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German reunification will prevent future militancy

A joke popular in East Germany during the early 1980s has former leader Erich Honneker returning home to East Berlin from a trip abroad, finding the airport deserted and his driver gone. A self-proclaimed proletarian, he drives himself into town through empty well-lit streets and finds no one home anywhere. Puzzled, he decides to take a walk along the Berlin Wall. After a few steps he discovers a hole in the concrete with a brief note addressed to him: "Come on Erich, you're the last one . . . please turn out the lights!"

In retrospect the joke may prove a prophesy: There are now many holes in the wall, hundreds of thousands of East Germans have left and it may soon be lights out for a battered economy and a state that is quickly losing its socialist raison d'etre. Talk of reunification abounds and Germany's neighbors in East and West shudder at the thought of a revitalized and potentially aggressive giant in Central Europe. Historical precedents seem too obvious and their lesson strikingly ominous: Was it not a united Germany that plunged the world into war two times in a span of only 25 years?

And yet, the historical parallels are misleading. Germany today is one of the most profoundly non-militaristic countries anywhere in the world, and the reunification that appears to lie in the near future is likely to be very different from the consolidation that produced Bismarck's united Germany.

That Germany was consolidated by a belligerent Prussian state from East to West. Unification came on the wings of military success first with the creation of the North German Union in 1866 following Prussia's victory over Austria and later with the consolidation of the German Reich after victory over France in 1871. Prussia's attitudes and ideas dominated the new state, and its military success lent prestige to iron-fisted problem solving in all spheres of German life.

Tomorrow's reunification could hardly be more different. First and foremost, it will be a unification from West to East born on the wings of military defeat, shame, and 45 years of soul-searching. Military power is not, as it once was, the source of unity but the well spring of current division. If East Germany is incorporated into West Germany, it will become free, democratic and peaceful. Today in peacetime, about 20 percent of all West Germans called on for compulsory military service claim conscientious objector status. This percentage is several times higher than the fraction of young Americans refusing military service in 1971 when the number of conscientious objectors registered by the Selective Service System peaked in the wake of Vietnam era anti-military sentiment.

Another difference between Bismarck's united Germany and the German states on the eve of reunification today is noteworthy: During the last quarter of the 19th century, Germany's population grew rapidly, fueling expansionist fires and lending immediacy to the push for new Lebensraum in the east during the Nazi era. Germany grew more quickly that its western neighbor, France. Today the opposite is true. Despite significant immigration, West Germany's population has declined over the past decade. East Germany's population growth has been negative for some time. To the east and west, on the other hand, France and Poland have grown significantly over the last 10 years. "Volk ohne Raum (A Nation without Breathing Room)," a phrase common in Pre-War Germany, sounds hollow today.

Perhaps All in the Family's Archie Bunker had it right when he asked how you could "get a decent war off the ground" if no one was willing to fight.

Frank Drees '89->