Why the concept of German 'reunification' makes Europe - East and West - shudder

A specter is haunting Germany, a number of non-Germans believe. It is called reunification. Since a lot of confusion surrounds the concept this primer will attempt to sort out the euphoria, panic, bewilderment, and fact:

Q. Why is everyone suddenly talking about German reunification?

A. Because East German leader Erich Honecker is visiting West Germany for the first time next month.

Q. Huh? One state leader makes a simple visit to another, and suddenly everyone is worried their countries are going to merge?

A. Right. This is Germany. Emotions run high about Germans. It has to do with memories of Hitler, World War II, and the extermination of the Jews.

Q. But that was Hitler. Haven't the Germans changed since then?

A. Yes, of course. West Germany has proved itself a nonaggressive working democracy over the past 36 years. A strong desire for peace in this dangerous nuclear age motivates both West and East Germans at this point. They know their territory would be the battlefield in any war, and they don't like that idea.

Q. Then why are people so concerned?

A. Among some of Bonn's friends it's just the opposite of fearing German aggression. It's fearing that West Germans are too nonaggressive, too frightened of the Soviets, and therefore ready to do Soviet bidding if Moscow dangles reunification in front of them.

Q. So is Moscow dangling reunification in front of them?

A. Not at all. For the past several months the image of Bonn in the Soviet news media has been the cartoon one of ''revanchism'' by drooling, knife-wielding SS men.

Q. What is ''revanchism?''

A. It's a word that was a Soviet favorite before detente and returned to favor this spring. It refers to an alleged (West) German drive to recover (probably by force) the territories lost by Hitler to what are now Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.

Q. That's absurd. Do the Soviets really think that the 336,000-strong West German Army poses some threat to the 1.8 million-strong Soviet Army?

A. In the early postwar years, the answer would probably have been yes. Memories of the Nazi occupation were still fresh, and official American policy was still ''rollback'' in Eastern Europe.

Now that the Soviet Union is a real superpower, the answer is probably no. But the Kremlin always deliberately held the (West) German threat over the heads of its East European clients, especially Poland, to keep them in line.

If the Poles weren't good Soviet allies, Moscow intimated, the Soviets might just stop protecting Poland and let the nasty Germans take back the western third of Poland. Such blackmail of Eastern Europe again seems to be the main point of the Soviet campaign today.

Q. Do the East Germans and Poles believe these Soviet charges?

A. The East Germans don't. State and party chief Erich Honecker has dismissed as empty rhetoric the ''Sunday speeches'' by West German politicians to associations of expellees from former German territories to the east. With the Poles it's harder to tell. They certainly didn't believe in West German revanchism during the heyday of Solidarity, or Solidarity would never have risked the economic and political paralysis that followed its confrontation with the government.

In recent weeks the Poles have expressed alarm, however, about various voices from the right wing of Bonn's conservative-Liberal coalition - voices that treat World War II borders as still open to revision.

Q. Who has made the strongest such revisionist statement?

A. Not a German, actually, but an American - President Reagan. He said the other day that the US ''rejects any interpretation of the Yalta agreement that suggests American consent for the division of Europe into spheres of influence.'' (Yalta was the Allied conference at the end of World War II that basically laid out the present European borders, borders that were recognized by the US, the Soviet Union, West Germany, and 32 other signatories in the Helsinki Agreement of 1975.)

Mr. Reagan thus stated more bluntly what a number of West Germans from the right wing of the ruling conservative-Liberal coalition have been saying.

Q. So what have the West Germans been saying?

A. Helmut Sauer, Christian Democratic member of the Bundestag, repeatedly refers to the continuation of the German Reich in the borders from 1937. Christian Democratic Bundestag member Herbert Hupka says, ''We will never acquiesce in the division of our fatherland and the rape of our homeland'' (now in western Poland).

And Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann asserted last year, ''With the new government there will not be any inclination to confine the German question to (West Germany and East Germany) and not include the East German territories on the other side of the Oder and Neisse.'' (In this usage ''East German'' refers to territory now in Poland; ''Middle Germany'' is the term for what Anglo-Saxons refer to as East Germany. The Oder-Neisse is the western boundary of present-day Poland.)

Q. Is this Bonn government policy?

A. Legally yes. Politically no.

Legally, the government says Europe's boundaries will never be final until Moscow signs a peace treaty with Bonn. This Moscow has refused to do for 39 years.

Politically, Bonn decided a decade ago that the present borders are here to stay for the foreseeable future. It therefore signed treaties or agreements to this effect with the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany.

Nowadays whenever the Sauers or Hupkas make new revisionist comments, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher rushes in to repair the damage, says that the Foreign Ministry makes foreign policy after all, and that Bonn is abiding by its treaties.

Q. So the Poles are concerned and the Soviets are playing on this, but why are some people in the West concerned?

A. Because they're afraid of the present chumminess between East and West Germany. They think West Germans are yearning for reunification so badly they are ready to be duped.

They think Moscow is only feigning its displeasure at the mini-detente between Bonn and East Berlin, that it's all a trick in which the Soviet Union is the stick and East Germany the carrot to coerce and lure a naive West Germany out of NATO.

They suspect that in a rapprochement East Germany's 17 million would inevitably outweigh West Germany's 62 million, that East Germany's 72-year-old Erich Honecker would outmaneuver West Germany's 54-year-old Chancellor Helmut Kohl, that East Germany's one-party state would prove more resilient than West Germany's democracy.

Q. This presupposes that the Soviets would offer some kind of a neutralist unified state to Bonn....

A. Or hint that reunification might be a possibility without actually meaning it.

Q. Would the West Germans fall for that? How much do they have their hearts set on reunification?

A. Legally, they are committed to this goal by their Constitution. Practically, they know it's a chimera until such time as there is a much more far-reaching relaxation between East and West than we've seen so far.

As Chancellor Kohl put it this past week, German reunification ''is not presently on the agenda of international politics'' and a united Germany ''need not necessarily have to have the form of a national state.''

Basically, all the West German parties except the Greens have accepted that the most important thing to work for in East-West German relations at this point is not some chimerical political unification, but rather increased humanitarian contacts.

Q. But suppose the Soviets did offer reunification if the unified German state would be neutral? Would the West Germans nibble?

A. The Greens probably would. Oskar Lafontaine, the Social Democratic Saarland leader and national executive committee member, probably would. The present government - which has done very nicely with stationing the once-controversial NATO missiles - certainly wouldn't.

Q. So will the current fuss blow over?

A. It will probably last through Honecker's visit to West Germany in September. After that it should fade somewhat in the West as it becomes clear that Moscow is vastly more intolerant of the East-West German mini-detente than Washington, London, Paris (or Warsaw) are.

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