CAN the Germans' missing postwar sense of identity be filled by the ideal of a Central European community? Would this promote peace? Would it endanger or enrich West German participation in the Western community of democratic nations? A number of intellectuals on the West German left would very much like to explore the answers to these questions.

Ironically, this time around it is the left that is championing the long-taboo concept - partly as a check on perceived Western military arrogance - and not the right that from Bismarck to Hitler claimed a German mission to lead or conquer ``Mitteleuropa.''

It might be argued that the whole question is outdated, that the West Germans have attained a certain maturity in being able to live for 40 years without the comforts and temptations of strong collective purpose. Yet many observers sense, if not an ``identity crisis,'' then at least a chronic, nagging absence of a public ideal or vision.

Nationalism of the far right was so discredited by Hitler that even the division of Germany into East and West could not repeat the post-World War I pattern and give rise to a popular ``stab-in-the-back'' theory of revenge, even among the fifth of the West German population that came here as refugees from former German territories awarded to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.

And the post-World War II effort to replace narrow nationalism with loyalty to the goal of a united (Western) Europe, although it inspired one young generation, faltered as the European Community bogged down in bookkeepers' quarrels over mountains of butter and grain.

Similarly, prosperity and alliance with the United States successfully engaged energies for a time, but this consensus lost the left and part of the center when the US got embroiled in the Vietnam war in the 1960s. And the pragmatic policies that all postwar Bonn governments have followed have hardly kindled West German hearts.

On the center-right, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is now trying to reclaim the concept of patriotism to the ``Fatherland'' and the hope of eventual reunification of Germany under eventual unification of Europe. But this has not aroused any great excitement. The alternative identity tendered today by part of the left is Central Europe.

So far the notion is enjoying only an intellectual, and not a popular, vogue. But given the power to define issues which is wielded by the intelligentsia - which in West Germany is primarily left-oriented - the theme has cachet. And a certain broader resonance to the idea has already been evidenced in the warm response among peace-oriented Protestant youth to President Richard von Weizs"acker's now-famous words about Germany at the 1985 Protestant convention:

``The Federal Republic of [West] Germany has become the east of the West, the GDR [the German Democratic Republic of (East) Germany] the west of the East. Despite this double position on the margins, Germany remains shaped by the conditions of its location in the middle of Europe. This middle is of course divided, but it remains the middle.''

The best general summation to date of the fascination - and the suspicion - the whole idea evokes was provided by a conference held earlier this year in the old Reichstag building under the sponsorship of the Social Democratic-linked Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Two of the West Berlin prophets of the Central Europe renaissance, Karl Schl"ogel - author of the recent book ``The Middle Lies Eastward'' - and Peter Bender - author of the phrase (and book) of a few years back, ``The Europeanization of Europe'' - explored the topic ``Central Europe - Dream, Nightmare, Reality.'' Other panelists vigorously agreed or disagreed with their theses.

Dr. Schl"ogel dealt primarily with apolitical or, as he prefers to call it, ``antipolitical'' civilization. He picked up some of the themes of the Hungarian and Czech dissident writers Gyoergy Konrad and Milan Kundera, who a few years ago began lamenting the possible demise of the unique Central European culture under the joint blows of Moscow's political regimentation and the West's indifference to the civilization that spawned Kafka, Mahler, and Klimt.

Schl"ogel issued a plea to ``overcome a political fixation on the East-West division'' and stop relegating ``Central Europe'' to an abstract concept of an enemy ``Eastern Europe.'' He defined the core area of Central Europe as Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, and northern Yugoslavia - the territory where the Latin Catholic culture clashed with the steppe and with Slavic Orthodox culture. He noted the particular tragedy of the Jews who were destroyed by Germans in this ``shatterbelt'' in World War II. HE saw Central Europe as indebted to both the US and the Soviet Union for freeing it from Hitler's rule - but as uncomfortably squeezed today between ``the spheres of interest of the two powers,'' dependent for survival on the goodwill of allies in the civil society (as distinct from the political and military authorities) in both the US and Soviet Union.

He set his main hope on the development in Central European public opinion of an antiwar consciousness, and an evolution of Central Europe into ``a classic locale of antipolicy and antipolitical diplomacy.''

Author Peter Bender developed the same theme more politically in describing Central Europe as artificially split by the superpowers and forming an ``emergency community'' of little states that are powerless in face of the superpowers' nuclear arsenals. He hoped to ``end the East-West conflict through a knitting together of the middle.''

Initially cold war, or, as Dr. Bender terms it, ``the religious war of the systems, allowed no `third way' ideologically, no neutrality politically, and no buffer zone geographically.... Rostock [in East Germany] and Prague should feel themselves as belonging to Moscow; the hearts of those in L"ubeck [in West Germany] and Milan should beat in the same time as those in New York.''

But now ``the renaissance of Central Europe is first of all a protest against the division of the continent, against the predominance of the Americans and Russians, against the totalitarianism of ideologies.''

What characterizes Central Europe today is that it has ``the greatest mass of weapons of mass destruction in the world ... Central Europe would be a zone free of atomic weapons and free of chemical weapons, if the Americans and Russians hadn't stuffed the region full with them,'' said Bender.

It would be unrealistic to think that Central Europe could constitute itself as a political entity between East and West against the wishes of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But what it could do is ``form a community of interest for breaking down the consequences of the division'' of Europe by knitting cultural, economic, and political ties between the states on the borders of the alliances.

``Central Europe already is and should become even more the glue for the halves of the continent that have broken away from each other. Europe was [originally] divided from its edges [inward]; if it is to grow together again, then [it must do so] from the center outward,'' Bender said.

Schl"ogel's and Bender's presentations stirred up a storm of protest from non-Germans on the panel. Joseph Rovan, a Sorbonne professor and former Dachau inmate, thought Bender's concept of commonality between West Germany and Eastern Europe encouraged ``illusions'' that would have ``fatal effects'' in loosening West Germany's own ties to a Western Europe of ``democracy, freedom, and self-determination.''

He saw in it a ``terrifying banalization of the totalitarian and dictatorial character of the authorities that possess power in the eastern part of Europe.'' He argued that Solidarity trade union members, Czech human rights activists, members of the persecuted Uniate Church in Romania, and others in Eastern Europe would find little to cheer in the concept.

SO long as there is a ``Russian empire,'' Mr. Roven said, ``I cannot shut out the suspicion that when the phrase `Central Europe' is put forward ... what lies behind it is the idea of an alternative to West German membership in the democratic world, the world of citizens' rights, and rule of law.... I fear that the concept of `Central Europe' contains today a dangerous explosive charge against the political integration of a Europe of freedom.'' He warned against letting this genie out of the bottle.

Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian 'emigr'e and Austrian journalist, shared this mistrust of the concept of Central Europe. He countered Schl"ogel's objection to use of the ``primitive phrase'' of ``Eastern Europe'' by saying, ``But there are primitive phrases we can't avoid - like `occupied lands.'''

Picking up a coinage of Francois Bondy, he warned against sentimental ``nostalgia for the future'' and urged instead a ``de-emotionalization'' and ``de-dogmatization'' of the whole idea.

More helpful, he thought, would be fewer rhetorical flourishes and more gradual steps to increasing the openness of borders and humanization of contact between those in East and West.

Others at the conference expressed fears as well that any move toward Central European community would only be a disguise (either intentional or inadvertent, through the forces it would unleash) for reunification of the 80 million West and East Germans - and for a disruptive German weight in Central Europe and in the whole continent. ``We cannot forget'' German domination in the past, said a Czech 'emigr'e who is now a West Berliner.

West German conservatives, while welcoming awareness of Central Europe, do so in terms of appealing to the traditional Western orientation of today's Eastern Europeans to foster a loosening of their bonds to the Soviet Union. Without this they see any rapprochement of West Germany toward Eastern Europe as a romantic yearning for neutrality and a dangerous German ``special way.''

This was the slogan for the Germans' view of themselves in the early decades of this century as separate from and superior to both the Russian East and the Anglo-Saxon West. Conservatives use this code word today to decry any inclination on the left to shake off West German identification with the Western alliance and seek to remain aloof midway between Washington and Moscow. Some US officials voice a similar concern and are disturbed by the left's ``equidistant'' equation of Moscow and Washington, seeing in it a revival of the old German cultural condescension toward America and an intellectual relativization that in the end trivializes away the political values of freedom and democracy.

The question of who adjusts to whom in development of Central European community is crucial; it also splits the West German left itself. Here German-Polish relations are a particular litmus.

Bender's outlook is shaped by a strong sympathy for the Poles, who were treated as subhuman Slavs by Hitler's Germans and were second only to Jews in the victimization and injustice visited upon them. For Bender this history ordains German understanding for the plight Poland finds itself in today.

Peter Schneider, another West Berliner and leftist countercultural cult author, says he sees all too much ``understanding'' bestowed by West German intellectuals on the Polish government's 1981 crackdown on Solidarity.

In an essay a year ago Mr. Schneider wrote that West German intellectuals should be the strongest critics of abuse of human rights in Eastern Europe. Instead, he charged, the left was so blinded by its single-focus protest against American missiles that it suffered ``loss of direction'' and compromised itself morally and intellectually in its complacency about the suppression of artists in Eastern Europe.

Other vocal leftist critics of the direction of the mainstream left's enthusiasm for Central Europe include the hundreds of East German intellectuals who have settled in West Berlin in the emigration wave of the past three years. They tend to endorse the concept of Central Europe only insofar as it is a vehicle for expressing support for Eastern European peoples, as distinct from their governments.

One recent issue of the two-decade old countercultural quarterly Kursbuch, titled ``The Other Half of Europe,'' ran articles by various Central European dissidents.

The issue included Czech playwright Vaclav Havel's sorrowful indictment of well-meaning but naive Western peace movements that don't grasp the importance of freedom to East European intellectuals.

The jury is still out on Central European identity.

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