The Myth Of German Unity

Wir sind ein Volk," they chanted in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin: we are one people. For more than a century, Germans have subscribed to what George Kennan once called "romantic linguistic nationalism"--a belief that a common tongue creates a community. They have lived since the war in the conviction that only an artificial border divides them. It is a myth. After 45 years East and West Germans have grown apart. Now, as they come together in pursuit of prosperity, the Germans are ignoring a little secret. The new Germany will be one nation, but two peoples.

The German Question has thus been reincarnated, in a new form. The problem? The Federal Republic is prosperous, tolerant and solidly democratic. The German Democratic Republic is impoverished, intolerant and undemocratic--a product of oppression on the one hand and ideological conditioning on the other. Now they will merge, but to become what? No one knows. The new Germany will be as much an enigma for the Germans as for the rest of us. An official at a prominent West German think tank expresses a common sentiment. "I know the Americans, the British, the French," she says. "But the East Germans? They are alien to me." A German diplomat in Berlin scoffs at what he calls the Grand Illusion. "We've always talked of the GDR as 'the other Germany'," he says. "But really, after so many years of communism, [they] are more like Russians."

This is more than unification angst. Opinion surveys find that a majority of West Germans think unification is going too fast; many of the young and educated question whether it should happen at all. Newspapers have launched "nationality" education campaigns. Die Welt recently ran a series, "A Life in Germany: How people in the GDR really live." Die Zeit notes that while West German Deutsche is studded with trendy international idioms, from "manager" to "high tech" to "bottom line," the German spoken across the Elbe is essentially unchanged from 50 years ago. The soul-searching has a darker dimension. A Pakistani businessman tells of twice being called a Schwarze on a short visit to the East. An American reports being surrounded by East Berlin skinheads shouting "Auslander raus!" "Xenophobia runs deep among East Germans," says Irene Runge, a sociologist in East Berlin. "We will not make very good democrats."

The East German longing for unity had more to do with economics than politics--with jobs and living standards. Cynics call it "Mercedes democracy." They have a point. For West Germans, the last 40 years have been a social as well as an economic miracle. Traditional "German" biases have broken down. "West Germans today are as European as they are German," says Elisabeth Noelle-Neuman, head of the Allensbach Research Institute. "We care about the Third World and the environment. We have a peace movement. We value opposing views." East Germany, by contrast, has seen no such evolution. "Decades of socialism have reinforced our worst traits," says Runge. "We East Germans are more respectful of authority, less flexible and less accepting of individual differences than we were before the war."

What does this mean? Possibly nothing. Perhaps Mercedes democracy will become genuine democracy under the weight of West German anschfuss. But the Germans are more likely to create a hybrid--to try to mingle the "best" of both Germanys. Almost certainly, Germany will swing to the left. Three quarters of East Germans still believe the state should be responsible for their welfare. If their economic transition proves difficult, the social policies of a future Germany will surely reflect their views. The new Germany will remain within NATO. But is it coincidence that the soft diplomatic policies of East Berlin, with its emphasis on Pan-European security solutions, is suddenly finding a more forceful expression in Bonn?

That in itself might not be bad. More disturbing are the prospects for pluralism in a united Germany. The West German news magazine Der Spiegel recently devoted a cover to Helmut Kohl's "Machtrausch" (power drive). It pictured the chancellor hurtling down the autobahn in a sports car, his passenger (East German leader Lothar de Maiziere) losing both his hat and his political equilibrium. The image sits uneasily with many West Germans, who feel as if unity were being conferred upon them from on high (in this case, Bonn) with little of the debate such a momentous event would ordinarily inspire. "Kohl tells us what we must do, and we obey," says a sociologist in Bonn. "Suddenly, Germans are behaving as passively as we did in 1933."

No one contemplates the emergence of a Fourth Reich. But there is fear of a new cult of leadership. The concern is that unity will create a political vacuum. Bewildered by choices and the velocity of events, Germans may hanker for a commanding presence especially before Western prosperity comes to the East. Democracy could deteriorate into a politics of personality as the driving force in the new Germany. That would be a step backward.