On Germany, Old Models Don't Help

`A QUESTION,'' West German President Richard von Weizs"acker observed, ``does not simply cease to exist because no one has an answer for it, especially when the state of affairs is such that it keeps raising the question anew.'' The age-old ``German question'' has been transformed into many German questions over the last 20 years. Ironically, it was the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 that helped to stabilize the status quo of division, a prerequisite for the implementation of Ostpolitik under Chancellor Willy Brandt. It was East Germany's momentous decision to open the wall on Nov. 9, 1989, that has set the stage for another historical shift in German relations. Leaders and citizens of the two Germanys, two-thirds of whom were born after World War II, share a deep and abiding interest in the further normalization of their relations. The incremental strategy pursued by Bonn and East Berlin since 1972 has forged many new ties between the citizens of East and West. As the mind-boggling events of recent weeks suggest, the nature and scope of relations between the Germanys will continue to differ qualitatively from the ties that bind them to any other European state.

The ``politics of small steps'' born of d'etente has been inherently devoid of that grand design usually attributed to Germans under the rubric of reeunification, however. The ritualized ``Sunday sermons'' of West German officials, espousing the gospel of German unity, bear little relation to the workaday negotiations between the two states. While the Germans themselves may well comprehend the importance of ``fine distinctions with major consequences,'' their neighbors and allies all too quickly equate rhetoric with Realpolitik, often to Bonn's surprise.

Yet even if leaders in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic have not cultivated their relations with a secret agenda, it's obvious that, having forged along the winding path of ``small steps'' for two decades, the two Germanys are compelled by events to decide where they really want to go.

Endstation ``Reunification''? My four years of field research on perceptions of postwar ``national identity'' among the West and East German successor generations indicate that reunification is the least acceptable of all the options for reassociation currently open to the two polities. The very word generates more angst than insight, obscuring many more pressing German questions linked to the formation of a new European peace order.

``Unity,'' as posited by the FRG's constitution, does not equal reunification, per se. It is logically impossible to re-unify two systems that did not exist prior to 1949. Nor does Western talk of unity take into consideration the constitutional reality of the GDR's codification of itself as a sovereign nation-state.

The struggle for self-determination by East German citizens cannot be reduced to a process of West-determination. Neither the reconstituted GDR government nor the newly emergent opposition groups, such as New Forum and Democracy Now, have called for reunification. Theirs is a vision of a democratic-socialist, separate-but-equal German state. Denied the right to self-determination for over 40 years, reform activists have no desire to resubordinate themselves to another preordained community of values in whose formulation they have not participated.

It is necessary to distinguish between the two reasons that Germany is split - the Reich's responsibility for World War II, and the cold-war division of Europe - from which flows a distinction between teilung [division] and trennung [separation]. The need to overcome the negative human consequences of separation do not immediately translate into grounds for eliminating political division. Reunification is but one of the many conceivable options for German reassociation, and a historically burdened one.

The emphasis must fall on a framework that will secure European peace, enhance the quality of life, and promote human rights for all German citizens. The conditions that would make reunification acceptable to all the powers of Europe would also render it superfluous. The crumbling of the wall signifies the beginning of the post-postwar era. It's time for a paradigm shift.

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