... And the German Question

MANY nations talk about a new world order, but Germany may be the state busiest creating one. It seems the 1990s will be the German decade in Europe, as a unified Deutchsland exerts enormous new economic and political influence throughout the continent - especially in East Europe.

This week Mikhail Gorbachev took his first trip out of Russia since the coup. Where did he visit? Germany - a guest of the Bertelsmann Publishers.

Last week, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl signed a friendship pact with Czech President Vaclav Havel similar to pacts he has signed with Poland and Hungary. Some 80 percent of Czech planned investment is German.

Even German constitutional inability to participate in out-of-area military actions may change. Efforts in the German Parliament to allow the Army to join UN actions are building. Last month we heard words we thought impossible from a Social Democrat; that NATO is getting a "new, far more positive assessment" in his party.

Nor should one forget the billions of marks Germany has spent on unification and on housing the Soviet troops leaving Germany.

Inevitably, however, talk about the new Europe gets around to the question of German aggressiveness and/or dominance. Given their general good faith, this question endlessly irritates Germans. And with some reason.

Yet it must be addressed. Historically, the Germans have exhibited, as Timothy Garton Ash and others note, a curious self-blindness about their muscle-flexing. Many Germans in politics and business feel strongly that they want only what is good for Europe. However, when it comes to specifics, Germany's sense of that good can often translate into a kind of Germany hegemony.

Even if the problem is one of perception, it exists.

A recent Wall Street Journal survey of 465 European executives (280 Germans) found that while 92 percent of German executives said Germany was not seeking hegemony in Europe, half the Italian, British, and French respondents said they were. Germans felt their markets were open; others said they were not. Will Europe end up financing German reunification? A German majority said no; 88 percent of others said yes. Is outside investment in East Germany fair and open? Germans: 92 percent, yes; half the other Europeans, no.

The worry is that German economic dominance will be translated into political dominance. The immediate example is Bonn's arm-twisting of EC members to recognize Croatia. But that was an isolated issue (and the German action may be proved right).

The Germans are learning how to deal with their image. They profess a desire for European integration, and must be given the benefit of the doubt. Still, they must send better signals to nations concerned about hegemony. Cancelling a recent human-rights conference in Berlin for "lack of funds" was not reassuring.

The Germans should and will stand up for their interests at home and abroad. But their elbows must not get too sharp.

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