The inner-German border is the fault line of Europe. The current revival of speculation about "the German question" in any form, therefore, sends tremors throughout the postwar structure of East-West relations. Headlines ask "Could Germany Turn East?"1 The turmoil in East Germany threatens the existence of a separate East German state. President Bush disclaims any "fear" of German reunification.

In short, the future of Germany has reemerged as an issue for both East and West. The premise is that "fundamental" German desires for nationhood have been long buried, or at least camouflaged, in an unavoidable concession to reality. But as the postwar order begins to loosen or even crumble, German longings for unity seem to spring forth undiminished.

In fact, however, the German question is rooted as much in foreign myth as in German reality. In clinging to fixed ideas about the political division or reunification of Germany, Western analysts and commentators miss the emergence of many far more vital and interesting opportunities and issues facing German leaders. It is time to take a new look at the German question-but from the inside out.


The key distinction is between the German question and the German problem. For the majority of Germans in the postwar period the common denominator of various versions of the German question has been how to bring the Germans back together. For the majority of their neighbors, however, the German problem has been how to keep them apart. Yet even inside the Federal Republic of Germany (F.R.G.), a precise definition of die deutsche Frage is hard to come by. West German politicians tend to use the phrase as a launching pad for excursions into their own favorite political utopias. All agree on the vital importance of improving human rights and living conditions for citizens of the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.), and most espouse the general principle of achieving some form of German unity within the framework of a European peace order. Yet these phrases and formulas mask three quite different conceptions of what the German question is really all about:

The traditionalist conception: the task of freeing the G.D.R. from the shackles of communism. This quest is in turn simply the latest phase of the Germans' centuries-long struggle to attain their "birthright" and form a nation-state. Traditionalists are generally found on the conservative end of the West German political spectrum-the right wing of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and expellee/refugee organizations.

The Europeanist conception: how to reunite Europe so as to shift the two German states from the perimeter of the East and West blocs, respectively, to the center of a revived and increasingly important economic and political entity. The ultimate goal has much more to do with the restoration of German power and influence than with any abstract notion of German unity. This notion has been the dominant conception in West German politics in the 1980s-commanding a broad consensus from center-right to center-left. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher is its principal champion.

The universalist conception: a view of the German question as one that transcends any particular configuration of the two German states. The Germans can overcome and actually redeem their past by becoming a force for the promotion of universal values: peace, the preservation of the global environment, economic and social justice. Their historical experience and current position on the front line of a potential nuclear holocaust illuminate the dangers of nationalism and the inability of the nation-state to address the truly important issues of the day. This is still a nascent conception, emerging primarily thus far among left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD) members and Greens.

These concepts provide terms of reference for decoding statements by individual West German politicians. They also function as lenses for viewing current events, including the crisis in East Germany. Reality, of course, is never as tidy as its academic reordering: many individuals and even party factions would subscribe to elements of more than one conception. Nevertheless, I hope to show how the assumptions that underlie each conception yield quite different answers to German policy questions in West-West relations, East-West relations and inner-German relations. Finally, the refugee crisis has posed a new, practical German question with critical urgency: how to achieve reform in the G.D.R.? Based on the analysis developed here, the answer is less likely to be reunification than the renunciation of German unity.


Traditionalists conceive the German question as one of how to liberate the Germans in the G.D.R. from communist rule and reunite them with their West German brethren. As a moral and political obligation, reunification enshrines an image of the G.D.R. as a sacrifice on the altar of communism and of the Federal Republic as only half a nation, needing to be made whole. As a legal commitment, reunification historically ensured that the lines of battle between East and West remained clear-cut. And as an element of contemporary German national identity, the quest for reunification links the postwar era with the nineteenth century, offering a psychological detour around unpleasant memories and reconnection with a perfectly legitimate quest for a German nation-state. Traditionalists do not deliberately attempt to deny or expunge the more immediate past, but simply view present realities from a more distant historical perspective.

It is important to understand what the traditionalists do not mean by reunification. They unequivocally renounce the use of force and reject the notion of actual restoration of the Reich. Although the traditionalists refuse to rule out territorial change, they do not insist on boundary changes as the sine qua non of German unity. What they do stress is the political reunification of the two German states, and on Western terms. In the words of the late CSU chairman Franz Josef Strauss, the right of the people in the G.D.R. to self-determination equals their right "to live in a liberally organized state of justice." This is political shorthand for bringing the G.D.R. into the Western fold. Above all, it equates the division of Germany with the oppression of the German people.

Traditionalists typically emphasize the juridical aspects of the German question-the absence of a formal peace settlement, and thus continuing Four Power responsibility for Germany as a whole-as indisputable and reassuring proof that the question of reunification remains open. These formulations pit the Three (Western) Powers against the Soviet Union within the geopolitical framework of the 1950s. They conjure up an image of the West closing ranks against the East, shifting attention away from why the map of central Europe was redrawn in the first place (German aggression) to why it has proved impossible to conclude a peace treaty (Soviet obduracy). At the same time, however, the emphasis on Three Power rights and responsibilities is a continuing reminder that West Germany is not fully sovereign. The underlying traditionalist image is of Germany as victim, leading equally to the contention that, while the Federal Republic lives up to its part of the bargain as a loyal ally, it is treated as less than a full and equal partner in return.

The traditionalist view of East-West relations rests on an unshakable conviction that the division of Germany is the most brutal and painful instance of the division of Europe-a casualty of a conflict between forces greater than any Hitler unleashed. To quote CDU-CSU parliamentary group chairman Alfred Dregger:

Whoever would overcome the division of Germany and Europe must recognize the nature of this division: Germany and Europe are not on the one hand dominated by the Soviet Union and on the other by the United States, but rather divided into a free and an unfree part. . . . The Soviet Union refuses not only the Germans in the other part of our Fatherland, but also the Poles, the Czechs and the Slovaks, the Hungarians the right to choose their future for themselves.2

This position projects the victim mentality onto a larger screen. Dregger once again sums it up: "Germany is divided because Europe is divided, and Europe is divided because Germany is divided." Translation: Soviet insistence on carving out its own bloc divided Europe, necessarily also dividing Germany. Conversely, Europe can never be truly reunited until this injustice is rectified.

This reasoning entirely overlooks the persistence of national rivalries: the possibility that European nations other than the Soviet Union might have objections to reunification. And yet the Europe envisioned by traditionalists is still very much a Europe of nation-states. Dregger sees a united Europe in which France will always be France, Italy always Italy, Poland always Poland, and so forth. "In such a Europe, Germany cannot be other than Germany." It does not seem to have occurred to the traditionalists that this is precisely what other Europeans may be afraid of.

For traditionalists, being a German in the Federal Republic today means being part of a divided nation, being conscious of that division and recognizing the obligation to overcome it. This insistence on the division as a focal point of national identity harks back to the German experience in the nineteenth century, presenting the struggle to reunite East and West Germany as just the latest phase in the centuries-long struggle of the German nation to achieve political self-expression. Traditionalists argue that prior to Bismarck, Germans sought not a Grossdeutschland, in the sense of a great power on the international scene, but rather a unified, democratic, peace-loving nation. The current West German system satisfies these political criteria, but only reunification can complete the agenda.

Traditionalists brush aside the suggestion that, since Germany was united only from 1870 to 1945, unification may well be the anomaly and division the norm. Their counterarguments are instructive. First, that Germany would have been unified long before 1870 had it not been for the envy and hostility of its European neighbors. Second, the best evidence of the durability of the German nation as it was constituted between 1870 and 1945 is its people's determination to remain united in 1918 and 1945. Third is the Polish analogy: traditionalists invariably point out that Poland ceased to exist for over a hundred and fifty years, yet managed to retain its identity as a nation and reestablish the state expression of that identity.

Germany as Poland-one of the most victimized states in modern history! German national aspirations blocked by its European neighbors in the nineteenth century, by the Soviet Union in the twentieth. Yet these visions are not a deliberate attempt to obscure Hitler's crimes. More likely they function as a mechanism of rationalization and transcendence. Conceiving the German question as a quest for reunification through the liberation of the G.D.R. enshrines domestic and international recognition of a wrong inflicted on the Germans, and a corresponding redemption of those Germans now dedicated to the Western cause. It thereby preempts many more difficult questions for both the Germans and their neighbors.


The Europeanists conceive the German question as the question of how to reunite Europe to bring the Germans back together as a powerful force at the center of the continent. Europeanists regard themselves as the pragmatic heirs to Willy Brandt, seeking a "peace order" that will resolve German, European and superpower security concerns once and for all. At the same time, however, the F.R.G., and eventually the two German states working together, will have empowered themselves and their neighbors as the architects of a prosperous, peaceful, and politically and economically autonomous Europe.

Konrad Adenauer's choice of full-scale integration into the Western alliance was intended above all to protect the Federal Republic against "yet another 'nightmare of coalitions,' the abiding obsession of modern German foreign policy."3 The first modern German statesman to face this problem, and to coin the phrase, was Bismarck. In a sense, Genscher is the latest in this line. His European peace order is the modern solution to this perennial problem-an engineered encirclement with linkages everywhere. Shared cultural norms, a common awareness of larger global problems, and a high degree of economic, political and military interdependence will banish the "nightmare" once and for all. Achieving this vision will require the same inexhaustible patience, political sensitivity and diplomatic skill demanded of Bismarck. And success will mean similarly enhanced national power.

The cornerstone of the Europeanist conception is the identification of the division of Germany with the division of Europe, and thus of inner-German policy with European peace policy. Unlike the traditionalists, however, the Europeanists do not seek to overlook or obscure the German role in the division. Quite the contrary, they understand that Germany's European neighbors are likely to be far more comfortable with the reunification of Europe than with its German corollary. By equating the European and the German division, they fix European eyes on a higher prize while simultaneously reassuring all concerned that the Federal Republic will not move too far out in front of its neighbors. This tactic does not aim to deceive. It simply reflects a twin belief that the Germans, in one state or two, are entitled to political power commensurate with their economic power, but that they must proceed with care.

The Europeanist conception incorporates a healthy dose of pragmatic statesmanship. To take one example, Genscher has had to adopt a variety of strategies to preserve his vision and achievements amid the ebb and flow of East-West relations. In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Federal Republic floated the notion of "divisible détente," meaning conflict in the Third World but continued cooperation in Europe. This gambit received a chilly reception in Washington; by the time of the next major crisis in East-West relations, the declaration of martial law in Poland in December 1981, the West Germans were trying another tack. They sought to achieve the same result by emphasizing the indivisibility of détente, the concomitant hardship a chill in U.S.-Soviet relations imposes on the two German states, and thus the advisability of adopting a prudent and measured response that would maintain at least a minimum level of cordiality. In 1983-84, during and immediately after the INF crisis and prior to Gorbachev's accession, the F.R.G. had to accept that U.S.-Soviet détente was essentially over. Bonn floated the idea of a "division of labor within the alliance." The not-so-tacit suggestion was that the Federal Republic would worry about the détente pillar of the alliance, and the United States would take care of defense.

Through the late 1980s, however, the Europeanists have been riding high, finding validation in a growing consensus that a new age is dawning in East-West relations, in which the F.R.G., at least, is likely to play an increasingly important role. They also have the satisfaction of watching long-tended gardens in Eastern Europe finally begin to flower. Their chief concern is to ensure that the East European conception of Europe, or more precisely, of central Europe, does not diverge too far from their own or deviate too far from what can reasonably be accomplished within the existing order. Stability is the precondition for successful change. For the same reason, they must above all seek to allay foreign fears about German aspirations. They can do so in good conscience: their ambitions are less for a German nation-state than for freedom, power and influence for the German people.

The Europeanist watchwords in inner-German relations are "unity" and "self-determination." Self-determination does not necessarily mean "liberating" the East Germans, but rather assuring all Germans the right to choose their government freely. The difference is the recognition that the East German population might not choose the West German system. Similarly, unity need mean no more than collective self-recognition as one people bound together by a common historical, linguistic, cultural, ethnic and, in a sense, geopolitical identity-notwithstanding political, economic and social differences. It also means unity in the service of common goals, beginning with a shared German responsibility for peace. The play in these terms is consistent with the general fluidity and potential adaptability of the Europeanist orientation.

Consider Chancellor Helmut Kohl's slogan: "Freedom is the core of the German question." Its ambiguity is designed to neutralize both domestic and international objections to close inner-German collaboration in the pursuit of a Europeanist foreign policy agenda. The traditionalists at home, for whom freedom and communism are antithetical, remain fairly satisfied that the government has not abandoned their quest. Suspicious foreigners, on the other hand, may reasonably conclude that the Federal Republic now equates the restoration of German unity with a safeguarding of certain fundamental rights for the East German population, even if it is within the confines of their current political system.

The Europeanist conception of the German national identity derives not only from the legacy of the past, but also from the achievements of the present. Europeanists generally support the Kohl government's emphasis on the revival of German history and the restoration of patriotic symbols such as the flag and the national anthem. Yet Kohl's program of "national identity and moral reorientation" is also designed to overcome the "cultural pessimism" and "moral inferiority" that have prevented the Federal Republic from becoming a political as well as an economic giant in current world events. Similarly, Michael Stürmer, historian and sometime adviser to Kohl, connects the need for "healthy patriotism" with the Federal Republic's increased national responsibility.4 Genscher adds yet another element to this conception by stressing a growing European-not West European, but pan-European-identity.

This answer, or answers, effectively mediates any potential conflict between short- and long-term German goals. A healthy national identity will allow the Federal Republic to shoulder increasing political power, while emphasizing the importance of exercising that power responsibly. For much of the 1980s this stance also countered East German attempts to appropriate all that is positive in German history. For the 1990s it establishes a framework that is likely to militate against an overly hasty attempt to re-equate national identity with the political identity of a reunified state.


The universalists no longer conceive the German question as a primarily political question, at least not with respect to the two German states. It is rather a fundamental question of national mission: how and for what purpose the German nation will henceforth choose to define itself. Specifically, can the Germans confront and transcend their past by becoming catalysts for the transformation of the postwar international order into a structure for permanent peace? Universalists believe the answer depends not on any particular configuration of nation-states, but on the elaboration and promulgation of new social, economic and political values that will form the structure of a new pan-European civil society, beyond borders and ideologies. The legitimacy of German participation in this enterprise, however, depends on a profound reevaluation of what it means to be a German today.

Universalists seek to define the German nation in terms of a people whose commitment to peace overrides traditional national values. Perhaps the best way to understand this notion is to contrast it with the Europeanist view. In 1984 Professor Richard Löwenthal, writing on "the new German question" explained:

For the first time in modern history, then, what appears as the German Question has taken the form of an almost desperate desire for peace by the German people in West and East.5

The underlying assumption of his article, however, and one shared by his fellow Europeanists, is that the Germans want peace to preserve their pre-existing common German identity. What binds the nation together is what has always bound the nation together: a common language, history, culture, ethnicity and intellectual tradition.

In the universalist conception, by contrast, the premium placed on peace is itself a vital constituent element of the German national identity, and the precursor of an identity that is no longer distinctively national. This is the lasting legacy of the peace movement. For a nation bearing the stigmata of responsibility for two world wars and the cold-blooded murder of millions of people, dedication to peace is a powerful catalyst. It symbolizes not only atonement, but the hope of lasting redemption for Germans on both sides of the border.

This emphasis on a common German responsibility for peace thus has little to do with the more pragmatic Europeanist rationale bringing the two German states closer together by dint of a common conviction and insulating inner-German relations from superpower crises. Peace is not simply a synonym for security; it is both the fruit and the seed of a higher moral and intellectual state. On the one hand, Green leader Otto Schily exhorts the Germans to "seek their identity in a free spiritual life and in the peace-establishing universality of intellect [Geist] and culture."6 At the same time, the elevation of peace as an ultimate value and the concomitant rejection of the arms race is the precondition for turning attention to the real problems of the world-beginning with hunger and poverty in the Third World, but extending also to the unforeseen conundrums of postindustrial West European society and the human dimension of the modernization of Eastern Europe. This identification with individual suffering, sacrifice and even simply anomie, as opposed to a sterile preoccupation with affairs of state, is, as Schily concludes, the beginning of "a new German identity" that is also, and most importantly, "a European, a human identity."

Thus, in Europe, peace is essentially a metaphor for a new mode of international relations. Predictably, the universalists have more in mind than simply pushing and pulling for a reconfiguration of the European balance of power. In fact, they reject balance-of-power politics altogether-not only the outcomes arrived at in any given situation, but also, and most important, the underlying logic that equates human interests with state interests. The Germans, as the people best poised to recognize their common humanity through the thicket of externally imposed differences, will work toward a "cultural and spiritual disarmament" that will in turn promote pan-European cooperation in pursuit of common goals beyond peculiarly national interests.7

At least among the Greens, notions about how to achieve this vision in Europe come in various shapes and sizes. Consistent with the party's internal rifts, these range from supplanting nation-state politics through the mobilization of democratically organized grass-roots movements to an image of a "new European order" built on a reunified Germany as the bulwark of peace. In between is a somewhat more realistic picture of a pacifist, neutral Europe, or at least a central European zone, based on permanent acceptance of the German division.

Predictably, universalist sentiments among SPD supporters are more constrained. But a common thread exists-primarily in the desire to break out of well-worn intellectual and political constructs. The concept of a "security partnership" with the G.D.R. is a prime example. Shorn of the caveats and qualifications that SPD politicians feel compelled to employ to circumscribe the concept, it is a radically different set of assumptions and convictions about national defense. Instead of deterrence, which necessarily views states as discrete entities posing discrete threats to one another as states, a security partnership imagines cooperation in building a common protection to a common threat. Such a cooperative structure would in turn be a building block for a new international order in which traditional nation-state interests would gradually give way to global human interests.

The logic of the universalist conception does not recognize the future configuration of the two German states as a discrete question. Germany is a vessel in the service of a larger ideal. Its shape should be that in which it can best fulfill that function. And indeed, the different visions of a future Europe espoused by contending Green factions give rise to very different objectives in inner-German relations, from a confederation of the two German states to full and final recognition of the G.D.R. Of these options, recognition is in some ways the most radical, the most interesting and, paradoxically, arguably the most likely to command support among non-universalists.

The universalist definition of recognition means actually renouncing the quest for German unity. It means permanently accepting the G.D.R. as a separate German state-which includes accepting the thorniest issue of all, a separate German citizenship. More important, it means recognizing the G.D.R. as an equally legitimate German state: a mode of political, economic and social organization as reflective of the will of one part of the German people as the F.R.G. is of another.

Consistent with their basic orientation, universalist supporters of recognition justify it in terms of its impact on the building of a new German national identity. The premise is that the fervent anticommunism of the 1950s spared West Germans the painful necessity of coming to grips with themselves and their past. As a result, the authoritarian traditions and structures that allowed Nazism to flourish were never fully eradicated. Blocking this escape hatch once and for all will forcibly dismantle this edifice of denial and rationalization, at last compelling a long overdue process of true social and political purification. In turn, given the universalist belief in the inseverable connection between domestic and international politics, true European security depends on each individual state putting its house in order.

This notion has also found echoes in the SPD. Günter Gaus, former West German permanent representative to the G.D.R. under Helmut Schmidt, argued as early as 1981 that recognition-albeit in a less radical form than the Green version-would force the West Germans to face the truth about the G.D.R.8 He claimed that the emphasis on the juridical niceties of "holding the German question open" preserved the myth of someday "liberating" the East Germans, assuming that the West German system is the desired norm. In fact, however, it had locked West German policymakers into a rigid and ultimately sterile framework, blinding them to evidence that the East Germans might be more interested in creating their own system. This myopia in turn had hampered the formulation of policies that would give East Germans the help they actually want. Josef Joffe, writing in 1985, said of the Berlin Wall: "the closure of the refugee conduit foreshadowed an uninterrupted period of East German nation-building and ultimately, the slow convergence between totalitarian rule and popular consent."9 And as recently as June 1989, Flora Lewis was reporting from Bonn that West German politicians were beginning to contemplate, at least in private, that they might "overcome the division of Europe without overcoming the division of Germany."10

In late 1989, inundated with poignant scenes of East Germans willing to give up all they have in a desperate attempt to make it to the West, such arguments initially seem not only heretical, but grossly inhuman. Nevertheless, they may yet have their day. To the extent recognition is formulated as an actual policy option, however, it will be based not on a universalist rationale, but on its appeal to the Europeanists for a host of far more pragmatic reasons.


To understand the full practical implications of these different conceptions of the German question it is useful first to imagine the continuation of present international political trends-without crises. The picture is a Europeanist dream. In the East, former Soviet satellites are bubbling with economic and political reform, and the Soviet Union is actually encouraging an active West German role in the region to keep the situation from boiling over. In the West, the European Community is marching toward 1992-creating a platform and a carapace for the projection and containment of German power. The Germans are at the center, economically, politically and culturally, and are determined to press their advantage.

Genscher and his Europeanist successors thus continue to deepen and expand a protected zone of special central European relations with a network of inner-German relations at the core. They simultaneously project the Federal Republic as ordinary and extraordinary: both as one nation among many engaged in a common European enterprise and as a people specially positioned by virtue of their geography, history and culture to lead the way.

Meanwhile, the Federal Republic's neighbors, allies and former enemies remain convinced that this maneuvering has but one ultimate goal, that the basic commandment of West German foreign policy, no matter how long it takes, is the restoration of German unity. Western attention thus focuses increasingly on the potential economic and political power of a reunited Germany. The Economist has already limned the prospect: a Germany with a GDP of "$1.5 trillion, one-and-a-half times that of France," and "660,000 men under arms, more than twice Britain's armed forces and the largest military power in Western Europe."11

In the looming shadow of this hypothetical entity, Britain, France and the United States engage in the familiar diplomatic dance of formally supporting something they substantively oppose. Their assumption is that Moscow, in its opposition to a reunified Germany, will not relinquish its hold on the G.D.R. in any context in which the F.R.G. might actually hold the Three Powers to their pledge of support for reunification. At the same time, the West must worry that the Federal Republic would in fact accept a Soviet offer if it arose. Thus the famed "German card": Moscow would offer reunification in return for the Federal Republic's withdrawal from NATO. The Western powers essentially count on the Soviet Union not to call their bluff, while constantly worrying that it will.

At the heart of the matter, as many Germans themselves understand, is the issue of to what extent and under what constraints their former adversaries and victims are genuinely prepared to allow them to wield national power. That is the question at issue in the Federal Republic's disputes with the United States over NATO policy. It is a question of sovereignty, not unity.

West German opposition to the proposed modernization of the Lance tactical nuclear missiles has been much publicized, particularly the slogan that has rallied support from all West German political parties: "the shorter the range, the deader the Germans." The controversy is clearly part of a larger pattern, arising from sharply differing perceptions of the nature and degree of the threat from the East and a concomitant disagreement concerning the most effective Western response. As in the INF crisis, the United States consistently errs in perceiving the West German position as a mixture of weakness and wishful thinking-a fear of antagonizing the Soviets and a motivated bias to interpret Soviet actions and intentions in the best light possible-that is in turn inextricable from a fundamentally mendicant posture on the question of reunification. Looking through a Europeanist lens, by contrast, means taking the West German government at its word. The issues become the equity of the NATO decision-making process, West German political and territorial sovereignty, and how best to bolster Gorbachev so as not to jeopardize the gradual but steady freeing of Eastern Europe.

Even more interesting is the integration of the traditionalist and universalist perspectives. Western commentators have been particularly concerned that unlike the INF crisis, the normal partisan divisions no longer apply in West German domestic politics, at least not in terms of the expected right-left split. The hard right has been as vocal in opposing the Lance modernization as the left. More alarming yet, at the CDU-CSU party conference in Wiesbaden in June 1988, a number of politicians who had spent years reaffirming the Federal Republic's staunch commitment to NATO as the precondition for reunification began debating the advisability of cutting a deal with the Soviet Union for a neutral but reunified Germany. In this objective, if not the underlying motive, they found common ground with one faction of the Greens.

One explanation for this phenomenon is that the basic bargain agreed on between the Federal Republic and its Western allies in the 1950s is coming unstuck. Adenauer managed to sell Western integration as a remarkable synthesis of security, democracy and-eventually-German unity. Thirty years later, many are still waiting for reunification, and many more are no longer sure that the trade-off can be accurately labeled "security." Democracy, on the other hand, as West German historian Arnulf Baring has recently pointed out, is largely taken for granted.

An alternative explanation is to understand this unexpected convergence between the far right and the far left as the intersection of the traditionalist and the universalist conceptions of the German question. The traditionalists, remember, perceive Germany as victim, deprived of her national birthright. The Soviet Union has long been the principal victimizer in this account, but the basic outlook can equally encompass allies who fail to live up to their commitments and who buy their own security at German expense. The result is an image of Germany victimized by both East and West.

Universalists also have a notion of Germany as victim, not because the Germans remain deprived of a nation-state, but because of the omnipresent threat of nuclear incineration. It follows that the Germans are not, as the traditionalists would have it, singled out for special suffering; on the contrary, they share this potential plight with their fellow Europeans.

These differences in orientation yield very different results. At bottom, despite their apparent convergence, the policy agendas of these two groups are fundamentally antithetical. Traditionalists seek a German nation-state in a Europe of nation-states; universalists seek to "overcome nation-state thinking."12 Even the universalists who call for reunification see it as a way of breaking out of the current structure of East-West relations, in search of a new European order that will cast off archaic forms of political organization.

A left-right coalition in opposition to specific weapons systems and NATO policies may be unavoidable. But it cannot last. The best strategy for Western governments and Europeanists within the Federal Republic may be to emphasize these underlying differences and to tailor different arguments for different factions. The traditionalists should be encouraged to put the Soviets to the test. After all, according to Alfred Dregger, the Schicksalfrage (destiny question) of our times is whether the Soviet Union is capable of understanding that its best interests lie in pulling out of Eastern Europe and substituting a close economic partnership with a united Europe. The universalists, on the other hand, faced with the prospect of the traditionalist brand of nationalism, could well be convinced that a more gradual, Europeanist-style approach to building a new Europe might be less risky.


The greatest challenge facing U.S. and West European policymakers is to encourage, but above all to safeguard, the process of change in Eastern Europe. In practice, as the superpowers tacitly agreed at the September 1989 Baker-Shevardnadze meeting, this means avoiding any threat to the cohesion of the Warsaw Pact or the security of the Soviet Union. Against this backdrop, the turmoil in the G.D.R. spells potential disaster. The G.D.R. is the linchpin of the Soviet security system in Eastern Europe. Its stability is critical to preserving the entire structure of East-West relations.

The outflow of tens of thousands of East Germans would not in itself seem to jeopardize the existence of the East German state so much as simply to signal the need for reforms to match the changes in Poland and Hungary, to counter the East Germans' impression that they are living in the last Stalinist state. But at least for the Western media, reform in the G.D.R. is synonymous with reunification. Unlike Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which have their own national traditions to hold them together as distinct states, the G.D.R. has only communist ideology. Without it, the G.D.R. is "only the Eastern half of the German question." According to one report, "most experts agree . . . that given a chance to vote for self-determination, a large majority of East Germans would choose reunification."13

This is the traditionalist conception, strengthened in the Federal Republic itself by the rise of the strongly nationalist Republican Party and the influx of the refugees. It is bolstered among a larger Western audience by a particular hubris that envisions the East European countries voluntarily becoming carbon copies of their West European counterparts as soon as they are given a chance, combined with the projection of Western nationalist traditions in which political and national boundaries have long been coterminous. It is impossible under present circumstances to prove or disprove the existence of a separate East German identity or potential loyalty to a separate East German state. The recent crisis of the East German leadership made it absolutely clear that the East Germans want a better life. That is the mandate of Egon Krenz, recent successor to longtime East German leader Erich Honecker. Krenz may or may not prove to be an East German Gorbachev. Regardless of his intentions, however, and notwithstanding the caution and circumspection of his initial steps, he is potentially loosing forces that could overwhelm him. Under these circumstances, the task of all parties concerned-Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the Soviet Union, the United States and the Federal Republic itself-is suddenly the containment of change.

The traditionalists are thus unlikely to have the last word in the domestic political debate. The balance of power on these issues, in terms of translating opinion into action, rests with the Europeanists. And although the Europeanists certainly share the traditionalists' desire to overcome the German division, they will continue to insist on the necessity of pursuing this goal in a pan-European framework. Within that framework, stability is the prerequisite for change. Stability in Europe means the maintenance of the existing international structure: two superpowers and two Germanies. Stability in the G.D.R. means reform without the threat of reunification.

In this context, the universalist alternative of recognition could come into its own, albeit not for universalist reasons. As an actual policy option, it would entail the following moves. The F.R.G. would formally recognize two fully sovereign German states. (Berlin, however, would retain its special status under Four Power control.) The preamble of the West German constitution, which calls upon all Germans "to achieve in free self-determination the unity and freedom of Germany," would be amended or officially reinterpreted to rule out political reunification of the two German states. Finally, the F.R.G. would recognize a separate East German citizenship, thereby denying East Germans automatic passage to the West. This would not block all refugees; they would simply be subject to regular immigration policies that could be altered and revised in accordance with specific domestic and foreign policy considerations.

Recognition would be a political masterstroke, slicing through the Gordian knot of East European and East German change, European stability and German power. As European policy, it would be a structural guarantee promising a much-needed measure of certainty and predictability, thereby freeing the F.R.G., and perhaps ultimately the G.D.R., to lead the way in forging a permanent East-West détente and rebuilding Europe from the inside out. As inner-German policy, it would immediately create the conditions necessary for major economic and political reform in the G.D.R., beginning with freedom of travel and ultimately leading to political freedom and economic prosperity for all Germans in both states.

In sum, recognition would complete the logic embodied in Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, safeguarding the German nation by exchanging formal separation for functional unity. Bound within their two states, the Germans would be unfettered to forge new links through human rather than official relations.

It is admittedly difficult to imagine the current West German government undertaking such a step, given its traditionalist constituencies. But a new coalition of the SPD and the Free Democratic Party emerging from the 1990 Federal elections, or a SPD-FDP-Green "stoplight" (red-yellow-green) coalition, could well seize a second chance to make history. Power would shift from a Europeanist coalition with traditionalist ballast to a Europeanist coalition with a universalist vanguard. The universalists are accustomed to breaking political taboos. And the Europeanists are fundamentally pragmatists-preferring substance over form. In addition to their sophisticated understanding of the realities of European power politics, they are flexible enough to understand that recognizing the German division as permanent could be the final step toward overcoming it.

There are other parallels between the international situation of the late 1960s and early 1970s and that of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Once again a superpower is realizing the limits of its power both at home and abroad, and seeking to adjust its international burden to free up resources to address domestic problems. But this time that superpower is the Soviet Union. And the Germans are concerned less about keeping up with the tide of East-West relations than about being held back. Henry Kissinger worried in the early 1970s about creating a framework to ensure that Ostpolitik did not get out of hand once it was launched. But the best check on West German aspirations then came not from the West but from the East. The Soviets blew hot and cold, and the East Germans remained downright intransigent. As the crisis in East Germany weakens that bulwark, the stream of whispers and worries about the German question is swelling to a flood.

The Germans are no longer the Germans of 1933, or even 1949. Traditionalist voices may certainly still be heard, often stridently. Universalists may sometimes sound similar notes, searching for new melodies. But they are all part of a much larger chorus, and the refrain is no longer ein Deutschland. It is time to concentrate on what the Germans themselves-East and West-think and want, instead of what other nations, based on either their own historical experience or deep-seated beliefs about entrenched national characteristics, assume they must think and want.

1 The Washington Post, May 7, 1989.

2 "Dregger zur Deutschen Frage: Die deutsche Einheit kann niemals ohne und erst recht nicht gegen Europa errungen werden," Rheinischer Merkur, Oct. 24, 1985.

3 Josef Joffe, "The Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany," in Foreign Policy in World Politics, ed. Roy C. Macridis, 6th ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985, p. 83.

4 Speech at 1985 Aspen Conference in Berlin, reported in Uwe Schlicht, "Allergisch gegen Begriff 'Sicherheitspartnerschaft,'" Der Tagespiegel, Dec. 6, 1985.

5 "The German Question Transformed," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1984/85, p. 303.

7 Paper by Karl Schlögel, Aspen Institute Berlin Conference, Paris, September 1988.

8 Die Welt, Mar. 27, 1981.

9 Joffe, op. cit., p. 89.

10 International Herald Tribune, June 16, 1989, p. 6.

11 The Economist, June 17, 1989, p. 13.

12 Schily, op. cit., p. 45.

13 Time, Sept. 11, 1989, p. 13.

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  • Anne-Marie Burley is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. She is currently finishing a book on the German question.
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