Germany's Hangover

WILLIAM PFAFF

October 04, 1990|By William Pfaff

HANNOVER, GERMANY. — GERMANS ARE accepting unification as a duty, not a deliverance. Nowhere is a note of triumphalism to be heard.

The (former) West Germans gloomily assess what all this is going to cost and what it will mean to their comfort and set ways. Germans in the East edgily resign themselves to insecurity, unemployment, professional reconversion, and the condescension -- sometimes hostility -- of fellow Germans in the West. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has acknowledged the split between those who think themselves ''givers'' in the West and those they consider ''takers'' in the East.

Those outside Germany who believed that the new Germany would proclaim its pride, size and power, shedding its modesty (and good behavior, according to its more hostile critics), could not have been more wrong. The Germans have treated unification day as if it were hangover day, after all that champagne -- and beer -- last November.

The political implications of unification are not directly addressed. On the left, although not exclusively so, people evade the national question by insisting that Germans continue to think small and green, and even that their allies and neighbors must go on checking on them to be sure they do not go wrong. They are so insistent about this that one begins to feel an overcompensation, a pre-unification ''stop-me-before-I-kill-again'' plea from people ordinarily devoted to saving the trees.

Debate at the same time is rude and intolerant. At a meeting last weekend at a Lutheran discussion center near Hannover a foreign observer could not but have the odd hackle stiffened by the persistence of utopian formulations and absolute value assertions in arguments among high-minded, religious-minded Germans. Politicians get shouted down, or drowned out by derisive laughter, when people do not like what they say.

Yet the striking quality of Germany in its hour of unification is the larger apoliticism of it all (domestic electoral maneuver, of course, goes furiously on), and the total absence of nationalist statement. The whole matter of recovering a German nation after four decades of ''provisional'' government in the West and puppet government in the East is largely unconfronted. The implication is that national anonymity has been very comforting to Germans.

Thus their virtually unanimous rejection of Washington's recent proposals that Germany send troops to the Gulf. Troops? To a war zone? They thought this a mad idea. Under pressure from Washington they have come to mull over constitutional changes that might let Germany send troops outside Germany under U.N. auspices to serve as peacekeepers, but they remain unenthusiastic about even that.

For those who are Germany's allies or neighbors this ought to be reassuring. Certainly it bears not the slightest resemblance to the horror-scenarios put about concerning what might happen in Germany. It is impossible to look at this Germany and not recognize that after World War II something snapped that had been crucial to the Hohenzollern and Hitlerian states.

A national culture does not snap, of course, but it evolves. A certain romanticism, an unpolitical utopianism, still affect the way many Germans think and talk. There is so much democracy now that it spills over into a kind of anti-politicism that recalls the past's unhappy hostilities to politics and compromise.

Much no doubt remains suppressed in the German political unconscious. History has not halted, and -- however changed -- this Germany exists in continuity with the past that made it, a past that incorporates Heidigger with Hitler; Beethoven, Goethe, Adenauer and Honecker; and the Thomas Mann who could call peace ''an element of civil corruption.''

The unqualified, but also unanalyzed, anti-nationalism of newly united Germany reflects the reality that Germans do not altogether like being Germans. They do, however, like being Europeans. They insist that they are Europeans, and secondarily Germans.

One result of the events of the past year is that they have discovered how truly they are West Europeans. There is an unspoken conclusion that the West is where they not only belong but want to belong -- where they are secure, comfortable, among friends.

The East, which a year ago seemed to many Germans a place of big commercial opportunities as well as hazy political alternatives, now gloomily is seen as the pit where millions of deutschemarks are going to have to be sunk out of considerations of international duty, not German ambition.

The trouble with this is that Europe is neither a nationality nor a nation, and German unification plus the return of the other Warsaw Pact nations to ''Europe'' makes it seem less likely than ever that a politically federated Europe is going to come about -- a European Community that actually takes over substantial elements of the national sovereignties of its members.

So it would seem that sooner or later the Germans, like it or not, are going to have to acknowledge that they are a nation, and recognize that being Europeans does not exempt them from being Germans, with all that means.

How they will react remains to be seen. But all of us, Americans certainly included, have a good deal of unsettled national business we would rather not confront, so one must say to the Germans, join the club. One must be concerned only if the Germans in the future think they are not part of the club, but still a nation starkly apart.

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