united Germany would quickly dominate the continent, politically and economically. The European Community would help restrain German ambitions in the West. But in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany would be much freer to pursue its goals. Kohl's brief waffling on accepting the finality of the German-Polish border out of deference to Germans expelled from former German land after WWII worried the ambassador: German minorities in Central and Eastern Europe could act as fifth-columns for German expansionist aims. Austria, with an important pro-German group in its population, might be particularly vulnerable to a latter-day, informal variant of Anschluss .
To ward off such cataclysmic possibilities, the ambassador urged that a peace treaty formally ending World War II and firmly delineating Germany's place in the new Europe be negotiated. Because such discussions would resurrect sensitive issues--reparation claims against Germany--Bonn has steadfastly opposed such a treaty.