Germany uses European identity to fend off its nationalist ghosts

October 07, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BERLIN -- The reunification of Germany 45 years after World War II, along with the four Allied powers' release of their control over this people, is raising fearsome ghosts for some who are old enough to remember how this country veered from the Weimar Republic to National Socialism to orthodox communism in East Germany.

They are frightened by their country's capacity to produce with equal enthusiasm the murderous and the sublime, both Hitler and Beethoven, and they worry that without ties to a wider Europe, this new, larger Germany could over time stumble back into aggression and chaos.

Traute Kuhnert stood before the imposing Soviet war memorial by the Brandenburg Gate last week and thought of all the Germanys she has seen in her 77 years -- each one radically different from the one before.

"Ach, those years," she said, snapping a bony fist to the air.

"When I die, I want to die a European," she added emphatically.

Identification with Europe or with one of the 17 Laender, or states, that make up Germany appeared last week like rafts to keep the country from sinking into a potentially dangerous new nationalism along with its newly won unity.

In the code that politicians use here, emphasis on the European role is a way of reassuring Germany's neighbors that this country will work with, not against, them and that nationalism will not again prevail. Indeed, there are no overwhelming reasons at the moment to fear that Germany will swerve into a frenzy of national glorification.

Emphasis on Europe also represents a way of guiding Germansaway from those dangers that have ultimately destroyed them.

"This new Germany must be integrated in Europe," Mrs. Kuhnert said. "This Germany must be organized so that those aggressive forces that sometimes go mad must not be allowed to raise their heads again."

Italian journalist Luigi Barzini, in his book "The Europeans," entitled his chapter on this country "The Mutable Germans."

The author recalled his first visit to Germany in 1931, when he saw all manner of depravity on the Kurfuerstendamm, still West Berlin's main street. In the city's neighborhoods, political parties -- each carrying their own flags, wearing their own uniforms and singing their own anthems -- fought pitched battles.

He returned in 1934 to Berlin under National Socialism and no longer saw chaos. Men were impeccably dressed even for casual strolls, and the streets were spotless. He met Adolf Hitler and concluded he was of no consequence, a buffoon who would soon disappear from German history without leaving a mark.

In 1946, after World War II, Mr. Barzini returned to a Germany devastated by complete defeat. He met John McCloy, the U.S. high commissioner, who assured him that the Germans were a democracy-loving people who had been forced to live under a totalitarian regime they were too frightened to challenge.

"Every time I was there on a journalistic mission I saw a startlingly new country, only vaguely resembling what I had seen before or what I had read about," Mr. Barzini wrote. "What was the real nature of these people?"

The only constant Mr. Barzini could pin down in Germany's psyche from one metamorphosis to the next was perhaps its very capacity for rapid and radical change.

"The Germans aren't bad basically, but they want to do everything perfectly -- both the good and the evil," Mrs. Kuhnert said.

Now Germany stands on the edge of another transformation, which leaders here intuitively understand must be downplayed. Nobody can say how this bigger Germany will be changed by the addition of 16 million East Germans, who will soon be suffering 50 percent unemployment and who may take 10 to 20 years to reach Western levels of prosperity.

But the people who took to the streets of Leipzig and Dresden to overthrow the East German regime last year carried German, not European Community, flags.

At the Kartoon Cabaret in East Berlin, a group of East German performers parodies this strange notion of grafting a European consciousness over their East German identity, when they had been all prepared to become German again. "If we wanted Europe, we would have said so," one of the performers moaned.

For a short time, East Germans may simply accept European integration as part and parcel of unification. But as they grow more desperate, their support for Europe may depend on whether they see European integration as robbing them of Bonn's assets.

Some analysts argue there is little fundamental change in Germany's goals as a united country this time. Germany has simply realized that it can expand its power economically rather than militarily, they say.

Despite the scattered, private grumbling in European capitals, the economic might of Germany is not nearly as alarming for its neighbors as the country's earlier drives for military domination.

But for people like Traute Kuhnert, the sad legacy of Germany's years as a united country from 1871 to 1945 have not been erased by 45 years of democracy in the West. The earlier years have left a troubled, sometimes bitter sense of what it means to be German.

As her country enjoys its rebirth as a sovereign nation and she rounds out her years as one of its 78 million citizens, Mrs. Kuhnert has one overriding wish.

"I do hope, from the bottom of my heart, that we can produce something good, that people will learn to respect us," the elderly woman said and continued her walk toward the Brandenburg Gate.

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