Pain and Gain in Germany

September 21, 1994|By HENRY L. TREWHITT

BERLIN — Berlin.--It's a shame Americans are paying so little heed to Europe, especially to Germany. The president's summer tour was merely a blip on the screen. Crisis journalism since has had little time for political events that in calmer times would be followed with great anxiety.

For what happens here will shape the future of Europe, and thus of the United States, and thus of much of the present and would-be developed world.

Only a few nations meet that standard: The U.S., of course; Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia, maybe Ukraine. Many flashpoints of today's world, such as Haiti, Somalia and Rwanda, meanwhile are humanitarian traps for the unwary without long-term strategic importance.

The great questions in Germany all turn directly or indirectly on reunification. And one of the most terrifying dimensions of reunification, which added 18 million East Germans to 62 million in the west, is the cost. Germany is pumping $100 billion a year into the states of the former German Democratic Republic. The skylines of Dresden and Weimar, cities of cultural and historical wealth, and of east Berlin are dominated by construction cranes.

The cost is stunning not only in the east. After building a new government complex in Bonn for breathtaking millions of marks, the Bundestag, or parliament, voted 338-320 to restore Berlin as the capital of reunited Germany. So the old Reichstag at the Brandenburg Gate has been rebuilt. Thousands of homes are planned for parliamentarians and bureaucrats. Ten ministries will move to Berlin; eight, including defense, will remain in Bonn. The government hopes other needs will fill the vacated buildings there. A political imperative thus becomes an efficiency expert's nightmare. Ernst Luuk, a Berlin official overseeing logistics, describes all this movement with the German equivalent of, ''No pain, no gain.''

But the pain occurs on still other fronts. Unemployment in the west is 9 percent and in Berlin 12 percent -- both relatively high. The rate for the east is officially 15 percent, though probably much higher when the make-work half-employed are included. Clamoring hordes of would-be immigrants maintain constant pressure, and history makes Germany cautious about controlling them. One result is that the number of foreigners in Germany now bumps 6 million.

Increased crime comes with social strain. The rate in Berlin, including robbery and crimes of violence, is up 40 percent. Some gang leaders are the former Soviet officers who once applied the mailed fist in East Germany. ''As long as the city was protected by the Western Allies and the east was controlled by the Russians, crime was low,'' says Wolfgang Will, chief editor of the Springer publishing house. ''Berliners, who never had to cope with the real world, now must face it.''

He meant they had to face a different real world. At times during 40-odd years of division the world was very real to Berliners; in the Soviet blockade of 1948-49, in the whole history of The Wall, in the Soviet threats of a generation. In the new real world of social upheaval, politically aware Germans note anxiously that Germany follows the U.S. by one, three, five or 10 years -- the period varying with the source -- in its internal crises.

In fact Germany's strains are already those of the U.S. in microcosm. Beyond crime and immigration, there's talk now of cutting social services. The Germans, who once yearned for everything American, understandably resist catching up by such standards.

In some areas German worries are even greater than those of the Americans, if only because this is Germany. Especially disturbing are extremists of the right and left, with greater concern about the former. The savagery of the skinheads is well documented. An American official carefully views them with ''seriousness but not alarm.'' The greater long-term danger may be the legal party of the right. Though it officially keeps its distance from the skinheads, they are its potential storm troopers.

The party of the former East German Communists got everyone's attention with 20 percent of the vote in one state election recently. But neither it nor the young thugs are yet a national threat. Germany's allies reckon they can live easily with either Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats or Rudolf Sharping's Social Democrats after next month's elections -- they've done it before. They are more concerned about what coalitions with extremists volatile German voters may force upon the mainstream parties.

Such uncertainties have inspired exotic justifications for maintaining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the alliance that won the Cold War. All members want to keep it, though no one is quite sure of its mission. Americans stick generally to defense of common values as justification for NATO and for keeping 100,000 troops in Germany.

The generalities abound because one key reason to maintain the alliance is too awkward for public discussion: To keep an arm on the Germans if something goes terribly wrong. And mainstream German leaders understand and welcome that as long as no one talks about it. They, like their allies, seek every edge to make certain Germany does not fail.

Henry L. Trewhitt, a former Baltimore Sun diplomatic correspondent, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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