Updated Thinking about Germany

Article excerpt

WITH reunification of East and West Germany moving ahead, and with major new political, economic, and security arrangements for all of Europe being shaped, a more up-to-date way of thinking about Germany is necessary.

The old way of viewing Germany usually focused narrowly, sometimes almost subliminally, on the destructive aspects of its past, stressing the two World Wars and, especially, the Holocaust.

It would of course be foolish to say the so-called "German question" is entirely closed. The memories of the Holocaust and the wars rightly live on. Germans will continue to be reminded not only of their past, but also of their perceived potential for aggression. Not even children in Germany will be able to ignore this difficult aspect of political life.

But two facts about Germany need to be stressed right now. First, Germany will in many ways be central to the success, or failure, of the new Europe, the eastern half of which is struggling to learn the democratic way of life. Germany is inescapably a key geographic bridge to the eastern half of Europe, and now a social, economic, and political bridge as well.

Second, West Germany has become a sound democracy over the past four decades. It's Basic Law, or Constitution, went into effect May 23, 1949. West Germans have worked hard to build a society based on the idealistic concepts in this document, even as they've had to carry the burden of a very dark past.

German intellectuals can and do point out significant imperfections in West German society. But that freedom of criticism is, in itself, a hallmark of a thriving democracy.

The point, however, is not whether perfection has been achieved in the regions immediately east and west of the Rhine. The point is that West Germany has successfully gone down the path that the former East bloc nations now have a chance to travel. The degree of present West German success with democracy needs to be looked at with fresh eyes in order to get a better measure of what all of Europe can do, as nations and as a region.

The Western ideals of a just, progressive, law-governed society include freedom of religion, conscience, opinion, and expression. West Germany has implemented all of these rights, with considerable success. …