THE MOST IMPORTANT event of the decade is Germany's imminent unification, not communism's collapse, although the latter made possible the former. What now happens in Germany is the more important event because communism's collapse as a system was, sooner or later, an inevitability. That was evident years before it happened. German unification was not inevitable.
German union is not an obviously "normal" condition temporarily interrupted, as would be the case if Britain or France had been cut in two by hostile occupation forces in 1945. Unification restores a condition that for Germany itself is historically exceptional, a recent and uncharacteristic condition for German civilization. France and England became nations very early, sorting out rival dynastic claims by way of the Hundred Years' War and developing distinctive political institutions and cultures that were exclusionary rather than inclusive.
The Germans on the other hand, by historical hazard, inherited a Roman Empire of which they -- unlike the English and French -- had never been a part. Gaul and Britain had been Roman colonies. The German tribes, on the empire's frontiers, successfully fought against Rome and eventually overran most of the empire as Roman power collapsed.
Charlemagne was crowned emperor in 800, ruling most of modern France and Germany, but under his successors what now is Germany became a separate realm, and in 962 the Pope made its ruler, Otto I, "Holy" Roman Emperor. This empire, titular and moral successor to Rome, remained German ever after.
Empires are different from nations. Empires are inclusive, not exclusive -- expansionist, colonizing. Germany Christianized the pagan societies to the east while remaining, itself, composed of many separate territorial and political entities -- monarchies, as in Prussia, Bavaria, Hanover; duchies, ecclesiastical states, free cities, all connected by ties of liege. This system lasted from the 9th to 19th centuries. Vestiges remain today in the German states', or landers', principled claims of independence and the highly federalized structure of German government.
"German liberties" in the 18th century were identified with the country's political fragmentation. The nationalist movement that produced the modern German state was a product of 19th-century romanticism. While Germany had included confederations and customs unions, not until Bismarck was what now is Germany separated from Austria, by war, and brought under a single authority, that of the Prussian monarchy.
Germany's dimensions thus always were variable and inconclusive. "Volk," people, and national frontiers never exactly coincided. There were Slavic peoples inside Germany and German colonies or implantations in Slavic regions in the east, on the Baltic, in Russia, and also in what now is Romania.
The finality of German borders still is questioned, most recently by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the run-up last year to unification negotiations with the German Democratic Republic -- although both Germanies subsequently gave formal guarantees of the German-Polish frontier arbitrarily traced by the wartime allies at Potsdam in 1945.
This indeterminancy of Germany is what troubles non-Germans. It has always troubled Germans themselves, and it is responsible for the persistent German preoccupation with national identity and with the content of their supposed national mission.
A contemporary German historian, Christian Graf von Krockow, writes that the German state created in 1871 was cursed in two ways, being "too big and too mighty in achievement to fit reliably into the European balance and too limited to become a real world power. That was one part of the curse. And the attempt to base the self-confidence of the nation on domination and hierarchy instead of on freedom and equality, an experiment that contradicted European civilization, that was the second part."
One has every reason to believe the second part of the curse lifted. Certainly no lingering desire for domination or hierarchy is evident in the public life of West Germany. East Germans carried out a peaceful revolution last year -- Germany's first -- because they wanted freedom, not domination, even though they have lived their lives until now without experience of either freedom's privileges or its burdens.
The other part of the curse remains -- renewed. Once again Germany's prospect is to become too mighty to fit easily into the European balance, yet too limited to assume a world role. There is nothing to do about this. It is the historical condition of Germany. A new factor exists, of great importance, the European Community. At the same time, Europe itself has lost the world dominance it had in the past. These make a difference.
Germany's curse determined the course of modern European history -- and that of the world -- from the year of German unification in 1871 to defeat and partition in 1945. Today unification once again poses the German problem. This time, everyone must hope, a resolution to that problem will be found that lifts the curse.