The East Germans' Choice

If freedom means anything, they must be allowed to chart their future

GERMAN reunification has once again hoisted itself upon the European agenda. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl presents a plan for German unity to the Bundestag; Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visits Paris and Moscow, clarifying the details of the plan and attempting to assuage apprehensions; Henry Kissinger predicts there will be one German state within five years. With the prospect of a new European order, fears for the future have arisen, fueled by memories of the past. Moscow repeatedly and forcefully rejects German unity.

Understandably, the horrors of World War II remain vivid to Kremlin leaders. Warsaw reacts warily, citing the need for a guarantee of its western frontier. Paris responds negatively, wondering if attention and resources focused upon East Germany will hinder European Community (EC) integration. Even in Lisbon, Portuguese President Mario Soares voices concern that aid destined for his country will be diverted eastward. It seems everyone has had a say on the topic - everyone except the East Germans.

Prior to the opening of the German Democratic Republic's borders, East Germans were said to have ``voted with their feet.'' Cramming into the West German Embassy in Prague or fleeing over borders into Hungary, they were leaving the socialist Vaterland in droves.

Now, with their new freedom of movement, more than 90 percent of East Germans visiting the West are returning home. With reform under way, there are signs that GDR citizens may not be as eager to abandon their country as before. There may be two reasons for this.

First, while admiring the prosperity of West Germany, some East Germans have been known to express concern about what they view as the ``raw capitalism'' of their neighbor. They prefer to look to Sweden, with its near-zero unemployment rate and extensive social-welfare network, as a model. In doing so, East Germans may be able to create a national identity with enough distinction from the Federal Republic to stand on its own.

Second, there are those in the GDR who believe that the existence of another German state provides Europe with a degree of stability otherwise unattainable. And as Germans, they feel they owe it to their neighbors to maintain GDR independence.

This is an irony of the GDR educational system. East German students often complained about the Marxist-Leninist Quatsch being rammed down their throats, and were critical of the principles they were led to embrace as citizens of a communist state. But the government may have simultaneously succeeded in imparting a political mission, which is in fact nonideological.

Whether these factors will remain influential enough to bolster an East German state is not yet known. Nevertheless, they warrant skepticism when assessing the significance of the occasional pro-unification banner seen in the streets of Leipzig. East Germans need time to decide the direction in which they want to move. No accurate reading of popular sentiments can be made when the nation is undergoing tremendous upheaval. And no outside parties should assume to know the will of the GDR population. To do so denies East Germans the freedom of choice for which they continue to fight.

We in the West, rather than forecasting the imminent disappearance of the GDR and drawing up plans for unification, should give East Germans the opportunity, without prejudice, to reform and stabilize their country in their own way. Talk of the inevitability of a single German state has heightened anxieties in a period when they already run high.

Emphasis now should be placed upon cementing democratic fundamentals and establishing a decentralized and market-oriented economy. This would contribute not only to internal stabilization, but also to alleviating a potentially unbearable economic burden on West Germany. Once this has been accomplished, questions regarding the long-term status of the GDR can be addressed.

A final decision by East Germans on the future of their state demands time. If continued GDR sovereignty is chosen, the apprehensions of many Europeans will have proven premature. And if unification should result, perhaps by then Europe will be more secure in its new order to accept more readily the return of the German colossus.

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