As it has been since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the future of Germany is once again at the core of revolutionary change rippling across Europe. And the reaction of the Western democracies seems to prove George Bernard Shaw's aphorism that "There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it." Having deplored the division of Europe for nearly half a century, the West cannot decide how to relate the eruption of freedom in Eastern Europe to the traditional policies of Atlantic cohesion and European integration. Trying to pour new wine into old bottles, Western democracies seek to reconcile their proclamations of the past with premonitions of the future in formulae so ambiguous they can be interpreted to support incompatible objectives.
For years conventional wisdom denied the existence of any problem. The Soviet grip on Eastern Europe and especially on the German Democratic Republic seemed unshakable. Therefore observers expected that West European integration would move much more rapidly than German unification.
Events unforeseen and unsettling now belie these assumptions. Soviet power in Eastern Europe has collapsed. The Brezhnev Doctrine, committing Red Army support to communist regimes, has been abandoned. These events have exposed a gap between the West's declaratory policy and its actions which, if not bridged, could wreck what four decades of statesmanship achieved.
To be sure, Western leaders continue to reaffirm a commitment to German self-determination. But they hedge their pronouncements with conditions that amount to turning the Atlantic Alliance and European integration into obstacles to German unification and, in the long term, barriers to the pro-Western orientation of the German state.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for instance, has placed German unification at the end of a process of democratization for Eastern Europe that includes the Soviet Union and that, by implication, preserves the East German state as a separate entity for a period expected to last 10-15 years. At a recent press conference, French President Francois Mitterrand declared that European integration should precede German unification, giving the German Democratic Republic a special position within the European Community.
The U.S. stand has been more complex. President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have put forward four principles to reconcile German national aspirations with historic European fears:
The principle of self-determination will be preserved without prejudice to its outcome.
German unification is to take place within the framework of NATO and the European Community.
Unification will be part of a step-by-step process.
Germany must reiterate support for the principles of the Helsinki Act regarding its borders.
Statesmen forget at their peril that arcane language is not reality. The gradualism being preached is not tied to any specific program, nor has any Western leader defined German self-determination or a procedure for achieving it. As a result, the West runs a huge risk of turning into partners with the Soviet Union, defending the status quo and in sharing--in German eyes--the opprobrium for the division of Germany heretofore borne solely by the Soviets. For decades the West has suspected Moscow of having a German card up its sleeve. It would be ironic if the West now handed that card to the Soviets just as democracy surges through Eastern Europe.
The danger of making the Kremlin and the East German communists the key to German national aspirations results not only from Western pronouncements but also from Western actions. Both Mitterrand and Baker recently visited East Germany and met with leaders shunned by the West for 40 years, leaders who have been all but repudiated by the East German public and who even now are making it difficult for democratic parties to organize. And the West jumped at a Soviet proposal to hold, for the first time since 1971, a meeting of the so-called Kommandatura , the four-power control commission for Berlin. These gestures--treating the East German state as the moral and political equivalent of the national states of Eastern Europe--imply a Western interest in the German status quo. Over time this will generate a sense that German national aspirations are incompatible with the Western orientation of the federal republic.
Article 7 of the treaty that laid the basis for German rearmament pledged the three Western powers to cooperate in working toward German unification. In the stormy debate that followed, the advocates of German integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were accused by their opponents of jeopardizing the ultimate unity of the German nation.
A similar, if less passionate, debate involved the issue of European integration. After an initial period of hesitation, all German democratic parties committed themselves to Atlantic as well as European institutions, and they have carried out their commitments for 40 years.
Germany's democratic allies should think twice before risking the Western connection of the federal republic by forcing German leaders to choose between their allies and their national goals. They must not create a German problem in the name of avoiding it. Right now, the West German political campaign obscures these dangers because the opposition parties have chosen to blame Chancellor Helmut Kohl's alleged heavy-handedness for federal republic frustrations. But this quarrel will be temporary.
The question of how to treat East Germany internationally brooks no delay. In Eastern Europe, democratic institutions are likely to enhance domestic stability. In the German Democratic Republic, the opposite is certain to occur; free elections will generate pressures for unification. No formula can alter the fact that the principal reason for the existence of the East German state has been as a communist outpost of the Soviet Union.
If the East German people desire a separate state, no country in the world would object--probably not even the federal republic. But Western nations would be taking a fateful step if their own policies incited such an evolution.
Whatever the time scale for unification or its nature, a direction must be established within the next year. Once two German states--especially democratic ones--become fixtures of the European equilibrium, German unification can be pursued only at the cost of an international crisis. European politics will revert to the patterns of the 18th and 19th centuries. Outside powers--especially the Soviet Union--will be given an opportunity to manipulate inter-German rivalry. For the 200 years before German unification, as many wars were sparked by Germany's division as by its subsequent unity.
In truth, the choices are limited. Any attempt to make progress toward German unification conditional on progress toward European integration will defeat both--this is the weakness of the American principles. It will sooner or later turn German nationalism against European integration and Atlantic unity. And it will probably prove counterproductive to integration by giving those who fear German unity--and are not enthusiastic about European integration--the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
Policy cannot invent reality; it can only use it. The time frames for German unification and European integration are simply not the same. The former is driven by fundamental emotions fueled by established democratic procedures; the latter reflects prudent calculations driven by technical bureaucratic procedures. The real choice for the Western allies is whether they fear German unity more than they prize European integration and Atlantic cohesion. The way to avoid German preponderance is not to ascribe to it motives contrary to 40 years of responsible German policy, even less to divide that country. Should Germany, against all current indications, seek the road of hegemony, Britain and France always have the option of increasing their cooperation within the framework of European and Atlantic institutions. And the United States would surely use its influence to prevent an outcome that it opposed in two wars.
Several factors drive German unification. The dissolution of internal frontiers will force the federal republic to move rapidly toward equalization of living conditions in both parts of Germany. Otherwise, a mass exodus of East Germans is probable, exceeding the capacities of the federal republic to sustain. Common economic policies are inevitable; a common currency cannot be far behind.
Another impetus will be supplied by the elections scheduled for the two parts of Germany later this year: in the East in May, in the West in December. After initially declaring a hands-off policy, the West German political parties are apparently ready to make a major effort in the East elections because the outcome might give the winner a leg up in the West election campaign. It is highly improbable that the policies toward unification will, being essentially nonpartisan, vary on either side of the dividing line.
Therefore, appeals for gradualism are curiously irrelevant, and assurances to the Soviet Union that no effort will be made to accelerate the process could be dangerous. In fact, the victors of World War II have no realistic method to implement their misgivings.
The Soviet Union surely has the physical power to prevent German unification. But to do so by force would wreck the "Gorbachev fever" in central Europe on which Moscow has staked so much and worked so hard to foster. The Kremlin can also offer unification in return for Germany loosening its Western ties.
The only realistic way to moderate the pace of events and to keep Germany in the Western community is to come to an agreement on the desired outcome and then to plan together the precise steps to reach the goals. Like many contemporaries who experienced the Hitler regime and World War II, I would have suffered no sense of deprivation had the issue of German unification remained in limbo for a while longer. Now that it has risen, we no longer have the option of deferring it to a more convenient moment.
A faster pace for European integration is highly desirable. But paradoxically it is most likely in the context of a Western plan on German unification. This is the best way of ensuring that European integration and the Atlantic Alliance are not perceived in Germany as a subterfuge for delaying unification. Particular steps can be staged over a reasonable time period, so long as the process moves toward an acceptable objective.
The confederation proposal by Chancellor Kohl--greeted so lukewarmly by his allies--represents the minimum compatible with German aspirations and international necessities. Overcoming their misgivings, the allies should develop a long-range program in four stages:
Elaboration of a timetable for German confederation to be completed within a two-year period. The confederation should have a common foreign policy as its goal.
Implementation of another major step toward European political integration should be completed in a fixed time period after establishment of the German confederation. An important component is a specific program to enable Eastern countries to enter into association with the European community.
Concurrent negotiation of a new European security system as a step toward full unification.
Development of a program to move from confederation to whatever form of German unity a process of self-determination generates.
Discussion of a European security system demands another article. For present purposes it is enough to stress that the opportunity to build a truly new international system must not be lost in a maze of bureaucratic formulas masking old fears. It requires a clear vision of what lies ahead and, above all, an initiative equal to the challenge before us.