There is nothing in the world of power politics as sensitive, complex, difficult, and important to all other countries as the German-Russian relationship. Every diplomat around the world was listening this week for any scrap of implication coming from the Kremlin where West Germany's leaders were talking with the Soviet Union's leaders.
The specifics were unimportant. The occasion, or excuse(?), for the visit was to sign a big West German bank loan intended to help the Soviets increase the supply of consumer goods to their long-suffering people.
The overtones are everything. Was this the beginning of a Soviet-German reconciliation, which could spread from a bank loan to other areas, including politics?
Much of European history has for 200 years revolved around the Russian-German relationship.
Any sudden change in that relationship can trigger wars, or shift the balance of power in the world. A secret pact between Russians and Germans at Rapallo, Italy, in 1922, upset the Versailles settlement of World War I and allowed the Germans to rebuild their armed forces inside Russia. The Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 ignited World War II. Hitler's Panzer batallions and Goering's Luftwaffe were born and nourished inside Russia with Russian help.
The story goes back further. Napoleon invaded Russia with Prussia, then the leading German state, as his ally. His military downfall was assured the day the Prussians broke their alliance and went over to the Russians.
Since World War II, the Russians have protected themselves against a German revival by the imposed division of Germany between East and West. The centerpiece of Moscow's policy toward Germany has been the communist state of East Germany - ``The German Democratic Republic.''
That division of Germany has been the central feature of the post-World War II settlement in Europe. Any change in that pattern would, to indulge in gross understatement, be unsettling. The last thing in the world the British, French, Italians, and other West Europeans want is a revival of Bismarck's greater Germany.
The ability to allow that revival by freeing East Germany has been a trump card in Moscow's hand since 1945. Will they ever play that card? And can there ever be a Russian-German reconciliation without that freeing of East Germany?
There can never be a meeting between top Russians and top Germans without that possibility in mind. It is the play which could win the Germans over to the Soviet Union's side.
A wise German diplomat with whom I had many long discussions in Berlin in 1940 told me that someday there would have to be a closer association between Germans and Russians. ``Either we will conquer them by war or we will merge with them through diplomacy,'' he said. That was before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler wanted to merge German skill and energy with the raw materials, raw manpower, and space of the Soviet Union.
Such a merger, in any form and by any means, would produce a power capable of dominating the world. The Germans tried to bring about that merger in World Wars I and II. The Soviets have tried to bring it about, under their leadership, since 1945, largely by threats and intimidation.
All of Western Europe would welcome Soviet-German reconciliation - within strict limits. A reconciliation which would lead to an easy, normal, and non-threatening relationship would be welcome because it would vastly reduce the danger of another war in Europe.
But a reconciliation which pulled West Germany out of NATO ties with the West and into the Soviet power orbit would be a sheer horror to the others.
There are no answers to the questions involved in all this in the news from Moscow over the past week. The sessions were said to be friendly. The Soviets sweetened the atmosphere at the talks when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev promised to ``solve the problem of the Soviet German minority.''
There are 2 millions ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union. They want freedom to practice their culture and religion. Many wish to return to Germany or to their pre-war homes along the Volga. Their lot will probably be easier.
Kohl also said the Soviets promised to release all political prisoners by the end of the year.
Nothing else happened, so far as we in the West yet know, that went beyond plans for more trade between the two countries and for easier treatment of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union.
But whenever West Germans and Soviets get together, outsiders get edgy. A mention of Rapallo (the 1922 pact between Germany and the Soviet Union)makes any Western diplomat shiver. Western diplomats were edgy this past week as they devoured reports from the Kremlin about how Mr. Gorbachev and West Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl got along together.
It is generally assumed in the West that the last piece of Stalin's empire which Gorbachev would ever release would be East Germany. And to keep East Germany he must also keep Poland and Czechoslovakia. The supply lines to his 20 divisions in East Germany run through those other two countries.
Many are astonished at his apparent willingness to loosen the Soviet grip on the Baltic states. He seems to be allowing Lithuania a degree of autonomy inconceivable earlier. But the Baltic littoral is not East Germany.