An Elephant in the Barnyard
Flora Lewis - The foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times from 1970 to 1992. Paris-based Flora Lewis is one America's more astute observers of Europe. Her most recent book, Europe, was published in 1987.
The most important difference now dividing Germans from their allies and neighbors is that while most everyone else talks of projection of a great new German strength from the center of the continent, the Germans feel suddenly weak and uncertain. No one foresaw the emotional, psychological and political problems that unification would bring, let alone the staggering economic and social difficulties that are still only beginning to be understood.
But just as the Berlin Wall blocked the view from the present to some distant horizon so long as it stood, so now does the aftermath of its demolition. There remains a kind of lace curtain where the Iron Curtain stood, separating an "us" and a "them," the genteel and the distressed. People look through it and resent or disdain what they see. From the other side, the "Wessies" look smug, arrogant, righteous, colonizing, greedy; and "Ossies" look incompetent, whiny, demanding, lacking initiative and civic spirit. What to do about it is the great preoccupation of German leaders and opinion-makers, so heavy and urgent a concern that they find it hard to see why others cavil at German power. The more they advance with the totally unexpected task that was only an abstract hope for so long, the more they discover they must do and the more target date for successful conclusion recedes. At this point they feel overwhelmed, not rambunctious, burdened, not burdensome.
Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, once called "Schmidt the Lip" for his indulgence in tart, unadorned recrimination when he thought is applicable, spoke of "a rather foul mood" in his speech on the second anniversary of unification. He place much of the blame on the federal government, for its reckless encouragement of impossible expectations, for the "destructive revaluation" of the east mark at parity with the west's Deutschemark, for the "unholy property arrangements" providing for restitution in a way that blocks enterprise and and investment, for imposition of too many complicated west German procedures that the eastern bureaucracy can't apply, and for borrowing rather than taxing to pay the huge bills. But above all he blamed Bonn for failing to tell "the full truth" and therefore failing to evoke the "solidarity" for which "sacrifice" could be justified.
"I am quite confident that we will be able to solve our problems and challenges," he said, offering a long list of proposals. But in the meantime, people in the west must understand that they will have to continue supporting the east until "well after the year 2000," and people in the east must develop "citizens initiatives" that are feasible, such as organizing day-care centers and providing sports fields and youth clubs, instead of waiting for the state to do everything, as in the past.
People in both east and west are "disappointed and bitter because of the general lack of leadership and the indecisiveness," he said. "As we enter the third year of unification, we cannot but acknowledge the existence of much moral decay. Let us therefore jointly defend with all our forces human decency in Germany.
These are the dominant concerns, aggravated by the continued shocking outbreaks of xenophobic violence by "skins" - now the German word for skinheads - on the neo-Nazi right and the "autonomous" left, including President Richard von Weizsäcker, are moved to recall the Nazi-communist street brawls that helped to destroy the Weimar republic. Today's Germany isn't Weimar, but even the hint of its shadow is too horrible to disregard.
The problem of "asylum-seekers," some 500,000 this year, provoked by the opening of eastern borders and Germany's both archaic and generous laws, is not necessarily the cause of these incidents but it is an excuse that comforts ultra-nationalists and opponents of democracy. (The notable absentees from the mammoth Berlin demonstration against the attacks on foreigners, where "left skins" pelted President von Weinsäcker, were the Bavarian CSU leaders, the local sister party of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's CDU. Bavarian prime minister Max Streible said he refused to take part "in a funeral march for a helpless democracy" and when he was praised by the tiny neo-Nazi Republican party, he said he didn't care who approved his comments. It isn't only thugs and easterners who spread the stench).
The antidotes Germans discuss are essentially the three recommended by Schmidt: a more vigorous, determined rejection of violence as a word as well as deed; a more coherent, candid approach to the social and economic problems of unity; and Europe.
In the Adenauer days, Europe was enthusiastically welcomed as the essential cure for the German historical infirmity, the comforting frame in which Germany could emerge from parish status and hold up its head on good terms with neighbors. The establishment still sees Europe as the necessary context for German self-reliance, the way to make sure its position as the weighty center doesn't inevitable lead weaker and insecure neighbors to form antagonistic encircling coalitions.
This was an important element in creating the Treaty of Maastricht - probably prematurely and certainly in slapdash ineptitude, which has a lot to do with opposition in many Community states. Reunification and opening of Eastern Europe brought Mr. Kohl and French president François Mitterand to decide they must hurry up to cement European union - monetary and if possible political and security - before centrifugal forces and especially the new imbalance of a big Germany undermined the process. They felt an injection of strong political will was needed for the race against time so filled with uncertainties. Mr. Kohl's only reservation was that the plan didn't go far enough in assuring a democratic base for a stronger European center by reinforcing the European Parliament, but he compromised on that.
Neither of the leaders, and scarcely any other but Britain's, felt the necessity to prepare their people for a qualitative leap to shared sovereignty. They took Europhoria, the European momentum, for granted. But it faded on them, as the euphoria at the end of German and European partition faded in the face of harsh realities.
Heimat simply happens to be a German word, but la patrie, la patria will do as well. Doubts, based more on the sudden demand for change than on the idea of more integration, took hold everywhere. Denmark voted against the treaty by a whisper, France barely endorsed it. Even in Holland, where there will not be a referendum usually ardent pro-Europeans wondered aloud whether their Dutch ways might be uncomfortably subject to Italian or Greek preconceptions of society.
The preponderance of Germany was used crudely by opposite camps in the Maastricht arguments. Opponents of the treaty said it would guarantee German dominance and German control. Advocates said it was the one way to constrain Germany and make sure its partners' voices would be heard. The issue wasn't really Germany but the deeper, emotional pull of traditional sovereignty as the guardian of national identities. The erosion of sovereignty had always been at the heart of the Community idea, but the evolution of the idea had come gradually, people got used to it a little at a time. Suddenly, many stopped to ask how far they really wanted to go, and how fast.
Each country clung to its own special symbol. For Germany, that turned out to be a Deutschemark, the incarnation of revival after disaster, the solid foundation of all the other good things that had come about in two generations. German opinion remains strongly pro-European, but there is uneasiness about letting unreliable, often profligate foreigners loose with decisions that can determine the value of German money. Mr. Kohl had to promise the Bundestag that it could vote gain before a single currency and a single central bank take effect, though that is not provided in Maastricht - which precommits states that are economically eligible. This is not a matter of homeland; but a cautionary fear in a country proud of its economy and worried because it has so much to lose. It is in other countries that Union is seen as a challenge to identity.
The institutions and rules of the original six-member Common Market were based on the participation of three more-or-less equal middle-sized countries and three small ones, with voting weighted to make sure no two of the larger ones could gang up on all the others. Ways were found more or less to maintain the balance as the Community expanded to twelve. But not Germany is about one-and-a-half times more populous than France, Italy or Britain and a good deal sturdier economically. France considered its nuclear power as an equalizer in the core Franco-German partnership, and that had a lot to do with the persistent if quixotic French for a European defense policy, independent of the U.S. The collapse of the Soviet Union reduces even the supposition of the importance of the force de frappe, though it leaves French defense policy in its traditional contradiction - eager to cut reliance on the US but just as eager to make sure the US still helps to constrain Germany. Germany has become the elephant in the barnyard.
This is a geo-political fact existing whether or not there is a Community. But the Community itself faces an urgent need to readapt in view of enlargement. Early inclusion of Sweden, Austria, Finland and probably Norway is seen as all the more desirable to find a new balance, but the old rules of decision probably can't be stretched to work with so many. Eventually, Central Europe and some of the new states in the Balkans and the east will have to be included. Commission president Jacques Delors talks of revamping institutions so they can accommodate up to 35 members. Germany's role in such a society is hard to foresee. The European idea is to make the rules in such a way that German preeminence will not mean dominance. These are questions yet to be answered, but many Europeanists feel the attempt must be made quickly, while the Germans still feel bewildered and preoccupied with domestic challenge.
The German's can't really be blamed for being a good deal more present in the travails of Central Europe and the east than are their partners. They are more acutely aware of the dangers to western Europe if the eastern experiment with democracy and the free market blows up, and the would like France, Britain and the others to participate more in helping the new democracies, as would Poland, the Czechs and Slovaks, Hungry and others, who don't want to rely so much on Germany. But all western governments are weak now and tend to look inward, which is not good for Europe. It will probably take more energetic US leadership than recently practiced to provoke the kind of cooperative action needed, with NATO as a useful vehicle on security issues.
As a start, Poland, the Czechs and Hungary should be given a security involvement, not full membership but enough more than the current consultative status to provide psychological and political assurance. Storms are brewing around Hungry that can make the Yugoslav wars seem only a tocsin. The weight of Germany on the east depends more on what others do or don't do that it does on geography or ambition.
The Community and NATO remain the necessary organizing poles to shape the new Europe in the world if there is not to be a dangerous relapse into 19th century rival nationalisms, hostile coalitions and the illusion that a balance of power keeps the peace. It isn't just the question of a European Germany or a German Europe, because that would break down again. It is of a European Germany or a Europe that festers with dangers for itself and every part of the world involved with it.
Max Kohnstamm, a Dutchman who was a enthusiastic collaborator of Jean Monnet from the start of the Europe enterprise, told me recently, "I do not fear Germany now, they understand. But in 20 years? Will the next generation remember the lessons?" Monnet's central theme was that building institutions was the only way to keep the lessons of history learned. How right he was.