At one second after midnight on Wednesday, Germany will be unified. This will be the fifth time in only 12 decades that the nation has been redefined, and the occasion will be like none before. Bells will ring and sekt will be uncorked, but a strangely somber mood is expected.
While the opening of the Berlin Wall last November and the practical economic problems associated with reunification have drained much emotion from the scene, there is another reason for a reserved response. It is history.
Not until 1871, when Bismarck's militaristic Prussia had defeated imperial France and pushed Vienna to the side, did the modern German nation-state emerge from a medieval melange of principalities. The event was proclaimed not on German soil but at vanquished Versailles outside Paris. In Berlin, 42,000 soldiers paraded.
"United in one Reich, the greatest, the mightiest, the most feared empire in Europe, great not alone through its physical power, greater still through its culture and through the spirit which permeates its people," exulted Baroness Spitzemberg in her diary in March 1871.
Yet only 48 years later, again at Versailles, after World War I had decimated Europe, Germany signed its surrender and a punitive peace treaty. Stripped of territory it had won from France in 1871 and condemned to penury, the second version of modern Germany was turned over to squabbling Social Democrats in the little town of Weimar. It was a rare era of tolerance, of cultural release, of political indiscipline -- and of frustration, humiliation and ultimate breakdown.
All of which led to the Nazi takeover in 1933, when Germany was redefined internally under the crazed leadership of Hitler. This Third Reich, which Hitler said would last a thousand years, ended in the ashes of World War II 12 years later.
In its fourth incarnation, modern Germany in 1945 found itself divided between East and West, between capitalism and communism, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, between two outside powers -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- that were determined to end Europe's wars.
To their great good fortune, the Western Germans came under the control of generous occupiers who gave them an economic system that could work and the first thoroughly democratic structure the nation had ever experienced. Hapless East Germans, in contrast, were condemned to Communist economic ineptitude and political repression, a combination that was to lead to the collapse of their rump state in the past year.
The new fifth Germany that officially will come into being this week will succeed only if it earns the admiration, not the fear, of neighbors that can learn to be comfortable with its undoubted power. After all that has gone before, this is cause for sober stocktaking on Germany's Day of Unity.