IN one sleepless night last Thursday, the world's citizens watched as the European order between West and East was turned on its head. The East German wall was erected in 1961 not for ideological or defense reasons, but chiefly to stop the rush of East Germans to West Germany is search of work. After a lapse of 28 years, this motivation has again been allowed full force. Germany, West and East, is historically and culturally one country. Emigration restrictions eliminated, East Germans with marketable skills have the incentive to search for employers offering the higher wage. Hence the East German brain drain is likely to continue until things sort out. West Germany does not have full employment or enough housing for all would-be comers; some 'emigr'es may find their skills unmarketable and will return.
Under this economic imperative, assuming emigration restrictions are not again imposed, the separate East German government appears to have lost its reason to exist. Such is the analysis of observers like Gerhard Casper, provost of the University of Chicago and constitutional scholar.
Some kind of unification appears certain in the next year or two, perhaps initially in the form of a federation as a face-saving step, Professor Casper says. One people's drive for economic opportunity does not sit easily in two separate countries. East Germany was initially established as a socialist state. If it yields that identity in free elections, its reason for being dissolves. So we may well be seeing the end of the German Democratic Republic - and the familiar military, economic, and social order associated with it.
Given the import of these events, the Bush administration's bureaucratic caution appeared to be the wrong emotional response.
As to reunification, Britain and France can do nothing to prevent it, and the United States likely does not want to do anything.
This is not the same Germany that started two world wars, say those who find unification inevitable. It has changed under Western dominance; a rebirth of Prussia is not to be feared.
The European Community, where West Germany already is the dominant monetary force, will also be affected. Adding another 16 million persons to the West German sphere will create a boom economy, as the East hastens to catch up.
East Germany's economy today may look good compared with Poland's, but it is still in rough shape. This is so despite its relatively superior planning within the East bloc, the help of some $3 billion a year from the Federal Republic, and the extra advantage of duty-free access to the EC through West Germany. East Germany's standard of living has failed to advance for a decade. Factories date back to the days before and just after the war. Pollution is awful.
All this creates an opportunity for Western businessmen, and particularly West German businessmen, to rebuild the eastern sector. Still, a booming Germany would create an imbalance in the EC.
Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Hungarians and Poles are already uneasy about 1992. The more intense the competition within the EC, the more difficult for these countries to deal themselves into the action.
A United States of Europe that begins to embrace Eastern Europe is something totally different from the vision of men like Adenauer, Monnet, and De Gaulle, Casper says.
And yet, only the Federal Republic's Helmut Kohl - not the West's most scintillating politician - has taken the stage.
The Bush administration stayed at the sidelines. The action is on the European side of the Atlantic. The administration had earlier scaled its role to that of bit player by responding so parsimoniously to Poland's request for aid.
The Soviet Union, with its own problems, has also sidelined itself.
These are astounding days for the West. This may not be a moment to gloat. But neither should Mr. Bush deprive himself and his country of the opportunity to play a part in the shaping of history.