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.”

This mindset, compounded by the prolonged physical and social isolation of East Germany, contrasted sharply with the openness toward Europe which had been the hallmark of western Germans since the war. Now, two decades on, eastern Germans are integrated into Germany but not into Europe. The E.U. was not something they chose, let alone worked for, so they do not identify with it. The sharing of obligations at the core of European integration remains alien to people who see “Europe” as a distant and expensive abstraction.

A new generation across Germany has no personal memory of their country’s long struggle for acceptance as a responsible European state and has little understanding of the complex system of agreements that anchor Germany’s national identity into a broader European one. German politicians across the spectrum today openly sneer at the obligations of European unity in terms which no West German party would have employed a generation ago.

This inward-looking mentality has its origins in the experience of national unification. The immense costs have soured Germans on the expenses of building Europe. Worse, the political mentality of the east is increasingly permeating public discourse across the country, an outlook that is provincial, anti-foreign and nationalist rather than patriotic. The reaction to the financial crisis in Greece revealed a new German parochialism both nationalistic and shortsighted.

In fact, no society in Europe has gained more from European integration than has Germany, which would quickly lose its prosperity without European markets. A Germany at peace with all its neighbors and supportive of a common European home was the work of German leaders from Konrad Adenauer through Helmut Kohl, and enjoyed near consensual support from two generations of post-war Germans.

Today, fewer and fewer Germans think Europe is worth the trouble, or even imagine that it is somehow standing in Germany’s way. This is dangerous, not because of any renewed German militarization, but because Germany remains the heart of Europe.

On this anniversary, it is appropriate to remind the Germans that their national project can thrive only within a successful Europe. The unity of each is the essential buttress of the other.

E. Wayne Merry, who served at the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin and is now a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.