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Who's Afraid of United Germany?

By John L. Larew

ROWDY fans cheered wildly as they disembarked the train from Rome, many of them proudly waving the tricolored German flag. As I watched German soccer fans return from their country's World Cup victory, I came face to face with the transformation of the German psyche that German reunification is performing. German nationalism--feared and suppressed for 45 years--is now finding a legitimate voice.

A middle-aged man standing next to me on the platform shook his head and mused, "One never saw such things before the wall-opening. One couldn't even buy a German flag then."

Exaggeration or not, this statement seems to confirm the worst fears of many of Germany's neighbors and quite a few Germans: that the unified Germany that was born at the stroke of midnight last night will produce a resurgence of German chauvinism and threaten the stable European order that has prevailed since the defeat of the Third Reich.

FOR those who lived through the Second World War, the fear of German aggression is most salient. Despite assurances in the reunification treaty that Germany will slash its fighting force to 345,000 soldiers and renounce chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the memory of three horrible conflagrations in the past 120 years dies hard. Notions of an aggressive and authoritarian "German character" abound.

Ironically, this most common fear of the unified Germany is the least justified. After 45 years of hyper-sensitivity to their past, German citizens and German public life are exceedingly sensitive to suggestions of racism and militarism. Fully a quarter of German youth refuse conscription into the military, opting instead for more lengthy and arduous conscientious-objector duty.

In Germany, hints of neo-Nazi activity make international news. Public officials, most notably Federal President Richard Weiszaecker, passionately and publicly acknowledge Germany's guilt in the Holocaust (something that cannot be said of France, Austria, Poland or the Soviet Union).

Nevertheless, we cannot simply dismiss the possibility of German revanchism. One of the most sensitive issues of German reunification, the recognition of the Oder-Neisse line as the definitive border with Poland, illustrates Germany's ambivalent self-perception. On one hand, nearly all Germans are willing to renounce claims to this territory (to which they have a strong historical claim) as atonement for their historical guilt. But a small minority refuse to recognize the necessity of viewing Germany's place in the world through the lens of the Third Reich.

At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin demanded a large chunk of Polish and German territory for the Soviet Union. In compensation to the Poles, Germany was forced to give up the province of Silesia to Poland, which immediately began deporting Germans and rooting out German influence.

In fact, the old national anthem that begins "Deutschland, Deutschland Ueber Alles" is forbidden precisely because the lyrics make reference to Polish territory. (The popular perception that the phrase "Germany over everything" was deemed too jingoistic is false; the song is a 19th century liberal anthem that refers to the sovereignty of the German nation over its constituent states.)

The constitutions of both East and West Germany recognize the Oder-Neisse line, but German Chancellor Helmut Kohl created an international flap when he suggested that a reunification treaty could not reaffirm that understanding without the consent of the united German parliament.

Technically, he was right. But to most observers, Kohl's histrionic hesitance was an astute political maneuver; Germans uprooted from eastern territories number in the millions, and are organized into "Refugee Societies" that still meet regularly.

Knowing that the Polish border would never, in fact, be moved, Kohl evidently hoped to register his sympathy for these voters so that they might remember his Christian Democratic Union in the next election. (By contrast, the party program of the opposition Social Democrats clearly states that "the western border of Poland is forever valid.")

EVEN among observers who discount the threat of German militarism, the fear of Germany somehow imposing "economic dominion" over the rest of Europe is still widespread, especially considering the coincidence of unification with the consolidation of the European market in 1992.

With the fourth largest economy in the world, Germany is already the world's largest exporter of manufactured goods, ahead of even Japan. It simultaneously boasts a rock-hard currency and the largest trade surplus on the planet. Add to that 17 million people, the world's 11th largest economy and by far the most productive industry in the Eastern Bloc and you get a formidable combination.

When the dust settles, Germany will be the dominant economic power in Europe--just like it was before unification. In short, other Europeans have little to worry about. East German GNP represents less than 10 percent of the combined German total. Even if unification proves an economic boon, Germany's success represents an opportunity, not a threat to the rest of Europe.

Even as some fear fully integrating the robust German economy into the European Community (EC), many "Europeanists" fear exactly the opposite--that unification will tilt Germany back eastward, building a German-dominated bloc in Central Europe.

The imminent shift of the national capital from Bonn in the West to Berlin in the East only underscores the insecurity that many felt when Germany signed a non-aggression accord with the Soviet Union this summer. To these people, the best way to deal with Germany is to integrate it into the rest of the continent as rapidly and in as many ways as possible.

Here, they will find no argument from the Germans. In addition to the open market agreed upon under Europe 1992, Germany will soon join the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Luxembourg in dismantling all internal borders.

In practice, this is almost true already. A stone's throw from concrete remnants of the Maginot Line in Rheingau, France, the French government subsidizes a ferry to take day-laborers and others across the Rhine into Germany, where they go through an unmanned border station.

Germany and its neighbors are practically tripping over each other to integrate the nation into the EC and to sustain the NATO alliance. Driving through Strasbourg, France, a German friend pointed at the European Parliament and proclaimed, "That is the future."

SO IS there any reason to be worried as that Germans develop a new self-confidence in their national identity? If it leads to any loss of vigilance against racism and xenophobia, there is indeed. But as long as nationalism expresses itself as a legitimate pride in the accomplishments of one's nation, why should we fear it? Don't we call that "patriotism" here?

As the soccer fans trudged past me in Munich, I heard a group of them singing. Thinking of the patriotic euphoria after the U.S.'s ice hockey victory in 1980, and I strained to hear the words. Instead of "Deutschland, Deutschland Ueber Alles," I heard, "We're going to drink for seven days straight."

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