German reunification, neutralism, nationalism: how deep the yearning?

Rainer Trampert, chairman of the ecologist Green Party, advocates West Germany's withdrawal from NATO. He would welcome neutralization of both East and West Germany.

Rainer Eppelmann, East Berlin pastor, advocates a common effort by the peace movements in both East and West Germany to pressure the two superpowers to pull their ''occupation'' soldiers and weapons out of German lands.

Is a longing for the purity of neutralism and the solidarity of reunification reappearing here? Is this the thin edge of a resurgent German nationalism?

''This worries me more than anything else,'' said Liberal Bundestag member Hildegard Hamm-Brucher at one point last year when she was still the West German co-chairman of the German-American committee to improve bilateral relations.

''If you begin to say that you see the two superpowers the same and you'll keep equidistant from both, this would mean in my historical opinion that we would repeat the same mistake Germany made two times in this century, in swinging (like a pendulum) between East and West.''

Dr. Hamm-Brucher detected this tendency only among ''a small sector out of the whole population.'' But she said, ''We all have to take this development seriously.''

House historian Karl-Heinz Janssen of the newspaper Die Zeit conceded the old national question is dormant rather than dead. It has, he said, the potential of being reawakened by some future international situation. But he couldn't visualize what that might be, since those in the counterculture movement who are fascinated by the German question are still only a small group, centered primarily in West Berlin.

Janssen specifically cautioned against an inclination by some Americans to ''throw everything into one pot'' and see pan-German neutralism behind every doubt about America's nuclear wisdom.

Concern about the possibility of just such pan-German neutralism in fact surfaced in the Carter administration at the time of differing reactions to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It gained popularity in the United States last year at the time of differing reactions to Polish martial law.

West Germans, it was feared in America, might once again be succumbing to that lure of a unified, dominant Germany that had so tragically defeated liberalism in the 19th century and humanity in the 20th.

Hadn't Germany always vacillated between East and West? Hadn't an earlier Germany that also called itself democratic once made a deal at Rapallo, Italy, to help the Soviet Union rearm secretly?

Wasn't Bonn flirting with ''self-Finlandization'' and again seeking to find its lost identity by submergence in the collective feeling of German belonging? Wouldn't West Germany pay any price of subservience to the Russians if Moscow but dangled before it the bait of reunification?

On the evidence, the simple answer to the last two questions should have been ''no.'' The real world's more complicated answer, however, was a tentative ''yes.''

As Americans recoiled from detente in the wake of Afghanistan, West Germans worried about the nuclear war rhetoric of the early Reagan administration. The then out-of-power West German conservatives magnified these differences - and historical memory placed on Germans the burden of proof of innocence.

The resulting American suspicion, though triggered by the neutralist yearnings of some West German peace activists, thus said rather more about the eye of the beholder than about the behavior of the beheld. For the first time since the postwar occupation of Germany ended, influential Americans came to share the chronic French fear of some primordial German urge for reunification.

Any foreign observer trying to probe West Germans' motivations, nationalism, and search for identity in 1983 therefore faces a double task. He must sift truth from myth in the received perceptions of the past few years. And he must make sense of the often contradictory evidence available in West Germany itself.

How should one interpret, for example, the pronounced anti-German feeling of a number of young West Germans? And what about the conspicuous lack of interest in East German and pan-German affairs on the part of many West Germans of all ages? How much does the silent majority's boredom with German issues offset a tiny but articulate minority's devotion to the subject?

How significant is it that so few West Germans know the words of their national anthem, or display the flag of the Federal Republic of Germany - or that school trips to Paris and Amsterdam are so much more popular than trips to East Berlin?

How representative is the Bonn high school student who says East Germany is just like the Netherlands or Australia to him - a neighboring foreign country, nothing more, nothing less? How representative is he when he exclaims: ''I don't know what I'm going to do (after graduation), but I do know I'm not going to be a German very long!'' He wants to emigrate, he says, to get away from the narrowness he feels in Germany.

Does aversion to Germany by some Germans (an honored tradition, given such precedents as Heinrich Heine) then cancel out the infatuation with Germany by other Germans, and leave only the indifference of the masses?

Some conservative West German politicians, who would like to preserve the hope of eventual reunification, fear so.

''Many younger people have given up on reunification,'' notes Koblenz university student and conservative activist Stefan Kurth. ''They see it as no more than a (theoretical) goal. It's out of their consciousness.''

From his rather different background, an East German retiree interviewed on West German TV agreed. No longer of working age, he had recently been allowed to visit the West. He came back with the feeling, he said, that East and West Germans ''are moving further apart rather than closer together.''

The TV reporter added his own evaluation, after five years in East Berlin, that the concept of belonging to a pan-German whole is much stronger in East than in West Germany. East Germans identify much more with West Germans than West Germans do with East Germans, he remarked. He rather regretted the lack of awareness by West Germans of their brothers to the East.

The extent of popular West German boredom with East Germany - given postwar history - is, in fact, no more surprising than the persistence of pan-German national pride among a handful of West Germans, such as the Social Democrats' Egon Bahr; West Berlin pastor and former mayor, Heinrich Albertz; and, in a cultural rather than political way, novelist Gunter Grass. After the catastrophe of World War II, the West Germans started at ''Stunde Null'' - hour zero. They had to rebuild their economy on the physical rubble. They had to reconstruct new ideals after Hitler's perversion of their old ones.

The passion for an Aryan superrace and German empire was dead. The older Prussian vision of a rational state guided by intelligent technocrats had long since been submerged by romanticism, and survived only as the nightmare of dystopia. German history, stained with the blood of millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, and others, was too obscene to offer inspiration. In the trauma of defeat and shame, nothing was left of tradition.

Into this political void came the ideal of a united Europe.

Enthusiasm for Europe was not suspect. It would begin the process of reconciliation, most spectacularly in ending the century and a half of French-German hostility. It would give West German manufacturers a vastly expanded domestic market. It would, when extended to the NATO alliance, guarantee West German security against the Soviet colossus whose troops were a stone's throw away in East Germany. It would serve in the future as an admirable forum for a German political leadership of Europe that could be exercised by a successor state to Hitler only in tandem with France.

Chancellor Konrad Adenauer managed this integration of a democratic West Germany into the democratic West with extraordinary skill. His anticommunism elicited the crucial Western trust that he would not flirt with Moscow (just as the resolution of Social Democratic Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter in the 1948 Berlin blockade elicited Western trust that the Social Democrats would not flirt with Moscow). And personally Adenauer was just the right mixture of democrat and autocrat to restore German self-respect and stability in his 14 years in office.

Partly under Adenauer's committed leadership, partly spontaneously, then, the West Germans embraced what was sometimes called the new religion of Europe, and German reunification and nationalism were consciously subordinated to the more honorable European ideal. German teen-agers flocked to the 1957 festival of European youth at the Lorelei and sang songs of international brotherhood as fervently as their fathers had once sung the Horst Wessel song.

By the mid-'60s the song had faded away. The European Community, it turned out, was going to be little more than a useful customs union. It was certainly not going to be the lodestar of a new, less tainted, supranational allegiance. The dream of Europe vanished, and with it the last long-term communal goal to engage the loyalties of West Germans across the entire political spectrum.

For the Social Democrats who took power in the early '70s, there came the substitute exhilaration of Ostpolitik and the reform program that expanded educational and social opportunities. And there was, of course, the sheer triumph of respectability after more than a century as outcasts.

For conservatives in 1983 there is the contentment of returning to power after their unaccustomed 13 years in the wilderness.

For the Greens there is the conviction of moral rights in their fight against nuclear and environmental destruction.

Yet all these satisfactions seem to be confined to limited groups and limited periods. By the time they left government last fall, the Social Democrats had given up on their goal of constantly expanding social justice and were hard pressed just to preserve past accomplishments, as economic growth succumbed to recession. The discontent in the ranks was palpable - and came close to splitting the party.

The conservatives are approaching the same task of preservation with fresh energies. But consolidation is just not very inspiring - and it is the conservatives who will now have to cope with thousands of new jobless every month, as the early '60s boom babies turn 18 and 22.

As for the Greens, they face the conundrum that whatever they gain in general acceptance of their causes (everybody is against acid rain nowadays), they lost in their own elan of protest. More practically speaking, today's high unemployment, rather than feeding general malaise and swelling the ranks of the protestors, has narrowed trade union concerns to issues of jobs. It has thus (in contrast to the present British or the 1950s West German antinuclear movements) kept environmental and nuclear issues here as primarily upper-class affairs of the better-educated young.

That such a high proportion of what is presumably the nation's future leadership has enlisted to fight present policies is surely significant - but it still leaves the protests as divisive in society, rather than instrumental in molding a new communal perception of where West Germany is headed.

What is still missing, then, is a common goal to rekindle political enthusiasm of right and left alike, of young and old, establishmentarian and critic. Such a vision has been missing for more than a decade.

How long - ask the French and now some Americans - can this vacuum continue among a people that has so often in its history required an overarching purpose? When will nationalism return? Is it already here in incipient form in the Social Democrats' longing to disengage from the joint Western alliance decision to deploy new NATO nuclear missiles starting in December if there is no prior East-West arms control agreement?

A case can be made for such expectations. There is increasing disaffection of youth today from the established parties, all of whom are seen as having had their hands in business tills. And the Social Democrats may be deluding themselves in believing that their greater aversion to future US Pershings than to present Soviet SS-20s is only a defense against a hard-line Reagan, and not weakening of Social Democratic commitment to NATO.

Nonetheless, such an interpretation is based far more on abstract reasoning than on observed evidence. It places an impossible burden of proof on the West Germans to demonstrate that they are not going neutralist and nationalistic. And when proof is offered - opinion polls show a consistent 90 percent-plus public support for NATO even among young people, 70 percent-plus approval of the presence of US troops here, and an overall 73 percent favorable view of the US (as against only 46 percent favor among Britons), this proof tends to be discounted anyway.

The constant expectation of negative German nationalism further presumes today's West Germans are at heart no different from prewar Germans in their romantic political vulnerabilities. This assumption flies in the face of 35 years of postwar experience - including a decade of experience in the '70s in which the Social Democrats effectively defused nationalism by substituting human contacts between East and West Germans for any more political pan-German goals.

The expectation of inevitable German nationalism presumes in addition that normality isn't compelling enough for the West German citizen - that getting, spending, and tinkered improvements here and occasional averting of disaster there don't satisfy the average voter.

It is true that today's normality doesn't satisfy Rainer Trampert - or the high school boy who wants to emigrate as soon as possible. But the conservatives (despite all of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's piety about the ''Fatherland'') are counting on normality appealing to the silent majority - which doesn't know the national anthem, doesn't fly the flag, and is mistrustful of all those grand national schemes of the past. And on the eve of the 1983 election, the polls suggest this far more modest and unexciting concept of West German identity is the one that matches the mood of the voters.

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