Friday, October 1, 2010

A United Germany Confronts Europe

This Sunday marks 20 years since German unification. It also coincides with a low point in the commitment of post-war Germany to European unity. The two are directly related.

Alone in Europe, the people of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) did not have to qualify for entry into the European Union. German unification made them automatically full-fledged members.

Nothing was asked of East Germans for this extraordinary benefit. Nor were they educated about the European project and Germany’s unique role, based on its history, in building a common European home.

All other former Soviet-bloc countries — Poland, Hungary, Latvia, etc. — had to work hard for E.U. membership, both in the complex formal qualifications and through years of learning to become “European” in a pragmatic sense. For these countries, entering “Europe” was a long-sought goal and finally a celebrated achievement. Eastern Germany never moved up this learning curve.

The opening of the Berlin Wall confronted people in the east with huge economic dislocation and social stress. Most of their efforts over 20 years have been directed to achieving parity with western Germany, still unfulfilled. The equally important need to accept an identity as Germans within a broader Europe has lagged far behind.

Eastern Germans needed more attention to their European obligations than their eastern neighbors did because the G.D.R. had taught its citizens — especially its young people — that they bore none of the burdens of Germany’s past; all the guilt supposedly lay with West Germany.

Sad to say, this convenient doctrine was widely accepted. A German-speaking Polish tour guide in Warsaw in the late 1980s noted this attitude in the German student groups she escorted. Asked if they wanted to visit the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, the West German students always affirmed their need to do so, but the young East Germans invariably refused, saying “that has nothing to do with us.”

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