WITH reunification of East and West Germany moving ahead, and with major new political, economic, and security arrangements for all of Europe being shaped, a more up-to-date way of thinking about Germany is necessary. The old way of viewing Germany usually focused narrowly, sometimes almost subliminally, on the destructive aspects of its past, stressing the two World Wars and, especially, the Holocaust.
It would of course be foolish to say the so-called ``German question'' is entirely closed. The memories of the Holocaust and the wars rightly live on. Germans will continue to be reminded not only of their past, but also of their perceived potential for aggression. Not even children in Germany will be able to ignore this difficult aspect of political life.
But two facts about Germany need to be stressed right now. First, Germany will in many ways be central to the success, or failure, of the new Europe, the eastern half of which is struggling to learn the democratic way of life. Germany is inescapably a key geographic bridge to the eastern half of Europe, and now a social, economic, and political bridge as well.
Second, West Germany has become a sound democracy over the past four decades. It's Basic Law, or Constitution, went into effect May 23, 1949. West Germans have worked hard to build a society based on the idealistic concepts in this document, even as they've had to carry the burden of a very dark past.
German intellectuals can and do point out significant imperfections in West German society. But that freedom of criticism is, in itself, a hallmark of a thriving democracy.
The point, however, is not whether perfection has been achieved in the regions immediately east and west of the Rhine. The point is that West Germany has successfully gone down the path that the former East bloc nations now have a chance to travel. The degree of present West German success with democracy needs to be looked at with fresh eyes in order to get a better measure of what all of Europe can do, as nations and as a region.
The Western ideals of a just, progressive, law-governed society include freedom of religion, conscience, opinion, and expression. West Germany has implemented all of these rights, with considerable success. Its press is vital, ranging from right to left in outlook - and its sensational elements are no worse than those in Britain or the United States. The West German Parliament also reflects the full range of the political spectrum, and grand political battles are regularly fought out there.
Other rights that have been worked into the grain of West German society include the right to life, dignity, and physical integrity, freedom of assembly, association, and of movement, equality before the law for all, the right to choose an occupation, the right to seek asylum, and to submit petitions.
Perhaps most important to the foreign observer, West Germany has done much to curb nationalism. It's proven role in the European Community and NATO are the most obvious evidence of this. Human rights are certainly a Europe-wide topic today, even a world-wide topic, and the West Germans have had a strong hand in the deliberate rooting of justice and freedom beyond considerations of national interest.
Germany's economic might, expected to grow even stronger as reunification moves beyond the initial stages, concerns many. But this economic question can't be separated from those of human rights and freedom. Capital investment in West Germany has long been free, and international money is being welcomed for East Germany. Tariffs within the European Community are equalized and rapidly falling towards zero. West Germans have invested considerably in the former East bloc nations. This type of ``move Eastward'' works towards more freedom there.
Labor in the EC has long been an open market. Unions in West Germany enjoy co-determination, in which they share decision-making powers with owners and managers of the larger firms. The unions also have just won a 35-hour work week, possibly weakening German competitiveness by lowering productivity. Germany is in fact open to worldwide economic competition, which is the way modern nations have chosen to handle their political economy.
Again, none of this is to say that the West Germans don't have ample room for improvement. But let's look closely at what they have done in the fulfillment of Western ideals.