ONE fact is largely being overlooked in all the current talk about changes in Eastern Europe and the possibility of reunification of Bismarck's Germany. That fact is made up of 19 of the best divisions in the armed forces of the Soviet Union in East Germany.
German reunification can take place only if and when those 19 divisions are withdrawn from East Germany.
But it goes without saying that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of is not going to take those 19 divisions back out of East Germany unless he gets something of enormous value to him in return.
What is really going on behind the scenes in all East-West negotiations, including Malta, are the terms under which Moscow will pull back its military frontier out of Germany.
Those 19 divisions are Mr. Gorbachev's ace of trumps - the strongest card he holds in one of the great diplomatic games of modern times. He and he alone holds that card and can play it when it will bring him the biggest advantage. At stake is the future shape of Europe. Is it to be the Europe toward which American diplomacy has been aiming and working toward ever since World War II?
The great American objective has been a Western European federation consisting of Britain, France, West (Rhineland) Germany, Italy, and their natural associates, the Benelux countries on the north, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey on the south.
But this federation is possible only if Germany remains divided.
There are many reasons why this is true. The decisive reason is that Moscow will never release East Germany to the West. It will allow reunification only on its own terms. That means that West Germany must withdraw from the NATO alliance and from the European Community (EC). The moment this happens, the American vision of a West European federation is finished.
Gorbachev will at some crucial point offer East Germany its freedom, including freedom to rejoin West Germany. The offer, when it is made (it exists in potential right now), will be enormously tempting to the West Germans. They could jump in population from 61 million to 78 million, become the biggest and richest economy in Europe, equaling the economies of Britain and France combined, and have the prospect of becoming the engine that will salvage and modernize the economies of the Soviet Union and all its Eastern European allies.
In times of trouble, Russia has always looked to Germans to provide the efficiency and technology to bail them out. Russia has in its population the descendants of many a German who was recruited by Peter the Great or the Catherine who was also called Great.
If the West Germans accept the bait, history will have repeated itself. And, more than that, Germany might largely achieve by diplomacy what Hitler failed to achieve by arms - the effective control of the raw materials and the markets of everything from the Rhine to the Ural Mountains, and beyond.
Two alternative visions of the Europe of the future are before us. One is what British, French, and American diplomacies have been striving for. In this vision, there would be a true Western Europe following very much the boundaries of the classic Roman Empire and closely associated with the United States.
In the other vision, which we may be sure is Gorbachev's, the whole of Germany breaks away from its association with the US and becomes a major independent force in Central Europe, associating more with the Soviet Union than with the West.
Gorbachev would be stupid (and he is certainly not a stupid man) to release East Germany to the West. Don't expect him to do anything so foolish for his country. He is wise enough to see the enormous advantages to his country from drawing Western Germany out of NATO and the EC.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has been quoted as saying that the reunification of Germany is inevitable. To say that is to be a profound pessimist, because if it happens it will be to the enormous advantage of Moscow - and to the disadvantage of Washington, London, and Paris.
One of the most dramatic diplomatic events in the Middle Ages was when the emperor, Henry IV, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, went down on his knees to climb, in the snow, the steep stone steps to the castle at the top where the Pope waited to receive him. The pilgrimage to Canossa in 1077 saved an imperial throne.
Gorbachev in 1989 has made his ``pilgrimage to Canossa.'' He has made his peace with the pope in Rome. He has cleared away most of the hurdles which have until now stood between him and the Roman Catholic Germans of West Germany.
The scene is set for the climactic move - the invitation to the West Germans to move East.
That is why the diplomats of Washington, London, Paris, and Rome have all been so quiet and so cautious in their reaction to the latest events in Eastern Europe. They are delighted to see human and political rights being restored to the peoples of those countries. But they are, with reason, anxious about the long-term implications.