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1990 Is Not 1933

By Leonard BushkoffLeonard Bushkoff is a freelance book reviewer specializing in history and politics. / November 13, 1990



REFLECTIONS ON THE REVOLUTION IN EUROPE. By Ralf Dahrendorf, New York: Times Books, 164 pp., $17.95 TWO STATES - ONE NATION. By G"unter Grass, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 123 pp., $18.95

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`FROM this moment begins a new era, and you are present at its birth.'' So announced Goethe in 1792, as French revolutionary armies decisively repelled those of the ancien regime. And so it has been since last autumn in Central and Eastern Europe. The unification of the two halves of Europe and particularly of Germany has ended that legacy of World War II, the Yalta system of armed spheres of influence.

A less obvious revolution-and-unification also has happened, as Ralf Dahrendorf suggests in his extended essay, ``Reflections on the Revolution in Europe'': that of thought and attitudes, language and expression. Traditional Marxist jargon has evaporated overnight, along with the ruling class that employed it.

Those stultifying code phrases that George Orwell mocked - ``bourgeois nationalism,'' ``progressive forces,'' ``socialist motherland,'' etc., etc. - have ended in the historical trash can. Plain speaking has triumphed, as the indispensable first step toward creating a new society based on democratic institutions and the rule of law.

What are the chances of success? Dahrendorf is an authoritative judge. As an internationally renowned political sociologist; as an occasional participant in German politics; and as an heir to the social democratic tradition, Dahrendorf is well placed to go beyond the headlines and beneath the surface.

He is optimistic, albeit cautiously. Certainly, he is alert to ethnic rivalries, the demands of angry consumers, the urgent need for economic reorganization, and so on. The conventional wisdom has it that this crisis represents danger. To Dahrendorf, however, it represents a wonderful opportunity to build democracy among peoples heartily disgusted with the one-party, command-economy state.

Hence his subtitle: ``A letter intended to have been sent to a gentleman in Warsaw.'' The purpose? Advice and suggestions about building a new political order, on the Anglo-American model of the multiparty, welfare state, with a strong free market economy, but without utopian dreams of human perfection. The creative dissonance and outright messiness of London or New York would be the goal, not the regimented tedium of pre-Gorbachev Moscow or East Berlin.

How to reach the new ideal? First, ``the hour of the lawyers,'' of constitution-building and the rule of law; here Dahrendorf invokes the ``Federalist Papers.'' Then, ``the hour of the politician,'' of creating political parties, policies, procedures. Ultimately, ``the hour of the citizen,'' of establishing a civil society, to check and counter-balance The State.

Dahrendorf is bidding farewell, not only to communism, but also - albeit sadly - to socialism as well, which he perceives as lacking the dynamism that entrepreneurial capitalism brings to the global economy. And socialism's humanistic role in alleviating poverty and injustice has been adopted by the welfare state.

Light years removed from this unemotional, hard-headed analysis is G"unter Grass's collection of essays and journalistic pieces in opposition to German reunification, ``Two States - One Nation?'' Grass and many other German intellectuals, having constituted themselves the conscience of a people which has largely sidestepped its terrible past, fear an authoritarian revival and a terrible future - for all of Europe as well.

This fear stems, not only from honest guilt and trauma regarding World War II and the Holocaust, and not only from distaste for the ``Americanization'' of contemporary Germany through consumerism and big business, but also from clich'es about history repeating itself. Which it doesn't: Scientific and mechanical forces do, but history, with all its accidents, unknowns, and human quirks, is too complex for that. As a political analyst, Ralf Dahrendorf knows full well that 1990 is not 1933; as a novelist, G"unter Grass does not.