Holiday hiatus: West German prelude to deeper reflections

By , Thomas Kielinger is head of the capital bureau of the German national daily, Die Welt, Bonn.

WEST Germany this holiday week seems ensconced in such complete hibernation that no message of any consequence appears likely to penetrate. In the capital, Bonn, only a skeleton staff remains to mind the political store. Young men in the military, 240,000 of them, have been granted a Christmas-cum-New Year's leave of absence.

Between Christmas and New Year's, business activity slows to a pitiful pace. Woe to the hapless person who needs to move to a new house, refurnish his office , or get the notary's attention.

But such slowdowns provide only a temporary respite from the exigencies of everyday activity. One gets the impression that the Germans enjoy their holidays all the more for the instinctive realization of their precariously balanced status in the middle of this history-burdened continent.

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Some of this unease, to be sure, is self-generated. Life, to millions of Germans, is simply too good to be true. Can the material wealth accumulated by the middle-class burghers last? Can the welfare system continue to deliver its goods so lavishly in the future? Can the country afford and can its economy absorb social legislation that virtually guarantees a person's job against the vicissitudes of the marketplace? What price stability? What about the 2 million unemployed with little hope of being hired now because industry is too afraid to hire people it cannot ever get rid of?

Demands for security that exceed the rightful claim upon a stable future can only subvert the desired goal. Insecurity, not security, is the predictable effect of an inflated insurance policy against life's endemic risks.

Germans often drive themselves to destraction worrying about the slightest bump in the road ahead. Undoubtedly this is also a legacy of their rather violent historical experience during this century. Far too many of them, all appearances of present well-being notwithstanding, view the future as little more than a series of unpalatable options. No wonder the country's birthrate is declining. If you think of children as the most important venture capital of a vibrant industrial democracy, then West Germany is giving a rather unsatisfactory account of itself, to put it mildly.

Here social scientists may discover a mentality that does for society what a deficit-troubled treasury does to the money markets: It crowds out your neighbor - and future generations. The ''big me'' permeates the pattern of public attitudes. It's ''my'' job security at the expense of everybody else's. ''My'' demand upon my employer's largess at the expense of his ability to compete and expand.

Slowly, very slowly the West Germans are waking up to the fact that this is a recipe for disaster. Jan. 1 will see the enactment of a new employment law crafted to protect against excessive claims for job security. A firm may now add to its payroll without committing itself to more than 12 months employment in any given case.

For an industry so tied in knots by the social entitlements mandated by law, this new step is a giant stride in the direction of flexibility regained. If Chancellor Helmut Kohl succeeds in unfettering even more of Germany's economic prowess by the right kind of change in the tax laws, who knows - the country might engineer its recovery without having to wait for US interest rates to decline, or having to rely too heavily on export gains based on the strength of the US dollar.

The season to be jolly is already drawing to a close. With customary deliberation the Germans have enjoyed their share of it, Christmas bonuses and all. As 1985 beckons them on, they are beginning to reflect a little more deeply upon the conditions of their material wealth and upon the direction they should take into the next century.

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