Kohl's Miscues on the Road to Reunification
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Americans can perhaps get a sense of the magnitude, if not the precise contours, of what is happening if they imagine what might occur if President Clinton were to announce suddenly that Mexico was about to become the 51st state.Skip to next paragraph
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There is an irony of history in all this. On Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall fell, East German masses danced in the streets and went on a buying spree in West Berlin. They naively believed that West German prosperity was now around the corner. But it was not prosperity, it was economic depression, that was around the corner. Sometimes political freedom does not go hand in hand with immediate prosperity.
Unfortunately, Kohl did nothing to disabuse East Germans of their economic illusions and a great deal to delude them even further. It now looks as if large numbers of people in the GDR, and possibly in the Federal Republic as well, equated the concepts "democracy" and "national unity" with the concept "economic prosperity." That is a dangerous confusion; when economic prosperity did not immediately materialize, the concepts of democracy and national unity also came into question.
It is very sad, but not surprising, that Germany is experiencing outbursts of right-wing and neo-Nazi violence. This too was predicted and expected. Germany's most famous writer, Gunter Grass, warned in the summer of 1990 that the East German economy was in the process of collapse, and that "the only place where we might expect growth is where our own fears and the fears of our neighbors got their start: in German right-wing radicalism."
It now looks as if, in both parts of Germany, democracy and "Wirtschaftswunder" are genuinely confused. This is what German sociologist Jurgen Habermas was getting at when he warned in 1990 of the possibility that a "D-Mark Nationalism" might smother democratic consciousness, possibly threatening democratic gains made by West Germany over the past five decades. One might conclude that Germany is only persuaded to support democracy when it is rich and prosperous, but that the democratic veneer collapses u nder economic pressure. Such a conclusion is wrong, but it could be a dangerously tempting one to draw, especially for the masses in East Germany, most of whom had no experience either with democracy or with capitalism.
Kohl's second mistake was political. As the leader of his nation, he had the chance in 1989 and 1990 to initiate a broad discussion about the concept of democracy, to make it clear that politics and economics, while interrelated and interconnected, are two separate spheres - perhaps even to suggest that freedom is even more important and more valuable than prosperity.
Such a discussion was absolutely vital, since at least one-fourth of the population had no concept of what democracy was. But a democracy is only as effective as the people's willingness to create it and make it work. 1990 should have been the year for a broad-based constitutional discussion inside Germany. Instead, it was a year of false promises.
None of this means that reunification was wrong. There was no realistic political, moral, or economic alternative. But Kohl's way of pursuing it revealed either a dismal ignorance of the real situation in East Germany or a Machiavellian wish to ignore it. Given this record, it is difficult to see how Kohl has anything to offer the Germany that he helped unify, only to leave it in the lurch. It looks very much as if his days as chancellor are numbered.