BERLIN -- Forty-five years after the shooting stopped, East and West Germany will mark the end of World War II tonight and become one nation again, united and sovereign.
At five minutes before midnight, the replica of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell, which stands before the Schoenberg Town Hall, will ring in the birth of the new German Reich.
The ringing will be piped over to the Brandenburg Gate, where hundreds of thousands of Germans from East and West are expected to repeat the spectacular celebrations of last autumn and winter, replete with sparkling wine and fireworks.
This time, however, there is no Berlin Wall on which to dance into
freedom. Less than a year after the wall opened Nov. 9, the LTC Communist system that ran East Germany has collapsed.
"It's not just the end of the German division, but the end of an ideological confrontation that caused an enormous amount of pain to millions of people," said one Western diplomat. "In fact, it is the end of World War II."
But as the red, black and gold flag rises before the Reichstag at midnight, Germans do not appear to be looking on with the wild-eyed nationalism that marked either Otto von Bismarck's attempt to forge German unity in iron and blood 120 years ago, or the 1,000-year Reich of Adolf Hitler, the two most fearsome episodes for non-Germans.
Germany, as it re-emerges in 1990, appears circumspect and even subdued about its rediscovered power and unity. For if Germans look at their country's 75 years of unity, marked by dangerous, often violent extremes, they are left with a sense mostly of what not to do.
This nation of 78 million, whose economy and population dwarf much of the rest of Europe, is continually looking above and below the nation-state, in silent awareness of its neighbors' and perhaps its own anxieties about the past.
As its sovereignty is being restored by foreign powers, Germany is, at least publicly, stressing the strong power of the 16 Laender, or states, that will make up the new Germany, and the country's ties to Europe.
There is little evidence that Germans today would accept Bismarck's formula of sacrificing freedom for national unity.
Christoph Stoelzl, director of the new German Historical Museum in Berlin, takes pains to point out that the new museum's first, overwhelming exhibition on Bismarck and his times that is running now was planned three years ago.
In the events of the last year, Mr. Stoelzl sees a parallel more with the popular revolts for German unity of 1848 than with 1871. "What now happens has very little to do with Bismarck's solution of imposing unity from above," Mr. Stoelzl said.
Ordinary Germans say they will raise a glass to unity tonight, but that will be the extent of the festivities for most of them.
After a year of momentous events -- including the opening of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Communist regime, currency union July 1 and the relinquishing of rights over Germany by the four wartime victors -- Germans may be simply too accustomed to historical moments to savor what may be the most important one of all.
They are also daunted by the enormous task ahead of uniting the countries with two completely different post-war experiences.
Eastern Germany is looking to Western Germany to provide the means to prosperity, and faces possible unemployment of 50 percent or more in the coming years. In the West, estimates of the cost of unity have risen to 100 billion Deutschemarks ($65 billion) a year and a tax increase is believed near certain.
Most likely, the ceremonies tonight and tomorrow will simply serve as a pause to worries that will resume before the week is over.
At a ceremony today, the allied commandants will hand their powers over to West German officials, giving up the control they have exercised over every aspect of West Berlin life since 1945. Berlin's 23 districts will become a separate state of Germany, sovereign like the rest of the country.
Leaders of the four wartime victors -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France -- have followed the lead of President Bush and turned down invitations to
here, and will leave the Germans to celebrate amongst themselves.
The Reichstag, still pocked with bullets from the final days of Berlin's siege in 1945, will host the first session of a united German parliament since Hitler was chancellor.
On Thursday morning, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose political career and public esteem were rescued from the doldrums by his seizing the reins of German unity, will deliver a major policy address before legislators from both halves of Germany.
Even the momentary joy of these historic days will not be unchecked.
All police in both East and West Berlin will be working tonight, amid riot threats from the extreme left- and right-wing groups.
Leftist intellectuals, led by Walter Jens in the West and Heine Mueller in the East, have opted out of taking part in the festivities, and warn of a rise of nationalism and the dangers of unity.