WASHINGTON. — DESPITE THE unforgotten and unforgivable evils of the Nazi past, there are good reasons to welcome today's German unification with pleasure and hope. The two German states that came into being in 1949 were the keystones of the Cold War division of Europe into East and West. Therefore this Day of German Unity also marks the dawn of the restoration of Europe to its historic wholeness -- restoration impossible as long as Germany remained divided. German unification removes the final shreds of the Iron Curtain.
The hand of steel with which the Soviet Union held Eastern Europe in its grip has been withdrawn. The basic fact, more than any German initiatives, has led to German unification. The world witnessed and remembers the breaching of the Berlin Wall last November, but that stirring television spectacle was not the beginning of the end of the division of Germany.
It was instead the end of the beginning -- the symbolic grand finale to the westward flight of thousands of East Germans after Hungary opened its border with Austria in September 1989; and to the Gorbachev visit to East Berlin last October when he personally advised East Germany's leaders that they could no longer count on Soviet troops to keep their people down. Therefore today's united Germany owes its existence to the Soviet decision to abandon the use of force to subjugate Eastern Europe, and to the political, economic and social bankruptcy of the German Democratic Republic.
That total bankruptcy was nakedly revealed when the facade of brute repression crumbled away. By the end of last November, the number of East Germans flooding into the Federal Republic had reached the hundreds of thousands. A literal disintegration of the East German state was under way.
The Federal Republic had to choose: either try to induce people to stay in East Germany by shoring up the social order as best one could while preparing to take over the state just as quickly as possible; or suffer the unification of two populations by enduring a voluntary mass migration to the West that would virtually have emptied out East Germany.
Despite the risks, the first choice was obviously preferable to the second. As a result, unification has proceeded at breakneck pace, too rapidly in many respects but successful at least in preventing the catastrophe of mass emigration.
There can be no illusion that the two German states have merged. The Federal Republic has taken over and absorbed East Germany, as the only viable answer to the abrupt and complete bankruptcy of the German Democratic Republic. West German's laws and political, economic and social system prevail as of today, just as the West German mark already has prevailed since July 1. The single Germany of today therefore lacks a new look: it is the familiar Federal Republic substantially enlarged.
This familiarity of the Federal Republic is of course reassuring, not merely in appearance but in substance. By joining West Germany, East Germany becomes part of NATO, the European Community, and the entire web of international obligations to which the Federal Republic is already committed.
Today East Germans become full participants -- ready or not -- in a flourishing, non-militaristic, well-established constitutional democracy, and in an exceedingly prosperous free market economy. In the course of only one incredible year, without the spilling of a single drop of blood, and without nationalist frenzy, the East Germans have freely and overwhelmingly chosen simply to become part of the Federal Republic. This course of events has been astonishing, and only paranoia could evoke displeasure at the outcome to date.
Most astonishing of all, the European peace treaty which the Cold War prevented ever since 1945 is now suddenly ready for ratification, without fanfare, almost as an afterthought. The single new Germany of today has renounced all claims to territories beyond its present borders. The allies of World War II have restored full sovereignty to united Germany. Thus the peace that for so long seemed to be forever unattainable has come suddenly, not with a bang but a whisper.
Today bells are ringing throughout Germany. There is a celebration -- dignified, joyful, solemn and somewhat subdued. There is no euphoria; a mixture of anxiety and hope prevails instead. East Germans know already that their recovery from bankruptcy and their adjustment to freedom will be painful and slow. West Germans know that the integration of a ruined economy and of so many people for whom freedom and competition as yet remain strange and frightening concepts will be costly, lengthy and contentious.
This generation of Germans now has its work cut out. The hope is that this work will go as well as possible, and that a unified Germany will occupy a secure and peaceful place in a Europe also newly restored to wholeness. The rest of the world may be spared the pain of Germany's internal readjustments, but it will share the hope. Deutschland, Shalom!
Steven Muller left Germany as a refugee in 1939. He is president emeritus of The Johns Hopkins University and vice-chairman of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.