Germany's 'New Center'

Power shifts to generation with a different sense of national identity

FOR the first time in the half century of the post-Hitler German Republic, the electorate has been bold enough to oust an incumbent chancellor and vote for change.

In the 1960s, when I reported from Germany, the winning election slogan, after "economic miracle," was still Konrad Adenauer's "Keine Experimente" (No Experiments), reflecting a yearning for stability in a nation that had lost its moorings.

The search for respectability was reflected in the inclusion of the word "democratic" in the names of virtually every party: Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Free Democrats. And even the Communists in East Germany metamorphosed into the Party of Democratic Socialism.

After serving 16 years, the longest serving chancellor since Bismarck, where did Helmut Kohl go wrong?

He made mistakes, probably the most serious of which was celebrating reunification in 1990 by making the East German mark instantly convertible with West German currency.

That had the effect of saddling West German taxpayers with a burden of $100 billion a year.

Chancellor Kohl also became identified with an 11 percent unemployment rate - a staggering 17 percent in former East Germany.

Once that would have sent shudders around the Western world. But, no longer.

A generation of German baby boomers act like baby boomers in Britain, France, and Italy. They move from a conservative party to something called "the New Center," whose policies of industrial modernization and reform of the welfare state have something in common with the Clintonian New Democrats.

Mr. Kohl, older than other Western leaders, was 15 and an automatic member of the Hitler Youth when Germany surrendered in 1945.

He has tearfully told of his brother killed in the war and of his family's surviving on American CARE packages.

He may be the last of the European leaders conditioned by World War II. That dictated cautious policies and a yearning to be European, rather than just German.

The time is long since gone when West Germany put its troops under NATO command because it didn't trust itself, when the burgeoning Adenauer government forswore forever the development of nuclear weapons.

In those days, Secretary General Lord Ismay welcomed West Germany into the North Atlantic Alliance with the quip that NATO's purpose was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

NOW, as Chancellor-designate Gerhardt Schrder reaches out to the leftist environmental Green Party to join in a coalition, Kohl may well reflect that, for all he did to unify Germany and bring it into Europe, he had lost touch with this new generation of Germans, to whom Hitler is only an unpleasant but distant figure.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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