Our 17 Million New German Allies


Washington. -- All the right things are being said on both sides of the Atlantic about the need for continued close cooperation between Germany and the United States in the years ahead, but in fact the seedlings of future misunderstandings are already being planted, and yet nothing is being done about it.

Seventeen million East Germans have joined 60 million West Germans in the united post-Wall Federal Republic; nearly one of every four of the citizens of that republic therefore comes from a very different background than the other three. Within Germany, the gap between "Ossies" and "Wessies" has already shown itself to be much wider and deeper than had been anticipated. It will take years and much effort to overcome.

But the East Germans were not only cut off from West Germany: They were cut off from the whole of the West, and most particularly from the United States. East Germans have not only lacked contact with America for four decades -- they were also exposed to relentless anti-American propaganda during that entire period. As a result, nearly one of four citizens of united Germany is fundamentally ignorant about the United States, and has been subject only to deeply negative anti-American indoctrination.

Much the same is true of the citizens of the other former Iron Curtain countries of Eastern Europe, although to some extent their governments may have been less efficiently repressive, and some links were maintained with related American communities of Eastern European descent. The big difference is that only the East Germans are not creating their new lives as a separate nation, but as citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Somehow Americans seem to assume that Germans are Germans, that East Germans will soon become just like West Germans, and that the strong ties that have linked West Germany and the United States since the end of World War II will embrace the East Germans without much special effort. This assumption is unlikely to prove valid and is therefore risky at the very least, and probably dangerous.

The problem created by the fact that nearly one-quarter of the population of a major and needed ally quite suddenly is composed of East Germans who at best have had no contact with America and at worst have been educated to be hostile has barely been identified in the United States, let alone addressed.

It is an illusion that the East Germans who lived in the former German Democratic Republic were simply West Germans who were en- slaved by a ruthless dictatorship backed by Soviet military power. The dictatorship and the Soviet power were certainly real, but a tremendous effort was made to create a real East German state, which included a national value system of its own.

That effort was not a complete failure, and today's East Germans are still burdened with its consequences. Even under a hateful government which insists on a flawed ideology, human beings together in a single society develop a value system; and because they are human and that value system enabled them to survive they are bound to become attached to it. No human value system is perfect, but neither is it likely to be all bad. Western values will have to replace existing East German values; they will not simply flood into a vacuum.

For four decades, East Germans were taught obedience, conformity and loyalty, and in this respect their post-war Communist masters simply picked up where National Socialism had already done its work. They were denied freedom, but they (( were provided with security as long as they obeyed: Everyone had a job or a pension; nationalized health care; cheap subsidized housing, food, clothing and transportation, as well as cultural fare and popular entertainment; education and recreation. In their gray, regimented, ruthlessly supervised world, privilege accrued to the party faithful and an egalitarian camaraderie evolved among the repressed. Their world was closed almost to the point of suffocation, but in terms of their daily needs it had a womb-like security -- and sameness.

It will take time to wean the East Germans from all-powerful central authority and to enable them to think of individual initiative and competition as virtues rather than vices of capitalism. They already miss the all-inclusive security and are uneasy about a new life in which both great wealth and poverty to the point of want are so easily possible.

And they miss their national identity. Unlike the Poles, or Czechs, or Hungarians, they have become citizens of another country -- to be sure with the same language and history, but in many ways at least as different as Austria or Switzerland. No longer on their own, they are poor relations in a rich household. They may therefore chafe at their now freedom and, when they do, their past indoctrination may well lead them to see America mainly as the fountainhead of everything they find irritating about West Germany.

The complexity and difficulty of this situation is becoming fully evident within Germany itself, and every effort is being made to integrate the five new East German states and their people into the federation.

It is not wise, however, to regard this integration purely as an internal German problem. The United States suddenly acquired ZTC 17 million new allies when the East Germans joined the Federal Republic. Had East Germany joined an American alliance as a nation, much would now be under way to be of help and to strengthen ties with the United States. That is precisely what is happening with the rest of the former Warsaw Pact nations, whether or not it is being done sufficiently or right. But the reconstruction and reculturing of East Germany has for the United States so far been largely a spectator sport, as we watch Germany cope with its new problems. We seem to expect the Federal Republic to deliver our new allies to us as spanking new fellow-citizens just like the West Germans, without much effort on our part.

If such thinking and lack of action continues, Americans before long will be dealing with a German population whose overall knowledge and understanding of the United States has decreased significantly. One can hardly expect the West Germans, understandably preoccupied with their own national integration, to give much priority to acculturating their new fellow-citizens to the United States. As a matter of fact, West Germans under 40 themselves already tend to know America less well than their elders. Up into the 1970s, the best West German scientists and technicians came to the United States to learn in the world's best-equipped laboratories and from the most advanced researchers. Recently, however, West German science and laboratories no longer take second place, and careers are more likely to be successful for those who stay home rather than to venture abroad.

Where then are the American government programs and foundation grants to bring East Germans to the United States to study and to get to know America? Where is the American hand of friendship, extended as it should be to the new East Germans of the Federal Republic to bid them welcome to German-American partnership?

No one likes to be taken for granted. An American program today to reach out to East Germans and to familiarize them with the United States will pay rich dividends in future. The absence of such a program will seem only an oversight today, but it is likely to bring a tomorrow of tensions and misunderstandings that could and should have been prevented.

Steven Muller, president emeritus of the Johns Hopkins University, is chairman of the 21st Century Foundation.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad