THE Nov. 27 New Yorker contained a startling sentence in its lead essay, dealing with the opening of the Berlin Wall. After commenting on one's obligation to remember the past, it said: ``... suddenly something changes, and you remember another obligation: to die and take your memory with you and let the young make their own life.'' Startling, because so many feel that Americans in particular do not know enough history, and that one does need to understand the past to know what policy choices are best for the future. However, that quote has stuck with me during these few weeks when we have been hearing so much about the prospects for German reunification, as well as voices questioning whether it would be a good thing.
Individuals do change, and whole nations also change, although more gradually. It is a mistake to saddle a nation, just as an individual, with a reputation based only on the past.
German history had an entirely different development from that of France or Britain. Instead of a thousand years of experience under kings who gradually built a strong central government, the German territory was part of the Holy Roman Empire until the time of Napoleon. When Bismarck came to power in the 1860s, there was widsespread support from German business leaders to catch up with the West. The economic catching-up happened, but there was no parallel development of strong democratic institutions. These had developed, after all, only through many periods of turmoil in France and Britain. There was an abrasiveness about this German catching-up that made the Allies, after 1918, feel justified in the punitive peace they imposed at Versailles.
Democracy did not become firmly established during the interwar period. The Weimar Republic had to cope with spreading economic turmoil. However, those who pride themselves on knowing this past history may err in not recognizing the degree to which the West Germans have developed a genuine democracy over the past 40 years. People who govern themselves and have achieved a sizable degree of economic well-being are not easily misled by demagogues.
The other point to keep in mind is that Germany sits in the middle of Europe. Critics of Bismarck's Germany complained that it was not a genuine country of the West, that it had not had the Enlightenment as did Britain and France, and so on. But just as Americans' attitudes are shaped by the insularity and size of their country, Germany will always be aware of its position on the continent. As the most eastern of the Western European nations, it has historically had an interest in what happens to its east.
Just after President Reagan clamped the lid on American companies' doing business with the Russian gas pipeline in the early '80s, I was travelling with some investment people in Germany. We had an interview with the head of Thyssen Steel, after touring the plant where the pipeline tubing was being built. After criticizing Mr. Reagan's actions, this gentleman continued: ``You Americans don't seem to realize that for us Germans, the Soviet Union is just the country on the other side of Poland. And it will always be there.''
One cannot forecast what the pace toward eventual German reunification will be. Something conceivably could stop it. But, just as the world seemd to come unglued in 1939 without anyone's being able to slow down the process, the denouement of World War II may be upon us. That entire process could be faster than we yet imagine.
We should not fear Germany's normal interest in doing business with eastern Europe. The question that is legitimate for Westerners to entertain is whether Germany has now absorbed enough of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and individual responsibility that they cannot be successfully challenged by a future leader or party within its borders. I think that it has done so.
There will be many concrete issues concerning Germany to address in the next few years. There will be ample opportunity for differing opinions to surface. The US may need to recall that Germany can have legitimate differences on some issues with it, without feeling that it has lost its basic grounding in democratic ideals. We do not feel that way when Margaret Thatcher disagrees with her counterparts in the European Community; it is proper to have the same confidence in Bonn.