German question

Something is in the air about the future of the two Germanys, the hinge between the military-economic-political blocs of the East and West. A reunified, independent Germany would introduce a third economic and political power center in Europe. This could undo the division of strength between NATO and the East bloc that has underlain European peace for almost 40 years. This is a prospect that would have far-reaching global consequences.

German unification is hardly imminent. But it is an issue not to be stifled by fear or ignored.

It is an issue that demands more forthright treatment than it has had in the past.

It does become easier to deal with if one focuses more on the present tendencies than on trying to imagine how it might turn out in the end.

No one can stand before the facade of the old railroad station in Berlin and fail to recall that city's history as gateway to the great reaches of the Russian interior.

A Soviet Union, whose economy is stalled in comparison with the West's and which recognizes it needs vast economic reform, infusions of capital, and joint ventures with technologically adept nations, must see in the Germans an energetic people who in earlier times had provided the traders and merchants and enterprise acumen Russia itself lacked. The Soviets must long for the right capitalist partner. They are wooing the Japanese, with limited satisfaction. Commercial partnership with the United States is obviously blocked. West Germany must look like an untapped source for the partnership the Soviets need. The two nations had had close economic and political ties in the pre-World War II era.

To a West Germany itself stagnating economically, at best an equal among the West European nations while watching the high-tech explosion taking off in the United States, the Soviet Union and East bloc must look like an enticing potential market. This restlessness partly explains the West Germans' bridling at the Reagan administration's attempts to throttle East-West technological exchange. In some ways the East German economy is itself more robust than the West German; certainly the division has handicapped West Germany in its European competition.

Even the military implications of a drawing closer between the two Germanys are not all that clear-cut. Most troubling is the potential to destabilize the NATO alliance and the political status quo based on the post-World War II settlements that divided Germany. The Soviets perhaps worry chiefly about retaining Poland as a buffer; Poland could topple like a domino after an East German opening to the West. Some West Germans see the revival of a unified Germany as extending into Polish territory, which also makes the Soviets worry about the potential destabilization of the Warsaw Pact.

At the same time, the Soviets may be protesting too much in their current accusations about pan-German nationalism - after West Germany's recent extension of financial credit to East Berlin and other signs of improved bi-German relations. Moscow knows from history that Germany would turn eastward. Still, the Kremlin is trying to lure West Germany out of NATO. So there is a deep-lying Soviet ambivalence about the future East and West German relations.

Perhaps because the United States is so absorbed in its adversarial role with the Soviet Union, it has paid less attention to the German reunification question. Still, a conference was held in Washington on the issue in the past year. And the French, Italians, and Hungarians as well as the Soviets are watching the issue closely.

To be sure, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose leadership has looked less than spectacular of late, has something to gain from better ties with East Germany and events like the coming visit of East German leader Erich Honecker to West Germany. But interest in the issue runs deep within Kohl's Christian Democratic party. It is a popular one in West Germany, with the left as well, where it is seen as furthering independence from the US. And only a year ago the East Germans seemed to be only half-listening to the Kohl entreaties.

In intellectual circles, there is revisionist West German writing about responsibility for Germany's division after the war. Some say the impetus for division arose from anti-German attitudes within the British Labor government after the war; the Truman administration fell under the spell of the British, they assert.

The question of unification increasingly weaves through the issues of US troop presence in Europe, intermediate-range nuclear weapons on German soil, and economic sanctions. Taken together, this is a lot of stirring over the future of the two Germanys and it merits notice.

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