Germans Find Themselves in a New Identity Crisis

WILLIAM PFAFF

March 23, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Berlin. -- The German connection with Europe, solid and settled two years ago, is today in question. This means that the Germans' belief about their own future is a problem again. For four decades the Germans have found their solution in Germany's integration into Europe. Today, the nature and dimensions of this Europe are uncertain, as is the future of Europe's relationship to the United States.

The Germans have already discovered Germany's own unification to be costly and disappointing. They thought it was going to be a straightforward job of material reorganization and reconstruction. They have found not only that the economic price is much higher than anyone expected, but also that enormous psychological and cultural barriers exist between the peoples of East and West. What had seemed a task that would last a few years now is spoken of as possibly needing a full generation.

At the same time, Germans have awakened to the implications of the monetary and political unions agreed by the European Community's leaders at their Maastricht conference in December. They will lose the deutsche mark, for example. The discovery has provoked public outrage. The latest polls suggest that nearly three-quarters of the German public is against substituting a European currency unit for the deutsche mark. Thirty percent say their vote in the next national election, in 1994, will go to the party which refuses to give up the deutsche mark.

They have awakened to the fact that Germany's social and economic policy will be constrained by the new monetary union. They don't like the size of the aid package Brussels asks for the poorer European Community members. They say they already supply the bulk of the West's aid to Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, while Washington self-importantly calls conferences on the subject.

In the Yugoslav crisis, Germans rushed to support the Slovenes' and Croatians' right to independence, since Germans themselves had been free to unite and shake off the old Communist state. They saw France and the EC criticizing them and trying to save a federal Yugoslavia. This has made them ask what a common EC foreign policy really implies.

There is trouble with the United States. The Germans see official Washington discussing (in a Pentagon planning document) how Germany and Japan are to be prevented by U.S. military power ''from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.'' Chancellor Helmut Kohl met George Bush this weekend. The American agenda had agricultural subsidies at the top. The United States has said that unless Europe cuts its farm subsidies, there will be no new world trade liberalization agreement. Then the world economy would take a long step toward breaking into three protectionist trading blocs.

Mr. Bush can't yield because of the U.S. presidential campaign. His people threaten Germany with ''a serious break with the United States.'' They see France as the real villain, but are holding Germany responsible for concessions from France. The Germans feel they don't need this.

They also see that if it does come to a break, and protectionism, Europe (West plus East plus the ex-Soviet market) is going to be a more interesting place to do business than North America. They don't want trouble with Washington, but they don't want to be blackmailed, either.

The old anchorages of German national existence thus have been disconcertingly loosened during the past two years: the assumptions that European integration solved Germany's national problem, and that the alliance with America solved its foreign policy problem. Confusion and anxiety have, only naturally, followed.

But what are Germany's real choices? People abroad talk about Germany ''going it alone,'' as if that were a serious option. Go alone to do what? There is neither profit nor security in that.

The only rational course of national interest is the one Germans have followed since the war, that of intimate cooperation with the other European democracies; and, to the degree that the changing character of U.S. policy makes possible, cooperation with the United States.

It is a course with much current pain in it. The feasibility of European foreign policy and security union may be doubted. The Maastricht agreements certainly may have to be reconsidered on grounds of practicality. But that can be done without jeopardizing the epochal accomplishment of the last half-century, the reconciliation of Europeans after their 30-year civil war.

That reconciliation made the new Europe ''a cult, a dream, a utopia'' -- as a Romanian intellectual has said -- for the people of the subjugated East. Utopias, of course, never turn out to be quite what they are cracked up to be. Hence the nerves and disappointment in Germany today. But a Europe that is less than utopian is still better than anything else on offer to the Germans, and the German majority surely knows it.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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