Between the call to leadership and the traps of turbulent history

Straddling the still volatile cold-war fault lines, Germany is trying to forge a bolder European network of security while assuaging a reluctant public

HOW to fit the German piece peacefully into the European puzzle has been one of the most vexing questions of the modern age. Germany's power, combined with the country's perception of geographic vulnerability in the middle of Europe, has wrought continental calamity twice this century.

In the post-cold-war era, a unified Germany is again grappling with fitting in. This time conditions are different. Democracy has sunk deep roots here. But European stability, requiring strong economic and security networks, is not guaranteed.

German leaders believe they have the formula that would prevent the nation from falling into its historical trap, in which it always faced the possibility of a two-front war. That formula is the European Union (EU).

But before that can be fully tested, Bonn's politicians face a tough battle to reshape domestic public opinion. The great experiment to foster lasting peace calls for Germany to assume a role that its people have come to distrust: leadership.

``Our influence in the world hasn't always been a blessing for the world,'' says pensioner Willy Tesch, arguing that Germany should refrain from a leading role in world affairs to avoid past mistakes.

Other Germans, especially in the formerly Communist East bloc, have an economic argument. ``We have enough problems right here, like unemployment,'' says Udo Schumacher, a window washer.

Cost of reluctance

To the comfort of those Europeans who worried that a reunified Germany would metamorphose into a militant Fourth Reich, Germany instead has focused inward, consumed by reunification. And when it acts internationally, such as in the EU, Bonn stresses multilateral action.

But the widespread domestic aversion to Germany raising its international profile can also be cause for alarm. There are multiple risks to European stability. A dearth of leadership exists on the Continent, shown by the muddled EU response to the Balkan wars. Meanwhile, Europe is being asked by the US, its erstwhile protector, to assume a greater role in its own security.

As Europe's most prosperous and populous nation, the obligation of filling the leadership vacuum would seem to fall naturally on Germany. History, however, is proving a formidable obstacle - not just for nearby nations, who base lingering suspicions on Germany's past behavior. Perhaps the main barrier lies with Germans.

The nation's 45 years of postwar division fostered a pacifist mood that is outdated in the new age of shared geopolitical responsibility. Yet breaking from the burden of its Prussian and Nazi past promises to be a prolonged process for Germany.

``Inevitably after reunification, [Germany] can no longer be a consumer of stability and prosperity primarily produced by others, but now must carry the burden of producing it,'' says Karl Kaiser, the head of the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP). ``But it is a long, difficult, and indeed domestically controversial process of how a country that emerged precisely with a purpose to abstain from world politics now is to take part.''

The longer Germany takes to adapt, the greater the prospects that instability stirred by Balkan warfare and Central European economic angst could spread, even possibly spill into the relatively content West. Ultimately, the West European nation that stands to be affected most by the spread of instability is Germany itself.

Germany's political elite recognizes the security risks and generally has had no problem defining and pursuing German national interests in Europe. Both main German parties view the EU as the key to ensuring Continental stability. The establishment also considers good relations with the United States to be crucial.

As the EU's largest financial contributor, Germany has exerted great influence. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has acted as the unswerving champion of a federalist European vision, spanning the wealthy West and the struggling, formerly Communist East. But Bonn has often appeared uncomfortable and awkward in a leadership role, as shown by the efforts of Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union to introduce a two-track approach to European union.

It is in Germany's interests to beef up the EU as quickly as possible. Straddling the East-West fault line, Germany is ex-posed to the destabilizing fallout of eastern economic woes, such as mass migration.

The construction of a ``common European house,'' German political thinking goes, would smooth regional economic and political disparities, providing Germany - and the Continent in general - with unprecedented stability.

But strengthening and expanding Europe promises to be a complex task. And here German public opinion comes into play. Kohl portrays Germany as ``the motor'' for European integration. If so, public opinion would keep it out of gear.

A tender issue

Uniting Europe, for example, will mean the introduction of a single European currency. But Germans are wary of sacrificing the comfort of the deutsche mark for the unknowns of a Euro-currency.

``Changing the minds of people is the toughest part,'' says Manfred Richter, a Parliament leader of the Free Democratic Party. ``We must explain the situation. It'll take time.''

The just completed political campaign offered an ideal chance for public debate on foreign policy. But politicians failed to seize it. Foreign policy barely figured in the run-up to the Oct. 16 vote.

Kohl, who won reelection to a fourth four-year term, merely reminded voters that Germany enjoys an unprecedented era of harmony with its historic enemies: the US, Russia, France, and Britain.

The politicians may come to rue the missed opportunity. Keeping friendly ties with Washington, Moscow, Paris, and London at the same time will become trickier. Bonn will be hard-pressed to make difficult choices without firm public support.

The EU's potential eastern expansion, for example, is not only a potential source of tension between Bonn and Paris and London, but also between the German government and its people.

France and Britain are far less keen to quickly incorporate Central Europe than is Germany. Their enthusiasm is muted by the enormous cost it would entail, and their loss of political influence if the EU axis shifted eastward.

Nevertheless, at German insistence, France and Britain have so far gone along with the push to expand eastward. Bonn's ability to keep Paris and London on board could easily founder, however, on domestic public opinion.

``There is no easy solution at the moment,'' says Gabriele Brenke, a political scientist at the DGAP. ``The EU will have to open up, but when that happens it will cause domestic problems.''

Opening to the former Communist nations would create an economic threat, Ms. Brenke says. ``It would create serious competitors for the German economy,'' she adds. ``They have cheap labor, and we don't.''

The link to Russia

Maintaining friendly relations with the US and Russia will also require constant effort. US-German ties are now excellent. But the matter of greater German participation in global peacekeeping could easily lead to tension. Washington insists on it, but Germany is far from reaching consensus on sending its troops abroad.

As for Moscow, Germany must maintain its role as Russia's main link to Western Europe, even though the last Russian troops left German soil in August, Brenke and other observers say.

A Russia uncoupled from the West would be more prone to revert back to its paleo-imperial ways, which would threaten the federal Europe dream. But keeping Russia on the path to democracy will require much additional aid, which the German public might be loathe to extend.

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