THE ideal of a Europe ``whole and free'' depends on a democratic Germany whole and free. And the German national elections on Sunday - the first time a unified Germany has voted since before Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1932 - represents a major step in that direction. Helmut Kohl's victory hardly comes as a surprise. The German chancellor has had a stellar political year by almost any standard. He has been Mr. Germany. He early captured the cause and rhetoric of reunification, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He engineered an astonishingly rapid (and complex) unification process. Using the powerful Deutschmark, Kohl negotiated the Soviets out of East Germany, giving Mikhail Gorbachev a deal he couldn't refuse.
Finally, the settlement last month with the Poles on the inviolability of the German-Polish border removed whatever stain was left on Kohl from last January, when he foolishly played to his right-wing by leaving the question open.
It was Kohl's year just as it was Germany's year. The Social Democratic (SPD) candidate Oskar Lafontaine didn't have a chance. The Germans swept aside the nagging questions asked by the SPD: By what means will Germany pay for the repair and rebuilding of East German infrastructure - a cost that could quickly surmount $500 billion? Where are East Germany's newly unemployed to work?
Germans instead voted for a vision of a broad, new German mainstream. ``Touch the Future'' was the Christian Democrats' election theme song: ``Feel the power, touch the future, reach the heart ... let the future turn to gold.''
The prickly and contentious German Green party was also a victim of this ``era of good times'' atmosphere. It scored below 5 percent for the first time ever and lost its seats in parliament.
Still, as Mr. Kohl must know, now comes the hard part. Having campaigned on a platform of ``no new taxes,'' he must find the money to bail out the East. So far it appears private investment won't do the job. And divisive social bitterness lies beneath the surface in East and West. Germany and Kohl still have much work ahead.