German Momentum

OVER the past weeks the impulse for German unification has passed a new threshold - largely due to the political and economic instability of East Germany, and partly due to Mikhail Gorbachev's recent pronouncement that Moscow would not oppose such a process. A union of East and West Germany seems no longer a matter of ``if'' - but of when and how. East German Premier Hans Modrow wants a united, neutral Germany. Dresden mayor Wolfgang Berghofer said upon quitting the East German communists last month that unification is ``unavoidable.''

Unavoidable or not, the prospect of German unification troubles many. West Germany has proved to be a sturdy democracy. But its partners in the European Community worry that a unified Germany would pull to the East (whatever that means nowadays). Germany's immediate neighbors do not want to see German hegemony in Central Europe. For Jews and other victims of Nazism, even gestures like Willy Brandt's Kniefall in the Warsaw ghetto haven't fully allayed concern. YET German unification is already under way - primarily by means of economic integration. Restrictions on how much Western companies may invest in East German firms have been lifted. The deutsche mark is now a legitimate currency in East Germany (GDR).

West German public opinion increasingly supports unification (75 percent); no political party on either side of the now-defunct Berlin Wall opposes it. Concerns do mount in Bonn about the cost of a GDR economic bailout, and of providing automatic social security to GDR 'emigr'es. There is also cultural concern about a new West German population weaned in a police welfare state. But the main political issue remains how to manage the coming change.

East Germany is collapsing into a position from which it must be rescued. Strikes and mass protests continue. Emigration from the GDR has increased from 1,000 up to 2,500 a day. Many are young, skilled workers whose departure is making East Germany unworkable. Vital computer jobs, and public transport jobs, go unattended. Leading GDR communist economist Siegfried Schiller predicts a total collapse within a year without radical changes in the centralized economy.

East German politics are a shambles. Everything is fluid. National elections have been moved from May to March - both to placate public sentiment that change isn't quick enough, and to create a stability allowing for needed West German investment. The GDR needs a legitimate elected government. A national referendum on unification would soon occur. Ironically, quicker elections hurt unorganized opposition groups who need money and a platform.

The main winner in the new election-date scenario seems to be the East German Social Democratic Party (SPD). SPD has already established strong ties with its West German counterpart, and both groups are making unification the main issue. Significantly, the West German SPD now has the leading challenger to West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. Oskar Lafontaine's resounding reelection two weeks ago in the Saarland and his popularity as a spokesman for a new generation should make the SPD a potent force in West German elections next December. Mr. Lafontaine's mentor, the ever-popular Willy Brandt (whose Ostpolitik first opened relations with the GDR), will campaign hard both in the East and West for the SPD - which has rightly been leaning towards an orderly, measured unification process. IT ought to go without saying, but we will say anyway that a unified German state would change the map of Europe - including NATO, the Warsaw Pact, and the European Community. A dominant power would emerge.

For this reason, German unification needs to happen within the context and safeguards of European unification and demilitarization. Bonn needs to do more than agree to this rhetorically. NATO should play an important role, contrary to some current German sentiments. (And West Germany should remain in NATO.) The EC must weigh in. East Europe must participate through the Helsinki agreements on borders. A second 35-nation Helsinki meeting is under discussion. Good.

The West German leaders most dedicated to European unity are those most deserving of support. The US may wisely keep a low profile. The rest of Europe will more than register concern.

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