Germany's Loose Threads

Unification has been achieved, but details like the role of new states in the east and the question of moving the capital to Berlin test the spirit of compromise

STITCHING together the two former Germanys will take more than monetary and political union. The threads of two such disparate societies can be drawn together successfully only over some period of time, and if the warp and woof of each of the old fabrics is kept in mind. Surveying the German scene just six months after the first East German elections last March, one is struck by the difficulties, now that the process is underway.

One must bear in mind, however, that with the Oct. 14 L"ander (state) elections in former East Germany out of the way, Germany is preparing for the first all-German election on Dec. 2. Chancellor Helmut Kohl is running as the leader of the party of unity. His main opposition, the Social Democrats, find themselves in the position, not of opposing German unity, but discussing its costs. Yet, even if some exaggerating has occurred in counting those costs, the picture has undeniably changed since last spring. West Germany is taking on a ``relative'' in much worse shape than had even been imagined. However the costs are ultimately borne, they are going to have some impact on West Germans themselves. At the same time, Germany needs to proceed in a manner which does not sow the seeds of future resentment in the former communist part of the country.

One longtime resident of Frankfurt said, ``It is a good thing that unification has come now. Ten years later there wouldn't have been enough (West) Germans who would have cared.'' While this may be an exaggeration, it found a strong echo in other conversations. A newspaper editor commented that to his children, the L"ander, or states, in the east were simply one more country, like Austria, where German was spoken.

The Germans' sensitivities toward each other will be tested in all the arrangements made in the ensuing months. With this in mind, it is instructive to see, first, how the issue of the five new L"ander was settled and, second, some of the debate currently going on regarding the role of Berlin as the political center.

Prior to unification, West Germany had 11 L"ander, and a population of 61 million. East Germany had about 17 million people. Had some proportional means been used as a test, a maximum of three new states would have been added. However, the West Germans resurrected the five traditional states of middle Germany. (At least three of these, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia all have long histories; this is less the case with the two states in the north, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which were part of the old Prussia.) Some 1.5 million East Germans live in the former East Berlin, and were added to Berlin's population (Berlin itself being a state in the federal republic).

Under communist rule, the regional heritage of the German people had been dissolved in favor of centralization in Berlin. So, the West German decision to create five new L"ander was a decidedly positive step in restoring one of the traditional elements of the German nation - the importance of regional loyalties. Moreover, it is in line with the federal structure of the postwar republic, whose own L"ander have widely varying populations - all the way from the 17 million citizens of North Rhine-Westphalia (the industrial heartland of Germany) to the one million residents of the Saarland and the 700,000 population of Bremen.

What is different about the five new L"ander is that they are all small states. But this may not have been too steep a price to pay to forge new loyalties to the Federal Republic. And to those who defend this arrangement, it is no more anachronistic than to maintain the two city states of Bremen and Hamburg as separate L"ander. The result, however, is to give almost one-third of the votes in the Bundesrat (upper house) to the five L"ander in the east. This is because the voting power in the Bundesrat lies somewhere between a system based on population and one based solely on sovereign states, as in the US Senate. The L"ander each have from three to six votes in the Bundesrat, based on their population; the minimum of three votes each gives an advantage to the smaller states.

The decision about Berlin's role in the enlarged nation could also, in the end, revolve around the feelings of the former East Germans. They expect the seat of government to move to Berlin, although so far Berlin has only been named the capital.

The final decision is being put off until the newly elected all-German Bundestag (lower house) meets after Dec. 2. The decision will need to be ratified by the Bundesrat. A majority of the L"ander are still in what was West Germany, and they are all (with the exception of Berlin itself) in favor of maintaining the government in Bonn. There are strong practical reasons for doing so: what it says about Germany's continuing link to its Western allies; the strength of its federal system, which suggests that it is fitting for the functioning capital to be in a small town rather than in the nation's largest city. The comparison is made that New York does very well without having the federal government housed there. Berlin likewise would continue in its traditional role as the cultural center of Germany and as the gateway to Eastern Europe.

One argument against Berlin is that it has a history of political radicalism. (Although readers may associate Berlin with the displays of power during the Nazi era, the city was not one of Hitler's original bases of power.) Security poses a much smaller problem for a federal government based in Bonn than Berlin.

Moreover, the government currently functions well in Bonn. Some 100,000 civil servants would have to be moved to Berlin, which currently does not have adequate housing for them. Since this would take many years - the infrastructure for the federal government simply does not exist in the historic core of Berlin, which was East German until two weeks ago - one likely outcome would be to declare for Berlin, but on a delayed basis, such as ten years. Before that time is up, the decision would be quietly dropped and Bonn would remain the political center.

Thus, objective factors argue in favor of keeping the government in Bonn. In the end, however, two other factors may still favor Berlin: the recognition that in the case of all its neighbors, the largest city is the capital and the seat of government (Rome, London, Paris); and the possibility that the stitching together of this new, all-German piece of cloth will be perceived as happening more quickly if a firm decision is made in favor of Berlin.

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