Kohl's Miscues on the Road to Reunification

SEVERAL attacks on foreigners throughout Germany every day; demonstrations and riots against immigrants; arson and murder directed by neo-Nazi Germans against foreigners, the disabled, and gays; the rapid rise of right-wing political parties and increasing disgust with the politics of democratic compromise and tolerance.

In Germany, the word "Politikverdrossenheit" (disgust with politics) has become the editorial catchword to capture the dark and bitter mood that prevails throughout the country. Its most recent manifestation came in elections Sunday in the German state of Essen, where the extreme right Republican Party won 8.3 percent of the vote, up from less than 1 percent four years ago.

Events in Germany are at least partially the result of two fundamental mistakes made by Chancellor Helmut Kohl three years ago, one economic, the other political. Both are closely connected.

Chancellor Kohl's economic mistake was that he failed to see the tremendous challenge posed by the collapse of the East German economy. During the 1990 election campaign in Germany, Kohl quite incredibly insisted: (1) that a new "economic miracle" was imminent in East Germany (GDR); (2) that no one would be worse off because of unification, but many people would be better off; and (3) that because of unification's economic dynamism, the entire process could be financed without raising taxes.

Kohl was wrong on all three counts. A few simple figures may suffice to suggest how wrong. As of 1992, industrial production in the former GDR had sunk to 30 percent of its previous level, and would have sunk to 15 percent had it not been for emergency measures taken by the federal government. The official unemployment figures for the former GDR are now hovering around 15 percent, but that figure is artificially low, kept down by forced retirements, job-creation measures, and shortened work weeks. The re al figure is probably at least twice as high, and will continue to rise for at least another year.

During the second half of 1991 alone, the East German gross domestic product fell by 11.4 percent; the labor force decreased by 18.7 percent. Meanwhile, prices went up 21.4 percent. The average East German makes about half as much as the average West German.

In order to finance reunification, the federal government has engaged in a positively American bout of deficit spending, driving interest rates to record highs. And on top of it all, the West German economy, pumped up in 1990 by pent-up consumer demand from the East, is now in deep recession, just as the United States seems to be coming out of one.

These outcomes all were predicted and expected. The collapse of the wall was an economic as well as a political event, since the wall was the only thing that kept the East German economy from imploding during the last three decades. Suddenly, with economic unification, East German companies had to compete with immensely more sophisticated West German competitors. Is it any wonder that so many of them went bankrupt? In 1990 Kohl refused to listen to the voices of economic common sense - including the hea d of the Bundesbank itself, who resigned in protest - who urged a more cautious approach, tax increases, and more protection for the East German economy. He has only himself to blame if he refused to listen.

Americans can perhaps get a sense of the magnitude, if not the precise contours, of what is happening if they imagine what might occur if President Clinton were to announce suddenly that Mexico was about to become the 51st state.

There is an irony of history in all this. On Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall fell, East German masses danced in the streets and went on a buying spree in West Berlin. They naively believed that West German prosperity was now around the corner. But it was not prosperity, it was economic depression, that was around the corner. Sometimes political freedom does not go hand in hand with immediate prosperity.

Unfortunately, Kohl did nothing to disabuse East Germans of their economic illusions and a great deal to delude them even further. It now looks as if large numbers of people in the GDR, and possibly in the Federal Republic as well, equated the concepts "democracy" and "national unity" with the concept "economic prosperity." That is a dangerous confusion; when economic prosperity did not immediately materialize, the concepts of democracy and national unity also came into question.

It is very sad, but not surprising, that Germany is experiencing outbursts of right-wing and neo-Nazi violence. This too was predicted and expected. Germany's most famous writer, Gunter Grass, warned in the summer of 1990 that the East German economy was in the process of collapse, and that "the only place where we might expect growth is where our own fears and the fears of our neighbors got their start: in German right-wing radicalism."

It now looks as if, in both parts of Germany, democracy and "Wirtschaftswunder" are genuinely confused. This is what German sociologist Jurgen Habermas was getting at when he warned in 1990 of the possibility that a "D-Mark Nationalism" might smother democratic consciousness, possibly threatening democratic gains made by West Germany over the past five decades. One might conclude that Germany is only persuaded to support democracy when it is rich and prosperous, but that the democratic veneer collapses u nder economic pressure. Such a conclusion is wrong, but it could be a dangerously tempting one to draw, especially for the masses in East Germany, most of whom had no experience either with democracy or with capitalism.

Kohl's second mistake was political. As the leader of his nation, he had the chance in 1989 and 1990 to initiate a broad discussion about the concept of democracy, to make it clear that politics and economics, while interrelated and interconnected, are two separate spheres - perhaps even to suggest that freedom is even more important and more valuable than prosperity.

Such a discussion was absolutely vital, since at least one-fourth of the population had no concept of what democracy was. But a democracy is only as effective as the people's willingness to create it and make it work. 1990 should have been the year for a broad-based constitutional discussion inside Germany. Instead, it was a year of false promises.

None of this means that reunification was wrong. There was no realistic political, moral, or economic alternative. But Kohl's way of pursuing it revealed either a dismal ignorance of the real situation in East Germany or a Machiavellian wish to ignore it. Given this record, it is difficult to see how Kohl has anything to offer the Germany that he helped unify, only to leave it in the lurch. It looks very much as if his days as chancellor are numbered.

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