WHEN the Soviet Union asked the United States, Britain, and France for a meeting in Berlin last month, the first four-power discussion since 1971, it could have been to start work on solving the German problem. But Mikhail Gorbachev was not looking for a solution. He wanted to make the Western powers part of the problem; and he seems to have had a measure of success. The division of Germany is the heart of the problem and maintaining it is Mr. Gorbachev's chief concern. The man who calmly watched and even assisted revolutionary change in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary sees the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a special case. The partition of Germany into two states is a postwar reality, says Gorbachev, and reversing it means destabilizing Europe. He elaborates this proposition with some strange and even ominous arguments. Ignoring the spontaneity of the German uprising, Gorbachev accuses ``some Western countries'' of interfering. In East Germany, the Communist state implanted by Stalin is being torn out by the roots and the desire for a ``united fatherland'' proclaimed. Since the Berlin Wall was opened Nov. 9, people have continued to migrate west at the rate of 2,000 a day. Yet Gorbachev refers to the tottering regime of the GDR as ``an important guarantor of peace and stability in Europe.'' And he shows an uncharacteristic clenched fist.
Gorbachev followed events in East Germany cautiously, favoring reform not abolition of the system. He turned unequivocally negative when West German Chancellor Kohl outlined a 10-point program to overcome the division of Europe and of Germany. It contained nothing surprising or radical: no timetable, no threats, no nationalist pressure. The European context was strongly underscored. For a West German chancellor to have remained silent during the drama in the East would have been politically impossible. What he said is mandated by the Bonn constitution. He did not go beyond the goal of German unity that Western allies have endorsed for 40 years. He was ill-advised not to consult them before giving the speech. But it was not a bombshell.
Nevertheless, when Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher sought to explain the 10 points to Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze in Moscow he was nearly blown up. They called it ``egoistic,'' ``impermissible,'' bordering on an ``outright Diktat,'' and ``dangerous.'' Said Gorbachev later, ``we will see to it that no harm comes to the GDR. It is our strategic ally and a member of the Warsaw Pact.'' These are strong words from a great power.
The Soviet Union has 400,000 troops in East Germany. They have been quiet through the recent turmoil. However, the day before Presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Malta, the Soviet army registered its presence. Two Americans on routine military patrol in East Germany were arrested and held for seven and a half hours. For good measure, a bayonet was stuck into one of their tires. It seems unthinkable that Soviet forces would try to suppress the East German uprising. But Moscow is stiffening the spine of those who do not want German unity, and intimidating those who do.
For the moment, the game is political. Gorbachev is well aware of Western differences over German unity. And he is shrewd enough to exploit them. Britain's Margaret Thatcher seems to agree with him. President Fran,cois Mitterrand is amenable to the argument that unification should not be pushed. Even President Bush signs on to gradual change in the interest of stability, linking it to the Helsinki Final Act. Gorbachev interprets Helsinki as permanently guaranteeing the borders of the GDR. In fact, it does not, but specifies that existing boundaries in Europe may not be changed by force.
Lost in this murk is the simple fact that the East German uprising is a primal act of protest against an intolerable system. It didn't start from outside, nor can it be steered from without. No one has explained how an orderly transformation of the GDR into a real democracy, free to remain independent or join with West Germany, should be more destabilizing than hundreds of thousands clamoring in the streets of East Germany.
The four powers have the right to set up an orderly transition. But if the Western nations appear to join the USSR in slowing or stopping this process they could be in for trouble. Standing in the way of self-determination would arouse resentment and suspicion in those who want it. More important, conjuring up the old German Menace would cast into question the core of the allies' successful postwar policy in Europe: bringing the Germans for the first time into the Western family.
Shadowboxing now with a German nationalist danger to satisfy Gorbachev or parochial interests risks reviving it.