Center stage in Europe yields today to the most tangible move yet to weld Germany back together. Sharing the stage is an entirely new German question: After 40 years of communism, are East Germans still German?
East and West Germany are a single economic unit for the first time since the end of World War II. German leaders hope to work out political and defense arrangements for the future that will make full unity possible before the year's end. But full unity may depend at least as much on how much of the German flair for hard work and thrift has survived a Soviet-style economy in which--as the joke goes in Moscow--workers pretend to work and the state pretends to pay them.
West German entrepreneurs are counting on East Germans to respond to market incentives and help crank up even further an economy that already leads the way among the 12 member nations of the European Community. The West German government's first contribution to a new life for the East is to give the far less valuable East German mark the same purchasing power as that of the West. After that will come billions more marks to clean up layers of industrial pollution that have accumulated in the East, modernize railroads, expand highway networks and raise standards of telecommunication systems to those of the West.
What East Germans will be asked to give up for better roads, health insurance, pensions and other social programs is a drab, but binding deal with their old government that guaranteed housing, cheap food and employment. It has not mattered that as many as half of the jobs would be considered make-work occupations in the West. But under Western market-style accounting procedures, it will matter very much from now on.
For Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other West German leaders, the stakes are perhaps less personal and direct than they are for East German workers, many of whom will be obliged to change a generation of customs almost overnight, but they are both real and high. In recent months, West Germany has so dominated Europe's discussions of politics, defense and economics that few voices have been raised to ask where German bankers and politicians will find the money it will take to match the economic miracle the West performed after World War II.
A lack of enthusiasm among East Germans for the tasks ahead could mean falling short of the economic goals Kohl has set for a united Germany and for helping stabilize the Soviet Union. But the odds have to be with Kohl and Europe's strongest economy. Forty years seems scarcely enough time to destroy all traces of the habits of hard work and thrift that Germans, East and West, stitched together over a period of generations.